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Amazonian choice

Tuesday 20 May 2008, by Sue Branford

The resignation of Brazil’s environment minister Marina Silva reveals the balance of power within President Lula’s government over policy towards the Amazon region.

The unexpected resignation 0n 13 May 2008 of Brazil’s internationally renowned environment minister, Marina Silva, is a dramatic demonstration of the power of the "developmentalist" faction within the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. It is now likely that the government will move rapidly to build more highways and hydroelectric power stations within the Amazon region, making it easier for agribusiness and mining companies to move in.

For Marina Silva, the moment of departure was not a time to mince words. In her letter of resignation, which she distributed to the press before she had received a response from President Lula, she spoke of the "growing resistance her team faced from important sectors of the government and society" and of the "difficulties" she had been experiencing for some time "in implementing the federal government’s environmental policies". The message could not have been clearer: Marina Silva, for long an isolated voice within a pro-development cabinet, felt she had finally lost the battle over the environment.

For the minister, the final straw was President Lula’s decision not to give her responsibility for the latest plan for the Amazon region, the Plano Amazônia Sustentável (Sustainable Amazonia Plan / PAS). Lula instead opted to put this scheme in the hands of Roberto Mangabeira Unger, the Harvard-educated minister for long-term planning - a decision taken at the last minute, and reportedly in response to pressure from Blairo Maggi, the governor of Mato Grosso state and one of the world’s biggest soya-farmers.

Mangabeira had been the object of ridicule from environmentalists when in early 2008 he proposed to transfer water from the Amazon basin to the drought-ridden northeast of Brazil. In doing so he baldly stated that it made sense to link "a region where there is a useless abundance of water with another where there is a calamitous lack of water" - thus completing ignoring the dependence of fish, plants and people on the annual flooding of the river.

A daughter of the Amazon

Marina Silva, by contrast, has a profound knowledge of the forest and its people. She grew up in a family of rubber-tappers in a remote area of the Amazon basin, and was brought into politics by Chico Mendes, a rubber-tapper leader assassinated in 1988. She had a meteoric career: at the age of 36, she was elected senator for Lula’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party / PT) - the youngest person in Brazilian history to have been elected to that office. Despite the amount of time she was forced to spend in Brasilia, she never lost contact with the Amazon. On learning of her resignation, Herculano Porto, from a small community of traditional forest-dwellers who recently won a long, violent battle with a landowner over the right to their land, commented, with tears in his eyes: "In her heart she never left the region. She felt a great affection for all fishing folk in the Amazon. And I personally owe my life to her, because she sent the police to protect us at the height of the conflict."

Marina Silva, appointed environment minister at the beginning of Lula’s first government after his October 2002 election victory, tried hard to change government policy. She argued that Brazil would achieve lasting social and economic development only if it worked with and not against the environment; as a result she tried to implement a policy of "tranversality", by which she meant building environmental considerations into every stage of policy-making. Although Lula felt great personal warmth and respect for his minister, he never took her views very seriously. Indeed, Lula has never shown much interest in the environment. Since he took office, his overriding goal has been fast economic growth, at almost any cost to the environment. He has allied himself closely to big landowners because of their importance in boosting the production of Brazil’s main farm exports, particularly beef, soya and sugar. On more than one occasion he has referred to Marina’s environmental concerns as "a bureaucratic obstacle".

A momentum dammed

Marina Silva lost many battles. She failed to stop Lula lifting the ban on genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). She was unable to prevent the government from authorising the construction of two big hydroelectric power-stations in the west of the Amazon basin. But she did have some successes. Perhaps the most important came after satellite images had shown that a huge swathe of Amazon forest - 27,429 square kilometres, the second largest area cleared in a single year - had been felled in 2003-04. In February 2005, shortly after these figures were announced, a landowner killed an American nun, Dorothy Stang. He had been enraged by her repeated denunciations to the authorities of his violent attempts to force forest-dwellers off their land.

The murder was widely reported in the foreign press. An embarrassed Lula agreed not only to send in the federal police to stop further illegal jungle-clearance but also to create the conservation unit that Dorothy Stang had been campaigning for. A series of such reserves were subsequently created. In her resignation letter, Marina says that these units, many of which can be inhabited by small communities of fisherfolk and peasant families, were one of her most important achievements. Together these reserves cover an impressive area of almost 24 million hectares (240,000 square kilometres).

The rate of forest-clearance fell for three consecutive years. It seemed that the relentless front of loggers, cattle-rearers and soya-farmers pushing its way into the Amazon basin was finally being halted or at least slowed down. But then biofuel fever infected the world. Lula got excited at the prospect of Brazil becoming the world’s leading exporter of ethanol, made from sugar-cane (see Rodrigo de Almeida, "Brazil, the United States and ethanol", 30 March 2007). With the Brazilian economy emerging from years of stagnation, he also began to dream of a long period of sustained economic expansion.

His government thus embarked on a big investment project, called the Programa de Acceleração do Crescimento (Accelerated Growth Programme / PAC). The PAC forms part of a much bigger South American project, called the Iniciativa para a Integração Regional da Infraestrutura Sul-Americana (Initiative for the Regional Integration of South American Infrastructure / IIRSA). It consists of 350 projects, some of which involve very heavy investment in the fields of transport, energy and communication. Environmentalists warned in 2007 that no fewer than 322 areas of great importance for biodiversity would be threatened by the roads, hydroelectric power-stations, ports and gas pipelines planned under the PAC. Marina called for the creation of further conservation units to protect vulnerable ecosystems, and drafted the PAS with this in mind.

It is significant that, just before handing over the PAS to Mangabeira, Lula withdrew his support for another conservation unit - a reserve for forest-dwellers along the Xingu river - because it might hamper the creation of further hydroelectric power-stations. This decision could be the first flashpoint in the post-Marina political landscape. In the week of 19-23 May 2008, at least 1,000 Indians and riverfolk will be meeting in Altamira to protest over the government’s decision to construct hydroelectric power-stations along the Xingu river. The resulting dams will affect nineteen indigenous groups.

In 1989 a large gathering of Indians and riverfolk, also meeting in Altamira, angrily rejected the government’s plan for a similar project. The gathering, attended by supporters such as Sting and Anita Roddick, was widely reported in the world’s press. As a result, the World Bank cancelled a loan and the plans were shelved. Now a revised scheme is back on the agenda. It includes building Belo Monte, which would be the world’s third-largest dam.

A dangerous gamble

From a global perspective, the dangers inherent in this project are far clearer than they were nineteen years ago. Today much more is known about the role of the Amazon basin in stabilising the world’s climate. Scientists have shown that the forest acts as a giant consumer of heat, absorbing half of the solar energy that reaches it through the evaporation of water from its leaves. When it is damaged by clearances, fire or drought, the forest leaks carbon, contributing to the build-up of greenhouse-gases that are the cause of global warming.

If current trends in forest-clearance continue, more than half of the Amazon forest will be cleared or severely damaged by 2030. If this happens, about 20 billion tonnes of carbon will be released to the atmosphere, equivalent to about one year’s worth of current carbon emissions from the whole world. While it is true that modern engineering techniques reduce the direct environmental damage caused by power stations, it has been shown repeatedly that bringing energy and roads to a region sparks off a chaotic development boom that leads to widespread environmental destruction.

With awareness increasing around the world of the scale of the environmental crisis that lies ahead, it makes no sense to undertake such a dangerous gamble. It must be easier to prevent a huge increase in carbon emissions rather than sequester the carbon once it is released into the atmosphere. Belatedly, the international community is taking action. Carlos Minc, a co-founder of Brazil’s Green Party, who was appointed the country’s new environment minister hours after news of Marina Silva’s resignation was released - said in his first press conference that he expects very shortly to receive funding of €150 million ($234 million) from international financial institutions and non-governmental organisations for further conservation units in the Amazon.

Such funding would, however, make sense only if the money were used to protect the livelihoods of groups like the Indians and riverfolk meeting in Alatamira. If the money is channelled to people like Roberto Mangabeira Unger, there is a serious risk that it could end up funding yet another madcap project. The Amazon basin - from Fordlândia, the giant rubber plantation set up by the American tycoon Henry Ford in the 1920s, to the 3,000-kilometre Transamazon Highway built by the military in 1970 - has had its fill of those.

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