Brazil’s Troubling Amazon Paradox: Continuing the Dialogue

On July 21, 2008, a COHA researcher met with the Brazilian ambassador to Washington, Antonio de Aguiar Patriota, and his consular official for environmental and energy issues, Neil Benevides. Their purpose was to discuss a recent COHA publication on Brazilian government policy concerning the Amazon, titled “Contemporary Brazilian Government Attempts to Address the Amazon Paradox.” The COHA publication will be supplemented in light of new information received from the embassy and further research into the subject.

At the meeting, the Ambassador stated that, as a successful democracy, Brazil’s policy decisions are dictated by the desires of its electorate. The Brazilian people, he maintained, have demonstrated their concerns regarding the conservation of the Amazon and their government has responded by formulating policies which aim to conserve the rainforest.

The Ambassador expressed misgivings about COHA’s analysis, which maintained that the Brazilian government’s newly elaborated conservation policy was in response to international pressure to end deforestation. It is conceivable, however, that the Brazilian electorate’s wish to see an end to deforestation is rooted in international influence and the electorate is, as a result, placing pressure on Brasília. Either way, it is apparent that a majority of the Brazilian electorate, as well as much of the international community, wish to see an end to deforestation and that Brasília has taken positive steps to begin to mitigate the problem. Nevertheless, it must be said that the primary Brazilian government initiative for the region, the Plan for a Sustainable Amazon (PAS), has focused too heavily on self-defeating economic development projects, while ostensibly also promoting conservation.

As was discussed on the occasion of the embassy meeting, the Brazilian government has a considerable dilemma on its hands; it needs to both develop the economy of the Amazon for the region’s 25 million inhabitants, while simultaneously preserving the vital forest mantle. According to the Ambassador, the best way to do this is to discuss both development and conservation programs with the local population.

The Ambassador stressed the importance of cooperation, transparency and open dialogue concerning the issue on both the national and international level. His willingness to discuss Amazon policy with think tanks such as COHA is proof of the Lula government’s desire to work towards a constructive dialogue on this matter.

Over the course of the meeting, it became clear that the Brazilian government seeks the support of the international community in designing development projects within the region. One of these is a proposed carbon credits scheme. The potential means to preserve the rainforest and to gain support for the fair trade of biological resources extracted from the area was outlined in a 2006 document issued by the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment, titled “The Amazon and Brazilian Development”:

    In order for the efforts Brazil is undertaking to create an environment in the Amazon that respects local populations and that aims to conserve environmental and biological attributes, to the benefit of the entire planet, it is necessary that the international community adopts a consistent attitude to support the structural initiatives the country advocates. And these are initiatives that Brazil does not undertake alone, but together with the countries that hold the largest remaining rainforests of the world.

    It is, above all, necessary for developed countries to support efforts to create an international regime of access to biodiversity resources, with fair remuneration of local populations who hold traditional knowledge associated to [sic.] this biodiversity, being negotiated under the Convention on Biological Diversity (CDB). Another initiative deserving international attention was proposed by Brazil, Papua New Guinea and Costa Rica to the Climate Convention: the creation of a mechanism for economic compensation for the efforts to reduce the loss of rain forests, that is, maintaining standing forests, and the ensuing reduction of CO2 emissions in the atmosphere, a greenhouse gas.

    International support for this type of measure is decisive for consolidating the efforts that countries such as Brazil are undertaking, even with severe economic restrictions. This support is an effective and consistent demonstration that the developed nations are really committed to contributing to the preservation of rain forests and ensuring global environmental benefits.

Lula and Sovereignty
Despite the aforementioned desire of the Brazilian government to increase international cooperation concerning the combating of deforestation, President Lula da Silva continues to make statements asserting Brazilian authority over the Amazon region. On Aug. 1, 2008 he said (as translated from the Portuguese) “Brazil certainly will assume all of the responsibilities for preservation of the Amazon, because we want to assume sovereignty over our territory. There are a lot of people abroad that speak about the Amazon as if they are its owner. We are conscious of what the Amazon represents for humanity and for Brazil and that destroying it would be against our country and our products.” Clearly, and rightfully, Lula finds much of the international criticism pejorative. Somehow, he suggests, the international community has developed an attitude that does not respect Brazilian authority over the region. However, such sparring impedes effective conservation. An avenue must be devised by which the international community can help Brazil address the problem without impinging on Brazil’s sovereignty.

A nettled Lula further stated, “It has been a long time since the Kyoto protocol was signed and there is a country that tries to give Brazil a lesson but hasn’t even signed the protocol.” This statement clearly suggests the undeniable hypocrisy of the United States’ policy. Although Lula is justified in pointing out this double-standard, again, arguing this point is not exactly constructive. This argument is exemplary of U.S.-Brazil ties that are continuing to rift. Unfortunately for the Amazon’s—and the planet’s—well-being, this relationship cannot progress as it is. The next U.S. president must move to heal this situation. Signing the Kyoto Protocol would take some of the hypocrisy out of U.S. policy. With it signed, the U.S. would be in a better position to assist Brazil in solving its Amazonian dilemma.

Presently, there are many international critics who look at the Amazon issue as being separate from greater environmental issues. Lula and other Brazilians see Amazon policy as part of a more comprehensive environmental policy that, with the increased use of sugarcane ethanol, needs to be reviewed. Washington and the various international institutions collaborating with Brazilian authorities in developing Brazil’s Amazon policy must see the issue on the Brazilian government’s terms as well as their own. The Amazon is only one part of Brasília’s environmental policy and Washington must better its own environmental policy to give it traction when speaking to the world on an issue that deeply affects the troubled steward of the Amazon.

DETER
One of the Brazilian government’s most effective and progressive strategies of the last decade was the founding of Deter in 2004 (as mentioned in the above quoted document, “The Amazon and Brazilian Development”). The project—a real-time satellite imaging of the Amazon which tracks deforestation activity—was undertaken by Inbe, the Brazilian government’s space program. This initiative has increased the flow of information concerning rates of destruction of the rainforest while allowing the Brazilian government to more effectively combat this illegal activity.

Sugarcane Ethanol
The Ambassador referenced Brazil’s ethanol program as an example of his country’s positive environmental record. The program annually saves the equivalent of the carbon emissions Norway produces per year, by using highly efficient sugarcane ethanol to fuel automobiles instead of fossil fuels.

Some environmentalists have raised serious questions concerning the environmental impact of Brazil’s ethanol program, claiming that the increase in sugarcane production is actually causing deforestation in the Amazon. They argue that increased sugarcane production in the Southeast of the country is forcing cattle and soybean production to relocate to the Amazon region.

In response to this relocation thesis, Consular Benevides referred to a report from the Brazilian government entitled, “Ethanol and the Environment,” stating that there is a vast quantity of unused arable land in Brazil. The amount of unused arable land, however, is uncertain, as the document provides two different and conflicting sets of statistics. The document also provides figures from two different periods of time, although this is not explicitly stated. In the first half the document, the current area being used for cultivation is 66 million hectares (out of a total of 320 million hectares of arable land in the country). This leaves 254 million hectares of arable land unused. However, it is unclear from the study whether this 254 million hectare figure includes forested land. Also, of the 66 million hectares currently used for agriculture in Brazil, 7 million are utilized for sugarcane, and, of that, 3.7 million is used for the production of ethanol. This figure indicates that slightly more than 5% of the total acreage cultivated in the country is used for ethanol.

If this data is accurate, and 254 million hectares of land are indeed available, this provides compelling evidence that ethanol production does not bring on deforestation, as sugarcane grown for ethanol uses a very small percentage of Brazil’s available arable land. A logical development plan would allocate any increased demand for ethanol and other crops to make use of this 254 million hectares of available land.

As further evidence that ethanol production is not causing deforestation, the document states that 83% of the crop’s cultivation is concentrated in the Center-South of the country, far from the Amazon. The Northeast region produces the second largest amount of sugarcane at 16.5% and less than 0.4% is currently produced in the North region (or Amazonia).

The first half of the document convincingly makes the case that the increase of sugarcane production for ethanol production does not directly lead to deforestation because it is not “economically competitive” to grow sugarcane in the Amazon region. This is because growing sucrose-rich sugarcane requires a drier environment. Sugarcane cultivation in the extremely rainy climate of the Amazon produces a crop that is bamboo-like and very low in sucrose content.

The second half of this Brasília document, which presumably is based on data collected before the data utilized in the first half of the document, states that 5.3 million hectares of land are currently being used to grow sugarcane, with 4.2 million hectares of this terrain located in the Southeast and Center-West regions of the country. The document estimates that 10 percent of cultivated land in the country is occupied by sugarcane. A total of 62 million hectares are currently being cultivated by all crops in Brazil, with another 100 million hectares estimated to be available for farming without cutting down any virgin forests.

Again, it is uncertain regarding exactly how much land is available for the expansion of agriculture, because two different sets of figures are provided by the documents. The lower estimation stresses that there are at least 100 million hectares available which, theoretically, would provide nearly double the amount of land now in use for increased agriculture. This un-forested land, which is presumably located in savannah regions of Central Brazil, and which, presumably, is suitable for sugarcane cultivation should—if these figures are correct—be more than enough land for both the expansion of sugarcane cultivation and the increase in cultivation of other crops and products deemed essential by experts.

Marina Silva’s Resignation
The resignation of Minister of the Environment, Marina Silva, was also discussed at the Brazilian embassy meeting. According to the Ambassador, Silva quit after a long, six-year tenure in order to return to the Senate, where she formerly held office, because she believes she can be more effective in promoting her pro-environment beliefs in that venue. The Ambassador also noted that her replacement, Carlos Minc, is a strong environmentalist, even though his previous experience was working for the state of Rio de Janeiro, and thus he has no particular ties to the Amazon region.

His statement about Silva seems counter-intuitive. In fact, COHA maintains that minister Silva was frustrated with her failed attempts to conserve the Amazon—a view shared by Brazilian and international news sources.

Conclusion
The Brazilian government’s efforts towards transparency and its desire to cooperate with the international community for a solution to the Amazon paradox—in spite of arguments made for sovereignty over the region—must be applauded. The government has taken important steps towards conservation of the Amazon rainforest and has compelling evidence to prove that its sugarcane ethanol program is not contributing deforestation. However, as stated in “Contemporary Brazilian Government Efforts to Address the Amazon Paradox,” COHA insists that if a judgment must be made, PAS (Plan for a Sustainable Amazon), favors economic development over environmental conservation. Although the Brazilian government is certainly justified in seeking to provide economic opportunities for an otherwise impoverished region, economic development must be addressed with the utmost concern for environmental conservation. Finally, the Lula government must guard against the crushing influence of the country’s agribusiness and development interests, which caused the weariness that led to Marina Silva’s resignation in the first place.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *