The World Cup from 14,000 Feet: A Travelogue

Recently, I spent five weeks in Brazil and Peru. The trip was originally planned around three ostensibly disparate activities: teaching an intensive course on human rights and corporate responsibility to law students at Direito GV Law School in Sao Paulo; a Peruvian tour that combined a boat trip into the Amazon Basin and a four-day trek to Machu Picchu; and a World Cup game in Fortaleza, Brazil. I want to briefly share how these experiences were connected – an example of globalization that I did not fully appreciate until I sweated in the jungle on the banks of a river poisoned by mercury, marveled at the remains of the nature-worshipping Inca Empire at 14,000 feet, and bought a $100 Nike “official” World Cup jersey for my daughter while drinking $10 Budweisers in a sparkling new stadium carved into a Brazilian barrio.

The human rights course was three hours a day for one week. I asked my English-speaking law students (young people from Europe, Latin America, North American, China, and New Zealand) to divide into small groups and present on relevant topics dealing with the challenges posed by corporate (multinational and domestic) actors — who, unlike states, are not directly subject to or regulated by international human rights law. The students picked the following topics: human rights issues related to “sweatshops” in China that produce products for Apple and other high-tech multi-nationals; the effects on indigenous people and the environment caused by construction of a major dam, the Belo Monte, on the Xingu River in the Amazon river system; the environmental degradation and community impacts associated with a massive multinational gold-mining operation in Peru; and, just one week before the commencement of World Cup, the alleged human rights violations stemming from complicity between and among FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association), the Brazilian government, and a host of contractors and multinational vendors who effectively controlled the construction and commercial activities surrounding the World Cup (the specific alleged violations include uncompensated work, child labor, trafficking in illegal labor practices with foreign workers; dangerous working conditions, coercive displacement of people from homes and businesses without compensation, and privileged commercial deals for the heavy hitters: McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Nike, FIFE, etc.

Next stop: Peru. I met up with a colleague from Spokane in Lima and we first flew to Puerto Maldonado, on the border of Hiking the Inca TrailPeru and Bolivia, to visit a government-protected nature preserve that is popular with tourists who want to see the Amazon Basin near the confluence of the great river’s western tributaries.  We took pictures of the colorful macaw, the notorious caiman, and a 150-pound rodent, the capybara. I kept my promise to my daughter not to swim with the piranha (although hearing that the river was poisoned by mercury from upstream gold mining practices was a good enough reason to stay out of the water).

Some days later, after a grueling four-day trek on the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in the Andes, I joined my wife and daughter in Fortaleza, Brazil. We stayed at a condo on a tropical beach, were entertained by Brazilian friends, watched a bunch of World Cup games on the ubiquitously placed indoor and outdoor television screens, and shopped. My daughter Charlotte and I bought pricey World Cup tickets for the Ghana-Germany match:  a great game in a spanking-new, fancy stadium surrounded by military police with machine guns. On TV, we watched the American team play in the steaming heat of Manaus, the jungle venue, in another brand-new world-class stadium that will never again be used for soccer (because there is no professional soccer in the jungle – too hot), a stadium that is rumored to be transformed into a prison after the World Cup to house the increasingly restive population of jungle people whose lives have changed, for better or worse, by urbanization, construction of a huge dam, and deforestation.

What was the opinion of modern-day urban Brazilians, affluent and poor? Although there have been months of organized protests, especially in Sao Paulo, most people I talked to thought the World Cup was just about the best thing that ever happened to Brazil. The huge dam in Amazonia? The country needs power for development. And the unfortunate labor practices, displacement of people, and diversion of scarce resources that made the World Cup possible? I was told these things are sometimes necessary evils in an effort to stimulate the economy.

For my part, I rooted for the American team and will continue to support sustainable development. I don’t know if the World Cup will have a lasting positive impact for Brazilians, especially those who have the greatest need. If not, they can always look forward to the 2016 Brazilian Olympics.

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