In his song Asa Branca, the influential singer, songwriter and musician Luiz Gonzaga paints a familiar picture of his homeland, the Northeast of Brazil. He tells the story of a man, forced to leave the barren, desolate and poverty-stricken Sertão in search of a better life. His hope for rain to fall again so that he can return home runs through the lyrics- ending the song on a promise to come back to where his heart lies as soon as the rain arrives.
This depiction of the Northeast as a bleak, opportunity-less wasteland to be escaped from recurs through much cultural representation of the region. Perhaps one of the most famous regional literary works, Graciliano Ramos’ novel Vidas Secas, echoes similar themes of drought, poverty, and the constant search for work.
This perception of the Northeast is not limited to the cultural and literary spheres, but ingrained in the Brazilian psyche. Any discussion involving migration and the Northeast is likely to conjure images of busloads of nordestinos arriving in cities such as São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, filled with hopes of better jobs and opportunities. With such long-established regional realities of economic stagnation, social inequality and unemployment, this should come as no surprise. There are large numbers of northeasterners living in all major Brazilian cities. Stories such as that of ex-President Lula, who left a life of poverty in Pernambuco with his mother and seven siblings as a child, spending thirteen days on the back of a pick-up truck to reach the state of São Paulo, are well known to all Brazilians.
However, data recently collected by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), and the National Household Sample Survey (PNAD) reveal important changes in national migratory patterns.
Whilst there continues to be a steady flow of north-easterners migrating south with, according to the 2010 IBGE census, approximately nine and a half million living outside the region, findings suggest a growing trend of migrants returning to their native lands. Between 2005 and 2010, 328,000 migrants left the Northeast for the Southeast whilst 386,000 did the reverse. Northeastern states that receive the highest numbers of returning citizens included Pernambuco, Paraná, Sergipe, Rio Grande do Norte and Paraíba, all of which experienced a return of over 20% of those who had previously migrated to other states.
Reasons for this change can be found in both the increasingly inhospitable southern urban centres, and the growing attractions of the Northeast. In the Southeast, nordestinos are faced with a highly competitive formal market, an instable informal sector, and growing levels of violence. The iron-fist security measures implemented in the run up to the World Cup and Olympic Games have led to an ever-tenser atmosphere, whilst the coinciding boost in tourism and investment have caused a rise in the cost of living and property prices.
In the Northeast, a recent government focus on investment has been central to bringing more jobs and a better quality of life to those neglected towns and cities that have been long overshadowed by their southern counterparts. Northeastern industries have been diversified beyond primary commodities such as sugarcane and cotton, to include the production of petro-chemicals, metals and textiles. The 2012 expansion of the Suape port in Pernambuco created over six thousand jobs, and enabled the opening of important international trade links. The Transnordestina railway, constructed in the 2000s, facilitates innovative new connections between the Suape port and other Northeastern states, such as Ceará and Piauí.
Whilst much of the investment is directed at the large-scale, coastal urban centres of the Northeast, it is the mid-sized cities in the interior of the region, with populations of 200-500 thousand inhabitants, which seem to be profiting most from the returning migrants. For example, Caruaru and Petrolina in Pernambuco have, between the years 2000 and 2010, experienced population growths of 24.2% and 35% respectively. Smaller cities such as these offer a similar standard of public services to the returning migrants as can be found in the larger cities but with a cheaper cost of living and lower levels of violence.
It seems that the metaphorical rainfall so desperately desired in Asa Branca may finally be in sight. The increasing number of Northeastern migrants that are recognising this and are returning home points to the huge potential that the long-neglected region has for Brazil’s future. If this potential can be successfully harnessed, through further decentralisation of the nation’s socio-economic development beyond the Southeast, there is much to be gained for not only the government, but also the people of the Northeast.