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The Brazilian coast, while lengthy, has almost no port capacity. Cliffs jut straight up from the ocean, and the region’s rivers flow deep into the interior before turning to the south and emptying to the sea through Argentina. Much of the immediate inland is rugged and tropical, hugely retarding any sort of infrastructure development.

The one, very notable, exception is the Sao Paulo – the singular blazing light on Brazil’s southern coast. Sao Paulo is sufficiently far from the equator and high in elevation to support a more typical settlement pattern, but its hinterland stretches downhill into the interior, rather than to the coast.

This simple fact is Brazil’s greatest curse. Successful infrastructure in Brazil that develops hinterlands actually makes its population more isolated from the outside world. Brazil may be able to grow grains and mine ores far from the coast, but such products then need to pass through ever-denser populated areas before jumping off a cliff down to the country’s poor ports. Such high transport costs make Brazilian commodities only cost-effective when credit is very cheap and demand is very high. This has been the case since 2000, but that era is coming to an unceremonious close.

For more on how geography shapes economic outcomes, see Chapter 8 in The Accidental Superpower.