The state of Pará occupies a vast and woefully lawless swathe of the Amazon, forming the eastern curve of the “arc of deforestation”. On December 11th its 4.8m voters will decide whether to split Pará into three, creating two new states. Carajás, with a quarter of the territory and the world’s biggest iron-ore mine, would have in Marabá potentially Brazil’s most violent state capital with 130 murders a year per 100,000 people. Tapajós, occupying three-fifths of the current state, would be 90% forest, with just 1.2m people; it could become a loggers’ paradise, or, with luck, a state-sized national park. The rump of Pará would be limited to the area around Belém, with two-thirds of the population and most of the economic activity.
Proponents of the change argue that Pará is too big to be run from Belém. Célio Costa, an economist, says that the extra federal money the split would bring is fair reward, since so much of Pará is federal forest which Brasília should be paying to manage. He also points to two pairs of states that split previously (by government fiat, not a vote). The resulting four all saw above-average economic growth.
Naysayers complain that the proposal is a wheeze to extract more public money and bureaucratic jobs. Two new state capitals will not come cheap. Lúcio Flávio Pinto, a journalist campaigning to keep Pará whole, says that the absence of effective governance in its interior is not a matter of mere distance: Belém’s periphery is pretty lawless too. He reckons Pará needs a stronger tax base and more diversified economy.
A yes vote in what is the first such plebiscite in Brazil would give impetus to dozens of dreams of new states elsewhere. Since each Brazilian state sends three senators and a minimum of eight deputies (out of a total of 513) to Brasília, the big winners from splitting Pará would be northern politicians. Brazil’s more developed south would be even more under-represented. Fortunately for the country as a whole, the separatists in Carajás and Tapajós are likely to be outvoted by unitarian belenenses.