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Brazil: a world champion in political and environmental devastation (commentary)

  • Brazil, the fifth largest country in the world is heir to a fabulously rich heritage in its natural wealth and natural wonders.
  • It is also heir to a corrupt colonial tradition that today still rewards the nation’s wealthiest most privileged elites, as they overexploit forests, rivers, soils and local communities in the name of exorbitant profits.
  • These vast profits are made via intense deforestation, cattle ranching, mining, agribusiness, dam and road building and other development, with little or no regard for the wellbeing of the environment or the people.
  • Brazil’s landed elites, known today as ruralists, are well protected by state and federal governments, and remain largely exempt from prosecution for crimes against the environment and public good. This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
the Paraná state government and its state legislative assembly aim to reduce the Devonian Escarp Environmental Preserve by 70 percent. Photo by Jonathan Campos

Brazil. The fifth largest country in the world. Besides housing the world’s largest rainforest and freshwater reserves, — approximately 12 percent of the world’s total — it is also the country with the largest commercial cattle production, with more than 215 million animals. Additionally, it has the world’s largest production of soybeans, sharing the first place with the USA. Impressive figures. Apart from managing the laws of these paradoxical coexistences — forest and water versus animals and soybeans — we have yet another “splendor.” The Brazilian political class, which is responsible for what has been called the greatest corruption scandal of all times, involving oil giant Petrobras.

It looks like Brazil continues to be what it had been prearanged to do since it was discovered by the Portuguese: it is a land to be exploited, to see its riches extracted by a privileged caste. In the beginning, this “enterprise” was managed by the Portuguese court, which was represented by explorers sent by the Lusitanian empire. Others, such as the French, Dutch and Spanish, followed suit, but none were a match for the ruling class that had settled in the country.

Whether it was subsistence farming, mining, livestock or logging, all Brazilian economic activities were soil-dependent for centuries. From the tree the country was named after, “Pau Brasil” (Brazil wood) to coffee; from gold to sugarcane, its territory has been serving the lords of the earth for more than 500 years. This behavior has solidified Brazilian culture in the trinomial: mineral extraction, deforestation and agribusiness.

Most immigrant families who came in the following centuries also took their sustenance from the land and continued with the same destructive pattern already present in the country. Germans, Italians, Japanese, Polish, Ukrainians and their descendants assisted in annihilating the forests of southern Brazil in the last century. Nothing has changed since, and Brazilians are still trapped in the same pattern. Moreover, they have been hostages of a political system set up not to serve them, but to be served by them.

In the state of Santa Catarina politicians are proposing a reduction of São Joaquim National Park by 20 percent (17 thousand hectares). Photo by Dario Lins

Elected officials have been historically omissive, if not conniving, in environmental related issues, and unfortunately, not much has changed. According to an extensive and detailed report of “Exame Magazine,” it is estimated that an astonishing 80 percent of the lumber traded in Brazil is done so in illegal trade, or “falsely legal” trade. In other words, the product supplied to the market comes from loggers who circumvent government control systems.

But how is such lack of control possible? In fact, the answer is quite evident.

Brasilia governs for Brasilia. The “ruralist” politician faction that came to dominate the government (40 percent of the current 513 deputies), eyes Brazil with the same secular exploitative and greedy look. Moreover, they treat public institutions as if they were an extension of their own individual rural ventures and investments. Let us make it clear that no criticism is being made regarding right-wing or left-wing political parties. What is being criticized here is the non-compliance, non enforcement, and manipulation of environmental laws.

The patrimonialism and criminal behavior performed by the Brazilian political class is the greatest expression of a total disregard for values attached to concepts like citizenship, patriotism and legacy. What matters to today’s political class is the “carpe diem” of the court, as we have witnessed in the case of the financial ruin of the city of Rio de Janeiro. Asking these people to have scruples about nature in this country is almost laughable.

In Brazil, a very famous slogan used by major TV network, Globo, says that “agro é pop, agro é tudo” (agriculture is popular, agriculture is everything). The slogan might be actually true, as Brazil is a country where the number of cattle surpasses the number of citizens (215 million against 208 million), and most politicians remain in power thanks to what is known in Brazil as “electoral corrals.” Miserably, the term looks quite adequate, since voters are treated like cattle corralled in a slaughterhouse to be used.

The government wants to cut protections for the last areas of the planet where the unique Araucaria forests (Araucaria Angustifolia) grow. Photo by Daniel Castellano

In spite of being the most developed region [in Brazil] and home of the “Lava Jato” [Car Wash corruption] operation, which is putting dozens of corrupt politicians in jail, Brazils’ south is no island of ethics nor prosperity. Take, for example, the irresponsibility and scientific ignorance of the Paraná state government and its state legislative assembly, which aim to reduce the unique [natural area] of the Devonian Escarp Environmental Preserve by 70 percent. In the neighboring state of Santa Catarina, politicians are proposing the unimaginable — a reduction of São Joaquim National Park by 20 percent (17 thousand hectares).

These embarrassing and irrational proposals are an attempt to manipulate regulations and to legalize crime since we are talking about the last areas of the planet where the unique Araucaria forests (Araucaria Angustifolia) grow. With immense biodiversity, this ancient ecosystem is extremely threatened by extinction and genetic erosion, since only 1 percent of its remnants are in good condition.

Finally, I present the perfect example to understand how corruption affects nature in Brazil: the [Samarco] Mariana dam burst disaster. Certainly, the worst environmental disaster in Brazil’s history. To some, it bears comparison to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill of 2010, in the Gulf of Mexico. One of the world’s worst mining disasters, the breaking of Samarco´s [toxic iron ore waste] dam killed 19 people and left 700 homeless. It also destroyed the Krenak native way of life and contaminated 280 miles of the Doce River, killing millions of fish, and ultimately ruining the entire food and local economic chain. Samarco is a subsidiary of the Anglo-Australian company BHP Billiton (an FTSE 100 company) and Brazilian mining giant Vale. Due to public information, it is widely known that the Mariana disaster was a crime caused by governmental and professional negligence as well as environmental licensing fraud.

São Joaquim National Park will be dismembered if politicians go forward with their plans. Photo by Dario Lins

It has been two years since the incident happened, and not only has there been no accountability or punishment for the disaster, but a judge just also decided to suspend the criminal process due to juridical technicalities. Sadly, the Brazilian judiciary system is known to be pro-accused biased, and the federal government has a tradition of protecting companies, not the Brazilian people.

As this is being written, the new Brazilian mining code, which exempts mining companies from presenting contingency plans in the case of accidents, [and doesn’t] require them to purchase insurance, is in the process of being approved by the Congress. A recipe for environmental chaos.

Brazil is filled with hundreds of environmental laws, like article 225 of the Federal Constitution, which deals with the right to a balanced environment. On the other hand, law enforcement in environmental crimes is still an exception. Sadly, that makes Brazil number one in “eco-corruption”: a hideous type of crime which robs us of inalienable and intergenerational rights, attached not only to the environment, but also to public health and cultural identity.

Giem Guimaraes, MSc., LLM. Shareholder and board member of Positivo Group, and president of the Justice and Conservation Observatory. Both organizations are NGOs.

Giem Guimaraes, MSc., LLM. Shareholder and board member of Positivo Group, an educational institution; and president of the Justice and Conservation Observatory, an NGO. Photo courtesy of Giem Guimaraes

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