SEMPTUR Boosters have nicknamed Alagoas the “paradise of water”
Alagoas is Brazil’s second smallest state, with a total area of 27,768 square kilometers. Set on the northeastern coast, it is bordered by Pernambuco to the north, Bahia to the southwest and Sergipe to the south. The border with Sergipe is delineated by the São Francisco River, one of Brazil’s most important. According to the federal statistical agency IBGE, the state’s population in 2004 was 2.9 million, with about two-thirds living in urban areas. State capital Maceió was home to nearly 900,000 citizens. In the native Tupi language, Maçayó (the original spelling) means “that which covers the swamp.” The city was founded in 1815 and in 1839 replaced the town of Alagoas (now Marechal Deodoro) as the provincial capital.
The state is divided into highlands in the north, a central valley, and 230 kilometers of coastline. The latter includes the largest marine conservation area in Brazil; some 413,000 hectares stretching for 135 kilometers are reserved for the protection of coral reefs, beaches, mangrove swamps and endangered species like the manatee. Until recently, the small pockets of residual Atlantic Rainforest were thought to house to the only remaining Alagoas Curassows (muti mutis), but scientists now believe the ground-dwelling bird to be extinct in the wild. Alagoas derives its name from the 17 major lakes - “lagoas” in Portuguese – that are concentrated in its southeastern corner. Contemporary boosters have nicknamed Alagoas the “paradise of water” in promotional literature. They like to remind potential visitors that Alagoas enjoys year-round sunshine, posting average temperatures of between 21-29 degrees centigrade depending on the region and average annual rainfall of 850 millimeters.
Sugar plantations have long dominated the state’s economy, but more recently natural gas deposits and tourism development have delivered some modest economic diversification. Nevertheless social development has been slow. Alagoas ranks second to last among Brazilian states in the U.N. Human Development Index; its 0.649 rating puts it on par with Tajikistan internationally. Alagoas ranks dead last in the Brazilian government’s Youth Development Index.
Part of Pernambuco for most of the colonial period, Alagoas was awarded independence by the Portuguese crown in 1817 in a move designed to punish political opponents in Recife. Despite its small size, Alagoas has played an important role in Brazilian political history. The territory was home to Palmares, a nation of escaped slaves that survived from 1597 to 1694. Historians believe that at its peak the population of Palmares reached 20,000, divided among nine settlements. It outlasted the 1630-1654 Dutch occupation, but eventually succumbed to a series of Portuguese campaigns. The last leader of Palmares was named Zumbi, and the anniversary of his death, November 20, is now celebrated as Black Consciousness Day and is a national holiday. The Maceió airport is named after him.
Alagoas also produced two firsts in national presidential politics. Alagoas native Marechal Deodoro became the first president of Brazil in 1889 after he led a military coup to depose Emperor Dom Pedro II. A century later the former governor of Alagoas Fernando Collor de Mello became the country’s first elected president following the return to civilian rule in the 1980s. Collor de Mello was impeached and removed from office amid charges of corruption.
The Collor de Mello family has long dominated the local media and played a major role in state politics. After a mandatory hiatus resulting from his impeachment, Fernando won a senate seat in 2006. His farther Arnon de Mello also served as governor and senator. In 1963, Arnon opened fire on a political opponent during a debate on the Senate floor in Brasília. He missed his target but shot and killed another colleague by mistake.