Unlikely riches found in the dirt-poor badlands of North Brazil

Wind is as good as gold to Mario Araripe, a Brazilian tycoon who built his empire by tapping the same gusts that brought Portuguese sailors to South America five centuries ago.

Harvesting those breezes, he created an estate that includes about 170,000 hectares of land in Brazil’s northeast and Casa dos Ventos, the wind-energy giant that’s developed almost a third of Brazil’s current and planned capacity. His company’s share of that capacity, plus the revenue from a 2.3 billion reais ($767 million) sale of wind assets to Cubico Sustainable Investments Ltd. last year, have helped Araripe grow a personal fortune that the Bloomberg Billionaires Index values at $1.3 billion.

“Brazil’s national anthem says the country is a giant by its own nature,” the billionaire says. “People always thought that was because of gold or other underground treasures, but I don’t believe that. I think it’s because there’s wind.”

The son of an engineer who built infrastructure to fight the deadly droughts common in the northeast, Araripe began a circuitous career by developing high-end beachfront property there in the 1980s and 1990s before snapping up a distressed off-road vehicle producer. He finally wound his way back to where he started, in the state of Ceara, and the abandoned backlands his family grew up on. In about a decade, he had turned a plateau in the middle of the Sertao, the Portuguese word for outback, into one of the world’s hubs for wind-power production.

His closely held Casa dos Ventos, which means House of the Winds, is now one of General Electric’s biggest clients for wind turbines in Latin America and has been fending off buyout approaches from Chinese and U.S. companies. It’s the biggest wind-farm developer in Brazil, the world’s ninth-largest producer of the renewable energy, according to the Global Wind Energy Council.

In an hour-long interview at Casa dos Ventos’ Sao Paulo headquarters, Araripe discussed the northeastern hinterland that spawned his fortune but is also known for economic hardship and unforgiving droughts. Portuguese fortune seekers who came here found no gold; strong-armed outlaws basically ran the place as recently as the 1930s. And the government still struggles to deliver on decades-old promises to install even basic infrastructure like clean water.

It’s against this backdrop and Ceara’s harsh landscape that Araripe once lent a jeep to a wind energy expert who was charting the region’s wind map — a serendipitous ride that became a turning point for Brazil’s wind industry.

He’d made his first small fortune when he founded Construtora Colmeia, a builder that developed beach properties in Ceara. After selling the builder to his employees, he rescued an off-road vehicle company by the name of Troller in 1997.

Within a few years, Troller was exporting the rugged-terrain vehicles to Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Angola. Araripe liked to test the jeeps on long excursions across South America, driving as far as Machu Picchu in Peru. In a pivotal decision, he lent one to an old buddy from the Aeronautical Technological Institute, a prestigious engineering university in Sao Paulo state from which Araripe had graduated in 1977. His friend, Odilon Camargo, says he drove around Ceara to measure the wind, enduring a precarious river crossing in which his ferry was nearly swept away by a strong current.

Years later, when Araripe sold Troller to Ford Motor Co. for 600 million reais, that same friend pushed him to invest in the budding technology. The idea was cemented during an alumni party between cocktails and music.

“Nobody back then was paying attention to wind energy,” says Araripe, who speaks in a Cearense lull, the Brazilian version of a Southern drawl. “The scientific knowledge on wind power was about the same as a shaman’s knowledge of medicine.”

The industry has been a boon for part of a region marked by pockets of extreme violence. Wind-park developers like Araripe pay families and land owners in impoverished areas about 4 million reais a month, wind association Abeeolica says.

Casa dos Ventos started out buying or renting land in Ceara so its engineers could find the best gusts, which Araripe says he can do better than anyone else because he knows the lay of the land. “The secret was in measuring the wind,” says Thais Prandini, an analyst at Sao Paulo-based consultant Thymos Energia. “It’s a company that found an interesting niche and made a ton of money.”

By 2010, Casa dos Ventos began building its own farms, and today is involved in every part of the process, from bidding on long-term government supply contracts to development and even the operation of some farms. Araripe says Casa dos Ventos is sitting on enough land to spawn another 15 gigawatts of capacity in coming years. Brazil’s current installed capacity is about 10 gigawatts.

Araripe, who has never taken on a partner in Casa dos Ventos, refers to himself as a “lifelong bachelor” in business, although these days his son and daughter help run the company. He entertains the idea of selling a small stake one day, but isn’t ready just yet.

Nor is he really that interested in expanding beyond Brazil, because there’s a “poetry” to the business here, he says. He likes harnessing a force that’s inspired Brazilian artists, like master storyteller Jorge Amado, who described the region’s wind as “rapid, disquieting, beautiful, almost unreal.”

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