Our journey from Curitiba to the Iguazu Falls, took us 650km across the state of Paraná, all in a single day. One of our few stops along the way was in the little town of Laranjeiras do Sul, which I’d never heard of until it came up in conversation with Yves, our last couchsurfing host. This settlement, now an agricultural hub for the region, once played an unlikely role in a forgotten bit of World War 2. Time for a history lesson!

From Google Maps

Since 1937, Brazil had been under the dictatorship of Getúlio Vargas. In this authoritarian period, opposition parties were outlawed, dissidents were thrown in prison or exiled. Even a homegrown Nazi-influenced party, the Integralists, had some popularity. In 1940, the United States began to offer some financial and industrial support to Brazil, to coax them onto the Allied side. The U.S, in exchange, were interested in using ports in the northeast as part of supply routes to West Africa.

Vargas in 1930. Credit

In revenge for this collaboration with their enemies, the Germans responded with U-boat attacks against Brazilian shipping. Inland transport between coastal cities simply did not exist at the time, so these attacks had the potential to cripple the Brazilian economy. Nearly 3,000 casualties were suffered, in 36 sinkings. Finally, war was declared against the Axis powers, on August 22nd, 1942.

Bagé, the largest Brazilian ship sunk by U-boat. 28 dead & 106 survivors. (Credit: uboat.net)

It was under this dark cloud that the Brazilian government took direct military control over some of the country’s frontier regions, to be better prepared in the event of an attack. These newly created territories were:

  • Amapá, bordering French Guiana in the north. French Guiana was pledged to the Nazi-collaborationist Vichy regime for much of the war.
  • Rio Branco, bordering Venezuela and British Guyana to the north. Venezuela holds important oil reserves, rumoured to be a target for German invasion. British Guyana was then a British colony, and thus an Allied territory.
  • Acre, bordering Peru to the west. Peru was semi-neutral, but eventually declared war on the Axis in 1945.
  • Guaporé, bordering Bolivia to the southwest. Bolivia declared war on the Axis in 1943, but suffered a coup the same year. The new leader had questionable pro-fascist leanings, until foreign pressure convinced him otherwise.
  • Ponta Porã, bordering Paraguay to the southwest. Paraguay had strong pro-german leanings, and turbulent internal politics during this period.
  • Fernando de Noronha, an island archipelago in the Atlantic, off the northeast coast. An ideal staging point for an invasion of the mainland, if one was to occur.

…and finally, the reason for this article:

  • Iguaçu Territory, with its capital, the city of Iguaçu, nowadays called Laranjeiras do Sul. Bordering Paraguay to the west, and Argentina to the southwest. Argentina was neutral during most of the conflict, but again with a strong German influence. It suffered a successful military coup in 1943.
Brazilian states in 1943 (Credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, the attack on the mainland never came, and these territories were thankfully never subject to invasion. Brazil finally did fight, although only on Italian soil. The Brazilian Expeditionary Force (FEB), a combined mission of the Army and Air Force, saw combat there in spring 1945. We visited the FEB’s museum back in Curitiba.

Brazilian action in the Italian campaign.

The legacy of these territories partly survived past the wartime period. Some later became states in their own right. Guaporé became the state of Rondônia, in 1956. Acre followed in 1962. And finally in 1988, Amapá, and Rio Branco (now known as Roraima) achieved statehood. The others faded into obscurity. Ponta Porã now comprises the southern part of Mato Grosso do Sul. Fernando de Noronha is now a protected nature reserve, and part of Pernambuco.

Brazilian states today. (Credit: Wikipedia)

Iguaçu territory was split in 1946, and returned to Paraná and Santa Catarina. It’s capital, built for the new military administration, was renamed to Laranjeiras do Sul. The Governor’s Palace, is now the town council building. It’s one of the town’s few wooden constructions that remains from that period.

Part of the town today

I’d heard there was a monument to commemorate this history, so when we parked in the town centre, we went looking for it. The few locals and shopkeepers we asked weren’t aware of their significance, until eventually a restaurant owner told us that the town council building is the monument. Ahhh…

The town council, and ex-Governor’s Palace.

We visited the building, and were given a tour by Gilmar Zocche, a district official & history buff. Finally! With a folder full of yellowed photos, he went through the story of the town and it’s place, briefly, at the centre of affairs here. He explained how the residents of the time were disappointed with the territory’s dissolution. They would of course have preferred the chance to grow their city, potentially become a state capital, and enjoy all the opportunities which that offers. The campaign for a “state of Iguaçu” was actually stronger in the nearby, larger city of Cascavel, but has gradually petered out over the decades.

Thanks, Gilmar!

A small museum, across the square from the council building, keeps a collection of mementos from the era. At the front door, a glass case displays two federal decrees, on 9 sheets of paper. Six to create the territories, and three to dissolve them.

The Museum

The current states of Brazil, 26 plus the Federal District, are the result of hundreds of years of slow division. The huge provinces of colonial times have been split again and again, depending on the priorities of the time. Even as recently as 2011, a proposal was voted on to split the state of Pará, creating two new states in its place. This was rejected, but may come up again, depending on the future political climate.

So, maybe one day in the future, we’ll come back to Laranjeiras do Sul, in the State of Iguaçu, in southern Brazil.