Sprawling, cavernous mines pockmark the landscape as you come in to land at Belo Horizonte’s main airport, about an hour’s drive north of the city. It is a fitting vista for the capital of Minas Gerais, a state whose name literally means General Mines.

Mining has been the driving force of the region dating back to a 17th century gold rush and still exerts outsized influence. But Belo Horizonte, a hilly city of 2.3mn people known for its hospitality and thriving culinary scene, was never a mining city. At least it didn’t spring directly from a mine.

Belo Horizonte — or BH as locals simply call it — was Brazil’s Republican project. After overthrowing the monarchy at the end of the 19th century, the First Republic’s leaders wanted a new city to encapsulate their positivist slogan of “Order and Progress” — a motto that is still emblazoned on the country’s national flag to this day.

The result was BH — pronounced beh-agah in Portuguese — the nation’s first large planned city, inspired by Georges-Eugène Haussmann’s renovation of Paris and by Washington DC’s traffic circles and diagonal boulevards. The streets and avenues in the city centre were named after Brazilian states and indigenous peoples in an effort to reinforce the country’s new identity.

“The idea of the Republic is part of our history; the ideals are part of our culture,” says Bruno Carazza, a political analyst and professor at the Dom Cabral Foundation in Belo Horizonte. “The city centre in BH is inspired by this idea of order and progress.”

For much of the 20th century, BH and the state of Minas Gerais figured prominently on the national stage. The region was a hub for Brazil’s early industrialisation, led by the mining, steel and automotive sectors. BH also punched above its weight, politically. Key leaders of the era, among them President Juscelino Kubitschek and President-elect Tancredo Neves, who died in 1985 shortly before his inauguration, earned their stripes in the cut and thrust of mineiro politics.

BH’s boulevards were inspired by the urban planning of Paris and Washington DC © Ana Caroline de Lima
Many city centre streets are named after Brazilian states © Ana Caroline de Lima

But, today, Belo Horizonte appears to be struggling. Mining remains important, although less consequential than it once was, while carmakers have shed jobs because of automation.

The city remains an important educational hub, particularly its highly regarded Federal University of Minas Gerais. But the words on many people’s lips are “brain drain”. Well-educated mineiros are flocking to São Paulo, Brazil’s commercial and financial capital, or to emerging tech hubs in the country’s south, such as Florianópolis.

After surging throughout the 20th century, the population of Belo Horizonte fell in the last census to 2.31mn, down from a peak of 2.37mn in 2010.” People study here and then leave,” says Gabriel Azevedo, a city councillor widely tipped to contest mayoral elections later this year. “BH was built to be a city of the future, with planned and advanced urbanism, which represented a new era of development for the country. But that is behind us and we seem doomed to mediocrity.”

In an attempt to remedy the situation, BH has sought to develop its tech credentials and last year opened an innovation hub in the city’s technology park. It has benefited from the presence of Google — which runs an engineering centre — as well as research and development divisions of several large companies, including global steelmaker ArcelorMittal and Brazilian digital bank, Inter.

Critics say the local government has not offered enough resources, either in the form of investments or tax incentives, for projects to really take off.

“I believe that the city can become a hub for attracting new investments, especially in the areas of digital technologies and decarbonisation,” says Carlos Arruda, president of Minas Gerais state research and development agency. “Public and private investments are growing, but it is still not sufficient.”

Carazza argues that the existing tech hub is “not something that makes a difference to the economy — we don’t see a lot of people working there”. he says: “We are not a very dynamic economy. We have problems creating jobs for people.” Carazza adds that Belo Horizonte — particularly in its sprawling poorer suburbs — still suffers serious problems with sanitation infrastructure and transportation.

Tech savvy: BH’s Google Park © Google

In many ways, its issues are common to many of Brazil’s south-eastern and coastal cities, which have long lacked a robust engine for growth. BH’s fortunes have not been helped by the fact that Minas Gerais has been bankrupt for the best part of a decade, following years of mismanagement and corruption scandals.

Even so, many BH residents — particularly those who live within the 12km-long Contorno ring road that once marked the city’s boundaries — say it has a better quality of life than São Paulo or Rio de Janeiro. It is cheaper and has, arguably, a more comfortable climate.

Rafaela Vitoria, chief economist at Banco Inter in BH, lived in São Paulo for 15 years before moving back to her hometown “for a better quality of life”. She says: “It has been a great decision, one of the best I’ve made.”

BH is currently in the midst of a blossoming culinary renaissance, too, led by the likes of celebrity chef Leo Paixão. In general, Minas Gerais people are particularly proud of their cuisine, with its indigenous, Portuguese and African influences. The state is known for its cheeses, which have risen rapidly in global estimation in recent years. And, then, there is the raucous BH bar scene. Few locals will miss the chance to remind you that the city has more watering holes per capita than any other in Brazil.

Additional reporting by Beatriz Langella

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