Mother Brazil: a way forward for the rainforest?

Ben Garside's picture
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29 November 2010
Mother Brazil: a way forward for the rainforest?
Photo courtesy of oecoamazonia

Dubbed “mother of the nation”, Dilma Rousseff was elected as Brazil’s first female president this month. But this has been an election of two women. Taking the reins at a time of increasing growth, prosperity, and public works expansion in Brazil, will one woman’s touch alone be enough to bring new ways of combating destruction of the Amazon?

The 2010 election in Brazil has been particularly interesting in that the two-party split was blown apart in the first round by a surprise 19 per cent poll by Marina Silva – the Green Party candidate. Marina resigned as environment minister in Lula’s Workers Party government in May 2008, blaming the continued deforestation of the Amazon on Brazilian cattle ranchers and farmers - and policies that support them.

Marina was knocked out in the first round but gained enough votes to force a second round vote between Dilma (Workers Party) and her rival José Serra (Social Democratic Party) - and to bring green issues in to the election debate.

Marina’s Demands
Marina had two main threads to her demands of the lead political parties in Brazil. First, a commitment to existing protection of the Amazon, enshrined in the Forest Code. Recent calls to revise the Forest Code to reduce its protection, which it is claimed will lead to the destruction of 85 million hectares of Amazon rainforest - have many environmental activists up in arms. Adding to the controversy is a proposed amnesty to those who had broken the Forest Code prior to July 2008. Marina called for candidates to commit to renouncing the amnesty and cease discussions of revisions to the Forest Code until after the election.

Second, she wants to address issues around energy, climate change, and infrastructure. Lula’s Growth Acceleration Programme (PAC) has very little consideration for environmental assessment or of climate change impacts. Marina wants a national policy on climate change that integrates with the PAC and with national energy policy.

The Second round
Marina's success in the first round had an impact on Dilma's policy priorities and campaign strategy. Days before the second-round vote, Dilma released a 13-point plan for "Sustainability with Economic Growth" underscoring previous promises to cut Amazon deforestation by 80 per cent and emissions by nearly 40 per cent by 2020.

Dilma is however committed to continue building large infrastructure. The two main controversial examples she gives where economic development trump environment are the Belo Monte Dam, that is set to be third biggest in the world, and paving the 319 highway linking Manaus in the Amazon with Porto Velho. Her take is these projects are too important to be left even though there are significant negative environmental impacts – despite environmental groups’ warnings that the road development will expand deforestation further into the north.

What next?
From environmentalists to the Workers Party itself, an increasing number of people are talking about the Amazon and other environmental issues in this election. with ‘sustainability’ being Dilma’s repeated word of concession in her 13 point plan towards the Green vote. The question now is – what will be the follow through?

The answer to this depends much on Marina and her supporters – and the reasons they voted for her in the first place. There is certainly a percentage who voted for the Green Party as a protest vote against a ‘no choice’ two-party system in which a Workers Party victory was nearly a guaranteed certainty. Disillusionment with corruption and Marina’s quest for a new and cleaner politics were appealing to some.

Then there is religion – Marina being a strong evangelist. Yet according to a recent respected analysis in a São Paulo newspaper (Folha de São Paulo 21/10/10) Marina was actually less popular in areas with a strong evangelical population.

The rest – including the swelling educated middle classes of Sao Paulo and Rio - are people who want (and have benefited from Brazil’s strapline ‘ordem e progreso’ order and progress). But perhaps environmental issues and increasing awareness of international debates on climate change will lead to these voters demanding new thinking on sustainable progress.

To help them articulate their concerns and frustrations, and to ensure that this increase in environmental interest is not a political one-off will need a strong and trusted voice. Marina with her multi-faceted appeal may be such a person. Now unelected, she needs to keep her supporters interested and effective opposition through the Green Party may be a way to do this. Yet to bring about new approaches for growth which really integrate environmental sustainability she will need to straddle the fence between idealism in opposition and creative thinking by working with Dilma. In the end perhaps it will take two ‘mothers’ to effect new sustainability practice into the growth policies Lula started.


Ben Garside is a researcher in the Sustainable Markets Group.

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