Fear and Loathing in the Amazon, Part 2

Now let’s talk about today.

Around 1pm Paul decides on a whim to check the Detran (Department of Transportation) website to see if his car relicencing has been scheduled. Here, of course, it’s not nearly as simple a thing as in New Zealand, where you just take your car to a Ministry of Transport licenced garage and have them do a Warrant of Fitness check, then pay your licence fee and insurance.

No, here you have to get someone else to do all this for you – a despachante. They will have a word in the right people’s ears and make sure ‘everything goes smoothly’ – which might literally mean bribing. You, the client, don’t know, can’t know and don’t want to know. It certainly looks and smells like a system set up to facilitate institutionalised bribery. But it’s the way this culture works, so you have to go along, or you suffer many mysterious setbacks and paperwork failures.

The despachante has booked his car for relicence today. At 2pm. Without telling us. No warning at all. We would have completely failed the appointment and become an illegal car owner if Paul hadn’t checked on his own account. In a country where even mall security carry holstered handguns and the police have automatic rifles, you really REALLY don’t want to suddenly find yourself illegal.

We jump into the car and tear down to the despachante office. He takes the car through the (new and refurbished) Detran fitness testing garage. He has a quiet word with the person who signs the forms. We’re impressed – some tests are actually done. Whether or not anyone paid any attention to the results isn’t our concern. The car passes. The appropriate forms are stamped. We’re legal.

All this costs around R$800 a year, by the way. With insurance (another R$1200), the base legal costs for running a car are around R$2000 a year. On top of this you have tolls (lots of private roads, unheard of in New Zealand), fuel, and repairs due to wear from the perpetual potholes.

In New Zealand you’d pay around NZ$200 per year for licencing plus around NZ$40 twice a year for Warrant of Fitness, for a sum total of less than NZ$300. Full insurance for a good driver might put you around another NZ$300 a year for a total of NZ$600, and of course for none of these things would you need the services of a despachante.

But this is Brazil, so these things are difficult and expensive, and making them so is someone’s livelihood.

(The current exchange rate from xe.com as of 3 February 2009 Rio time gives us NZ$1.00 = R$1.18044. They’re not so far apart, and the Real is recently gaining on the Kiwi. But if you want a straight comparison, NZ$600.00 NZD = R$708.068.)

On the way back, we stop at a state housing agent to continue the process of ‘legalising’ Paul’s house. You see, the land his house is built on was originally State-owned land, set aside for building housing blocks around the 1970s.

Two blocks were built, but the rest… well, the money sort of vanished, as it has a little way of doing in Brazil. Embezzlement is such a dirty word. But for whatever reason, no more real social housing ever got built.

The poor got sick of waiting, and ‘invaded’ the land, as is the custom here. Favela-style housing was built, and improved by the owners. One of those little brick buildings was or became a Pentecostal church. Paul bought the church, rebuilt it, and added a house on top of it, the whole thing costing around R$20,000.

Cheap? Yes, because he didn’t actually own the land – it’s illegal, State land. He just bought the right to build on it and the improvements. But that’s okay, because this happens everywhere, so there’s a recognised formal procedure for ‘legalising’ such ‘invaded’ land. It’s a way of trying to make right what went wrong, and turn illegal squatters into almost-legal residents (the land is still dangerous and subject to slips, so the houses will never be truly legal, but at least it won’t be blatantly illegal any more).

In its way this legalisation process isn’t bad. He just has to provide documents to prove that he really bought the right to not-really-own the land from the previous not-really-owner and that he’s really-really living there.

He gets the appropriate papers stamped. The stamp seems kind of meaningless, but it means that he’s talked to the right person, and that’s how things are done. The process will now wend its way through the belly of the beast, probably taking several years.

There is a payoff for him, because now that he has proof of his current residence in a quasi-legalised state, he can begin (for a second time – the first set of paperwork got lost) the process of getting his Brazilian citizenship, which is a whole separate adventure. To do this he has to get a statement from his previous landlord for his five year residence there, and then he has to take it to the federal police (Brazil has civil, federal, and military police left over from the generals’ junta in 1964 – lots of different types). And that too will take years to complete.

All these laws. All this paperwork. Much of it proving nothing except that other papers were themselves stamped. That’s why you need people like despachantes here, to wink and talk to the right people.

Next on the agenda – though it might not be quite today – is paying Paul’s accountants. Paul maintains two organisations (the equivalent of societies or trusts): one to represent the Communidade de Colheita (Partners in Harvest) church, the other Minsterio Avivamento Já! (Revival Now! Ministry) which is his Web-based church youth-speaker ministry. He gets paid by inviting churches barely enough for his plane fares and hotels, and often ends up poorer for a trip. But it’s a way of
spreading the Gospel and inspiring kids who might be on the fringes of losing their lives to criminal gangs, so some sacrifices seem worth it.

How much would you expect a shoestring-operation, not-quite-breaking-even, one-or-two-person charitable operation to pay for its accountancy fees?

Well, in New Zealand, I run a neighbourhood Residents Association which is in much the same league. I pay around NZ$100 annually for the services of an accountant to to a quick check of the books. It’s more than the law requires since we only have a couple of thousand dollars in the bank.

In Brazil, Paul has to have two accountants, one for each organisation (because Avivamento Já is registered in São Paulo, and you have to do these things locally). He pays each accountant R$100 MONTHLY. Total: R$2400 yearly.

A large proportion of the money he currently receives from his Avivamento Já! speaking invitations goes to pay his accountants.

And these are Christian accountants who are doing special cheap deals. It’s usually much more expensive.

If Paul didn’t pay his accountancy fees, his organisations would immediately become illegal and the government would instantly suspect him of money laundering. Because that’s what charitable organisations, churches and big-name NGOs do here. They steal.

That’s everyday life in Brazil, the land of sun and dance and opportunity.

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2 Responses to “Fear and Loathing in the Amazon, Part 2”

  1. Trina Simpson Says:

    🙂 It isn’t that bad! Honest! I agree that the accountants charge a whole lot too much but God is so good and our church/project account that we have for our ministry here usually has enough donations coming in from abroad that pay the accountant’s fees and the rent on our Drop In centre! 🙂

  2. natecull Says:

    That’s cool that your books balance. 🙂 It’s still a lot more expensive than NZ.

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