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Fire in Historic Brazil Town Stirs Debate

April 19, 2003

OURO PRETO, Brazil (AP) _ Blackened rubble and ash-covered wrought iron railings are all that remain of a two-century-old building in the center of this historic gold mining city. The destruction left a gaping architectural hole in what many consider to be the cradle of Brazil’s national identity.

The fire, which gutted the red-tiled commercial building last week, has also fueled complaints that government neglect could ruin the city’s chances as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The blaze lasted hours. Hundreds of townspeople watched and wept. Firefighters didn’t have enough water pressure to douse it quickly enough to save the building.

``If it continues like this, in 15 years Ouro Preto will be a Baroque archaeological site, not a living Baroque town,″ said the Rev. Jose Feliciano Simoes of Our Lady of Pilar, one of Ouro Preto’s 13 ornate churches.

Ouro Preto, which means Black Gold in Portuguese, was founded in the 17th century after huge gold deposits were discovered under its steep hills.

Some 235 miles northeast of Rio de Janeiro, it quickly became one of South America’s richest and important cities, and gold money financed the construction of churches like Our Lady of Pilar, which has hundreds of pounds of gold and silver artwork adorning its interior.

The main square is named in honor of poet and dentist Joaquim Jose da Silva Xavier, who helped launch the first Brazilian rebellion against the country’s Portuguese rulers in 1789. Considered by many to be Brazil’s George Washington, Silva was drawn and quartered by the Portuguese in 1792.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva will visit the plaza Monday to commemorate the rebellion.

Ouro Preto’s gold ran out in the 19th century, reducing the population from 120,000 to 67,000 today, and aluminum mining became an important industry in the late 1970s.

Tourism draws thousands of Brazilian and foreigner visitors, especially during Easter week, but preservationists are worried Ouro Preto’s charm could be lost because of modern perils.

Heavy trucks and buses constantly lumber over its cobblestone streets, which were built for horses and carts. There is no road to divert traffic from the historic center.

In December, a beer truck barreled out of control and smashed an elaborate fountain next to Our Lady of Pilar. A few months earlier, a bus slammed into a stone retaining wall, barely missing a small 18th century chapel.

Preservationists who formed the group ``I Love Ouro Preto″ last year counted 405 buses traveling by the St. Francis of Assisi church in 24 hours.

``This city isn’t ours, it’s part of humanity and we can’t lose it,″ said Ricardo Pereira, a hotel owner who oversaw the survey.

Government officials say it has earmarked $3 million in restoration funds to maintain the city’s historic buildings, but UNESCO says the city is being most threatened by traffic and sprawling slums.

``The city has intense urban activity, and it is surrounded by steep hillsides that are eroding,″ said Jurema Machado, head of UNESCO’s cultural division in Brazil.

Just before the fire, UNESCO sent an architect to compile a report on its problems. When the report is completed later this year, it’s possible that Ouro Preto could be put on a list of ``endangered″ World Heritage sites.

Preservationists in Ouro Preto blame Mayor Marisa Xavier, a former elementary school teacher elected two years ago. They claim she cares little about tourism, in part because much of her support is from outlying areas rarely visited by tourists.

Xavier didn’t respond to requests for interviews. But spokesman Antonio Ximenes said the mayor knows the ``future of the city is tourism″ and has a master plan in the works that includes replacing large buses with minibuses. The city also has requested federal aid to fix the fire department’s water pressure problems.

About 100,000 native trees will be planted on the hills to discourage slums from sprouting up, he said.

Preservationists say the promises only came about after the fire made headlines across Brazil.

Just off the plaza, along a street clogged with Easter tourists, antique store owner Mariza Reyes has a black flag draped from her second floor apartment that reads ``Ouro Preto is Asking for Help.″

The fire, Reyes said, ``was just the last straw. I had to say something.″

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Associated Press Writer Peter Muello in Rio de Janeiro contributed to this story

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