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‘We are part of the solution and the problem’: Q&A with author Torkjell Leira

  • In his new book, A Luta pela Floresta (The Fight for the Forest), social geographer Torkjell Leira takes stock of Norway’s 40 years of relationship with the Brazilian Amazon.
  • It’s a paradoxical relationship, he says, one that has seen the Nordic country invest nearly a billion dollars in environmental conservation in the South American country — and about five times that much in environmentally destructive businesses.
  • Leira also rebuffs the accusation that criticism of the Bolsonaro government’s environmental policies is driven by neocolonialism, saying this accusation only seems to be leveled at foreign environmental groups and not foreign investors in destructive industries.

In his homeland, Norwegian social geographer Torkjell Leira is known as a leading expert on Brazil. After coming to the country as an exchange student some 30 years ago, he also began directing his studies and work at Brazilian lands and peoples. His focus on the Amazon led him to work with the Rainforest Foundation for six years, in addition to coordinating projects with communities for organizations and companies in the region. For decades, Leira has been closely monitoring the relations between Brazil and Norway with regard to environmental and climate issues, and has been an important forest advocate, even when he is in his hometown of Oslo.

It is from this perspective that his book, A Luta pela Floresta: Como a Noruega Ajuda a Proteger — e a Destruir — o Meio Ambiente no Brasil (The Fight for the Forest: How Norway Helps to Protect — and Destroy — the Environment in Brazil) is being launched in Brazil by publisher Rua do Sabão’s Hiperbórea imprint. Almost like a thriller, the narrative starts from the pipelines of Norwegian semi-state mining company Hydro, to which Leira had access after an environmental scandal related to a toxic spill took on international proportions.

As it unfolds, the many connections between the two countries are described: from the times of Brazil’s so-called rubber cycles, when Norwegian shippers virtually monopolized the transport of the commodity — and people — in the region, to today’s most intimate relations between agents of political and economic power that make Brazil, and more specifically the Amazonian lands, a territory of abundant investment, not always in sync with forest protection.

With the same intensity, Leira addresses the way rainforest preservation has been established over the decades as a priority in Norwegians’ culture and highlights the process that led to the creation, in 2008, of the Amazon Fund — the largest collaboration between Brazil and Norway in the area of conservation, ended by the government of President Jair Bolsonaro in 2019.

In this exclusive interview with Mongabay, Torkjell Leira reflects on the insights he brings in his book, looks into sensitive aspects of today’s relations between the two countries, and refutes the narrative that sees regulation of international initiatives to defend the forest as neocolonial actions.

Norwegian writer Torkjell Leira. Image courtesy of Siw Pessar.

Mongabay: In your book, you detail Norway’s leading role and ambiguities in the Amazon. How does it feel to launch this work in Brazil when the current government’s discourse demonizes foreign initiatives in Amazon territory?

Torkjell Leira: I’m very concerned about that. Speaking about today’s relationship between Brazil and Norway with regard to the environment, I believe it can’t get worse. But, even as I realize how sensitive the moment is, which still involves what is probably the worst attack on Indigenous peoples since the military dictatorship — in addition to all the drastic deterioration of environmental policies under Bolsonaro — I can’t help pointing out the actions taken by Norway’s government and industry that are harmful to the forest. However, I also describe Norwegians’ close relationship with the cause of Amazonian conservation and the many positive actions resulting from at least 40 years of collaboration between the two countries in the region. I really hope that the book is not used to support unilateral criticism of Norway.

The 2018 environmental scandal involving giant Norwegian semi-state mining company Hydro in the community of Barcarena, in Pará state, is the guiding thread of your narrative, which is based on strong evidence to cover other questionable aspects of Norway’s investment in the forest. How did Norwegians receive that information?

People were shocked. I myself was quite surprised when I realized, after rigorous research, the magnitude of the resources allocated to the forces and actors that help destroy the forest and how disproportionate they were if compared to what is given to conservation. Norway has invested some 8 billion kroner [$900 million at current exchange rates] in conservation over the past decade through the Amazon Fund and other initiatives. But if we take the investments made by our sovereign oil fund in Brazilian companies that degrade nature plus Norwegian companies’ direct investments and imports of Brazilian soybeans that feed our salmon, it’s at least five times higher. We are part of the solution, but we are also part of the problem. I hope the information in the book can help reduce the problem and enhance the solution somehow.

In 2019, Norwegian money transfers to the Amazon Fund were frozen after disagreements with the Brazilian government. In May 2020, it was the Norwegian sovereign fund’s turn to drop Brazilian companies Vale and Eletrobrás from its list of investments due to negative impacts on the environment and human rights. How do you see this major withdrawal of resources, and the narrative implying that it is a neocolonial strategy, an inappropriate external intervention in Brazil’s environmental policies?

About the resources withdrawn by the sovereign wealth fund, the question is: how is it that companies known to degrade the environment and harm local populations were still receiving that investment in the first place? These criteria have to clearer. It’s no use just playing the good guy in the story. The Bolsonaro government shut down the committees that managed the Amazon Fund, prompting the Norwegian government to cancel its support and putting an end to a decade of collaboration. Nobody thinks it’s good to take money away from Brazil. The only thing that is being requested is that they comply with the country’s environmental legislation. It’s important to realize that the discourse on neocolonialism focuses on foreign organizations working to protect the forest while companies with foreign capital are still welcome to exploit it in a predatory way.

Given this terrifying scenario, do you see any way to stop the destruction of the Amazon from escalating?

Yes, sure. Ten years ago, Brazil used to be a world reference in the fight against deforestation while experiencing economic growth — and the wild capitalist system was the same. Of course, today we have a different global scenario, but the country knows exactly which practices work because it has already implemented them, with good results. Other favorable factors are the stronger international pressure and — something new — the importance now given to environmental issues by foreign investors, including many Norwegian ones. Reality can be changed as long as there is a government that places conservation at the center of its agenda and actually acts to keep the forest standing. I really think it’s essential that we know how to appreciate what has been done and learned — rather than just regretting what’s missing, even though so many efforts are being compromised. To end with an expression in Portuguese, I would say: “Muita calma nessa hora” (take it easy, now).

Banner image of the Alunorte water treatment plant, part of the refinery complex belonging to a subsidiary of Norwegian mining company Hydro in Barcarena, Pará state, Brazil. Image courtesy of Anders Vindegg/Hydro.

This interview was first conducted by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on Nov. 30, 2020.

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