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Ten actions for Brazilian scientists to engage in environmental politics (commentary)

  • Brazil has faced several environmental and political issues in recent years. For instance, three mining disasters caused the death of more than 250 people and major damage to biodiversity. Also, the unrestricted expansion of agribusiness has led to high rates of deforestation, a pattern that is only expected to increase in the near future.
  • In this commentary, the authors look at the political aspects of the environmental crises in Brazil and argue that scientists have an important role to play in transforming the country.
  • The authors propose ten actions that can help Brazilian scientists participate more effectively in political matters.
  • This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.

Brazil is the most biologically diverse country in the world, harboring 10 to 18% of the world’s total biota. This biodiversity, however, is rapidly declining due to habitat degradation, overexploitation, pollution, and ineffective conservation policies. In June 2019 alone, 920.4 square kilometers (355.4 square miles) of Amazon forest was deforested, representing an increase of 88% compared with the same period in 2018.

Despite seemingly effective conservation strategies being in place, politics and low engagement from the public are inhibiting those strategies’ effectiveness. Further, the last years in Brazil were marked by political and economic turmoil, as well as constant corruption scandals scattered throughout all levels of the country’s administration. This scenario has led to several negative consequences for Brazilian people and nature, including three recent mining disasters and increasing rates of deforestation.

As such, scientists have an important role to play in transforming the country and should have a more active voice in political matters. We use two of the major environmental problems in Brazil, the mining industry and the expansion of agribusiness, to make the argument for greater participation in politics by scientists. We also propose ten ways in which scientists could foster change in the Brazilian political-environment crisis.

Political-environmental crises in Brazil

In November 2015, the “Fundão” mining dam (Samarco S.A.), located in the municipality of Mariana, Minas Gerais state, collapsed, causing the death of 19 people and leaving entire communities homeless. As much as 62 million cubic meters of iron ore tailings destroyed the districts of Bento Rodrigues and Paracatu Baixo, and the toxic mud polluted at least three rivers, affecting soil, riparian forest, and marine ecosystems.

One might hope that this tragedy would lead to efforts to prevent similar environmental disasters in the future. However, in February 2018, an overflow of a bauxite dam in the state of Pará caused water contamination, affecting thousands of people in the Barcarena city region, with levels of iron, arsenic and aluminum two to 10 times above the safe concentrations set by the National Environment Council. Then, in January 2019, the ruptured tailings dam of the mine “Córrego do Feijão” (Vale S.A.) hit the municipality of Brumadinho, causing the death of more than 200 people. Around 12 million cubic meters (nearly 424 million cubic feet) of mud poured into the Paraopeba River, dislocating at least 933,263 people that lived in the region. The extent of the Brumadinho disaster’s environmental impact is still being evaluated, but recent data using geoprocessing tools estimate that the tailing mud covered 297.28 hectares (about 735 acres) of land and streams.

In addition to environmental issues involving the mining industry, the unrestrained expansion of the agroindustry is a major concern in Brazil. Despite it being well known that Amazonian deforestation is highly associated with agribusiness, Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil’s president elected in October 2018, has made clear his support for the agribusiness agenda. Accordingly, Bolsonaro named Ricardo Salles, a defender of mining and economic development in the Amazon forest, as his Minister of Environment, and Tereza Cristina, the leader of the agribusiness lobby in the Congress in the past years, as his Minister of Agriculture.

Cattle ranching in the Amazon rainforest. Photo by Ananda Pereira Martins.

During Salles’ first 11 months as Minister, at least two environmental crises hit the country: the increased number of fires in the Amazon forest from June to August, most likely as a result of political permissiveness, and the oil spill from August to November in the Brazilian Northeastern Coast. In addition, during Cristina’s first 200 days as Minister, 290 pesticides were allowed in Brazil. The use of such pesticides may have serious effects not only on human health and biodiversity, as they are highly toxic and cause soil and food contamination, but also on Brazil’s economy, since around 30% of them are banned from the European Union, Brazil’s second-largest trading partner.

Along with the pressing environmental issues, Brazil experienced one of the most heated presidential elections of its democratic history in 2018. With the election of far-right-wing Jair Bolsonaro alongside hundreds of conservative congressmen, the power of the agribusiness lobby in the Brazilian Congress has severely increased. For instance, proposals to make it simpler for entrepreneurs to convert native forest into pastures and croplands, as well as loosening of legal approval processes for mining dam installations, are underway. The disempowerment of environmental regulatory agencies seems to also be a trend in the current government, as evidenced by Bolsonaro’s unsubstantiated claims through social media that the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) has suspicious procedures, and the firing of the director of the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), Dr. Ricardo Galvão, after the institute released data demonstrating the severe increase in Amazon’s deforestation rate.

The role of the scientific community in society

In a Democracy, citizens elect their representatives and can apply pressures to seek better environmental regulations. An open dialogue within society seems necessary in Brazil and, as part of this dialogue, we propose that scientists must act as mediators among different stakeholders regarding environmental issues. Specifically, we propose ten actions for scientists to take in order to be more participative in the Brazilian political scenario:

1. Engage in political organizations, such as political parties, regional councils, NGOs, and other forms of social representation, so that the historic lack of scientist engagement in environmental politics may be rectified;

2. Create a Science Community to encourage and support scientists to occupy political positions by selecting candidates with scientific background and no history of corruption to run for public offices;

3. Contribute to the development of environmental policies defended by the Science Community;

4. Create and maintain an independent, publicly accessible and robust methodology to measure the effectiveness and success of environmental policies in Brazil;

5. Monitor how members of Congress supported by the Science Community vote on environmental policy proposals. This could be done by analyzing the importance, feasibility, and scientific reliability of such proposals;

6. Monitor compliance with environmental policies by companies at both regional and national levels;

7. Create online platforms that actively integrate public and legislators supported by the Science Community;

8. Support the inclusion of courses focused on political sciences, environmental legislation, and sociology in biological and physical sciences curriculum at Brazilian universities;

9. Create spaces in which scientists from different areas can discuss current political issues and present evidence-based solutions. Researchers from prestigious national institutions of science could greatly contribute to these debates and stimulate scientific participation on political decisions;

10. Connect with the general public. This last point is especially important, as most scientists agree that outreach science is a worthwhile endeavor, but overall participation rates remain low. Yet, it is the role of scientists to provide rationales for how science affects society by better communicating with the non-scientific public, which might lead to an informed society more likely to exercise its power of political pressure against those disrespecting environmental policies. The use of science communication through social media might be a useful alternative to achieve this goal, as well as collaborations with public and private schools to develop scientific projects with teachers, students, and parents.

Today, Brazilian scientists have the opportunity to make a significant difference by participating more effectively in political matters, whether it is running for political office, informing the population, or ensuring that the current laws are respected by the executive branch. Indeed, the engagement of Brazilian scientists could foster environmental protection and avoid or mitigate environmental disasters. In this sense, a respectful dialogue among the national scientific community, society, and decisionmakers might be the best path to secure the future of Brazil’s environment.


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Ananda R. Pereira Martins is a Brazilian PhD candidate at McGill University (Canada) and the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (Panama). She develops research focusing on the evolution of butterfly wing color variation in the Amazon forest and post updates about this project through social media (Instagram and Twitter @followingbates). Ananda has developed research projects in the Brazilian Amazon since 2007 and has a background in Evolution, Ecology and Systematics of Lepidoptera.

Lucas Pereira Martins is a Brazilian ecologist currently doing his PhD at the University of Canterbury (Aotearoa New Zealand), where he works with the effects of environmental changes on ecological networks and species traits. Lucas’ background includes community ecology and macroecology.

Leila Figueiredo’s background is on seabird ecology and ethnobiology. She became interested in environmental politics and sustainability during her master’s research on a marine protected area and is currently a PhD Student at Lincoln University (Aotearoa New Zealand), where she works with the role of companies in environmental politics.

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