Shake on it: President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva campaigning in Minas Gerais, home to about one in 10 of the Brazilian electorate © AFP via Getty Images

It was no coincidence that the two main rivals in Brazil’s last presidential election, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Jair Bolsonaro, both began their campaigns in the huge southeastern state of Minas Gerais.

Nor was it just chance that, as the tightly fought and bitter race entered its final stretch in October 2022, both men returned to the landlocked state to host rallies and mop up as many extra votes as possible.

Home to some 16mn voters — about one in 10 of the Brazilian electorate — and larger in size than mainland France, Minas Gerais is Brazil’s bellwether state, a microcosm of the country’s vast political, economic and social disparities.

Moreover, since the restoration of direct presidential elections in 1989, no candidate has won the presidency without winning Minas (as the state is often simply called). As Minas goes, so goes the nation.

“[Minas] looks like a representative sample of Brazil,” explains Felipe Nunes, chief executive of pollster Quaest, who is from the state.

Lula, the leftwing candidate, won the 2022 race with his haul of 50.2 per cent of the Minas vote almost matching his 50.9 per cent tally nationwide. Yet the importance of the state extends well beyond the cycle of presidential politics.

Minas Gerais map showing the mining  iron ore regions (Special report)

Minas is Brazil’s third-largest economy, after São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, as well as its largest producer of key commodities, such as coffee and iron ore. Its diverse geographical regions reflect and fuel the nation’s wider economic fortunes.

The south of the state, like the south of the country, is more industrialised, while the western flank of Minas is riding the agricultural boom that is transforming the entire central-western region of Brazil.

The north of Minas, like the north and north-east of Brazil, remains poorer, with fewer economic opportunities and higher levels of government assistance, although burgeoning projects to mine lithium have been hailed a potential game-changer for the region.

Bar chart of State output as a % of total Brazilian GDP, 2021  showing Minas Gerais is the third-largest Brazilian state by economic output

Often viewed as a smaller, more friendly version of São Paulo, state capital Belo Horizonte is home to a vibrant tech scene and the headquarters of such companies as electricity giant Cemig, housebuilder MRV Engenharia, and car rental group Localiza.

“We are a synthesis of Brazil,” says Bruno Carazza, a professor at the Dom Cabral Foundation in Belo Horizonte. “We are a mixture of everything.” 

The name Minas Gerais translates as General Mines — and mining has been a pillar of the mineiro economy since the first gold rush of the 17th century. This sparked such an influx of prospectors that the food supply collapsed and thousands died from famine. But the state’s key tourist sites today — ornate colonial towns like Ouro Preto (meaning Black Gold) and Tiradentes — were built from the proceeds of the gold trade.

More recently, the mining industry has focus shifted to iron ore. Brazil is second only to Australia as an exporter of the commodity, much of it dug in Minas pits. After soyabeans and crude oil, it is Brazil’s third-largest export.

Bar chart of Iron ore mine production by state, 2021 (mn tonnes) showing Over half of Brazil's iron ore production is concentrated in Minas Gerais

However, the industry has been badly shaken in the past decade by dam disasters at Minas mines. In 2015, 19 people died in the Mariana township after a waste dam run by Samarco — a joint venture between Brazil’s Vale and Australia’s BHP — collapsed. In 2019, 270 people died in the Brumadinho disaster, again involving a dangerous upstream tailings dam and on the watch of the Rio de Janeiro-headquartered Vale. The fallout from both disasters continues, with lawsuits winding their way through courts in Brazil and abroad.

The late Tancredo Neves, staunch democrat and example of the outsized role Minas has played in the nation’s history © Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

A key point of state pride is the outsized role Minas has played in Brazil’s history. Several of the country’s most consequential political leaders hailed from Minas, including Juscelino Kubitschek, who became president in 1956 and oversaw the construction in just 41 months of a new federal capital, Brasília, deep in the arid interior. Minas was also home to Tancredo Neves who campaigned for democracy during Brazil’s 21-year military dictatorship. When that ended in 1985, Neves was elected president of the republic, but died following intestinal surgery before he could take office.

If a single individual captures the imagination and the essence of the state, though, it is the man known simply as Tiradentes — who, in 1792, as a leading member of a Republican independence movement based in Minas, was executed by Portuguese colonial forces. When Brazil became a republic in the late 19th century, he was adopted as a national hero. Tiradentes Day on April 21 is a national holiday and the Minas state flag is a modified version of that used by his independence movement.

“Since the beginning, Minas has been very involved in Brazilian politics,” says Carazza. “This idea of the republic is part of our history, the ideals are part of our culture.”

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