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How coffee grew São Paulo

For all of us who are involved in the building of cities, it is important to remember that cities emerge and thrive as a result of economic purpose. Take, for example, Sao Paulo. Once one of the poorest of Portuguese colonies, it is today the largest city in the southern hemisphere and one of the largest and most diverse urban agglomerations in the world.

How did all of this happen? It was probably because of coffee.

Brazil is the largest producer of coffee in the world. And it has owned this title for some 150 years. The best areas to grow coffee (as a result of climate, I’m told) are in the southeast part of the country, in and around Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. The inland state of Minas Gerais is the biggest producer.

But here’s the thing. Rio de Janeiro is along the coast and Sao Paulo is not, though as of 1869 it had been connected to the port of Santos by rail. This geographical feature made Sao Paulo a logical place for rail to converge as it made its way from the coffee plantations in the interior of the country to the coast, and then out to the rest of the world.

Coffee was the economic purpose. And it was facilitated by Brazil’s longstanding use of slave labor.

In 1888 that changed. Slavery was abolished, giving Brazil the dubious distinction of being the last country in the Western world to do so. The problem is that the coffee industry relied heavily on this labor. So to fill this void and keep the coffee industry happy, a deliberate effort was made to increase immigration.

From 1870 to 2010, about 2.3 million immigrants settled in the state of Sao Paulo, many from Italy and Japan. Today, about half of the city is thought to have at least some Italian ancestry. And it is generally believed that it was this significant influx of immigrants that helped the city to industrialize in the way that it did.

Big and diverse. And coffee probably had a lot to do with it.

Photo by ViniLowRaw on Unsplash

1 Comment so far

  1. Emily

    Hi Brandon,

    I will not pretend to be an expert in Brazilian historian or ethnography but I lived in the state of Bahia (Northeast region of Brazil) for a year and Rio de Janeiro for another year and learned anecdotally during my time there that internal migration flows from Northeast, Brazil have been a large contributor to the intense growth of Southeast Brazil. Rural agricultural dependent areas in Northeast Brazil have suffered immensely from desertification, forcing many to take flight to the southeast, mainly the City of São Paulo, with the hope of escaping poverty. I have no idea if anyone has been able to quantify just how many “Nordestinos” took this path but if you were to take a stroll around the City of São Paulo today, particularly around the favelas, i’m sure you would encounter many folks with roots in the Northeast.

    Best wishes,



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