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The capital of Pará State, Belém is a river port of around 1.4 million people on the south bank of the Rio Guamá, 120 km (74 miles) from the Atlantic, and 2,933 km (1,760 miles) north of Rio de Janeiro. The Portuguese settled here in 1616, using it as a gateway to the interior and an outpost to protect the area from invasion by sea. Because of its ocean access, Belém became a major trade center. Like the upriver city of Manaus, it rode the ups and downs of the Amazon booms and busts. The first taste of prosperity was during the rubber era. Architects from Europe were brought in to build churches, civic palaces, theaters, and mansions, often using fine, imported materials. When Malaysia's rubber supplanted that of Brazil in the 1920s, wood and, later, minerals provided the impetus for growth.
Belém has expanded rapidly since the 1980s, pushed by the Tucuruvi hydroelectric dam (Brazil's second largest), the development of the Carajás mining region, and the construction of the ALBRAS/Alunorte bauxite and aluminum production facilities. Wood exports have risen, making Pará the largest wood-producing state in Brazil. As the forests are cut, pastures and cattle replace them, resulting in an increase in beef production. In 2000 the state government began construction of a bridge network connecting Belém to outlying cities. The resulting increase in commerce has spurred economic growth in the region, though there's still considerable poverty and high unemployment.
In the city, high-rise apartments are replacing colonial structures. Fortunately, local governments have launched massive campaigns to preserve the city's rich heritage while promoting tourist-friendly policies. This effort has earned state and federal government funds to restore historical sites in the Belém area. Tourism is on the rise in the city and is becoming increasingly important for the city's economic well-being.
Belém at a Glance
- Basílica de Nossa Senhora de Nazaré
- Bosque Rodrigues Alves
- Capela de São João Batista (St. John the Baptist Church)
- Casa das Onze Janelas
- Catedral da Sé
- Estação das Docas
- Forte do Presépio (Fort of the Crèche)
- Igreja Nossa Senhora das Mercês (Our Lady of Mercy Church)
- Mangal das Garças
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