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Hurting the Amazon

Hurting the Amazon

Currently, there are 165,000 square kilometers of
cleared and abandoned lands in the Amazon,
a jarring remnant of past projects which did little more than clear
the forest and yield a crop for the first two or three years.
By Adhemar Altieri

On Wednesday, May 24, a protest rally by striking São Paulo state schoolteachers ended
up on live national television, as thousands of marchers clashed with riot police. The
ugly scene featured cops on horseback charging the crowd, and widespread use of tear gas,
plastic bullets, police dogs and pepper spray. There were 17 injured, five of them police
officers. Three days before that, a student walked up to federal Health Minister José
Serra during a visit to the town of Sorocaba, in the state of São Paulo, and smashed an
egg on his face. A few days later, Serra was again hit with an egg, this time in the city
of Belo Horizonte, stated of Minas Gerais.

In the aftermath of the clash between strikers and police, São Paulo state Governor
Mário Covas has been involved in a rash of incidents with striking civil servants. A day
after the clash, he ended up with a bruised forehead while trying to move through an
unfriendly crowd at a political event. A protester got close enough to strike him on the
head with a stick. And on Thursday, June 1, Governor Covas was physically attacked as he
entered, and again as he left the Education Secretariat, where striking teachers were
camped in protest. A local television station’s traffic chopper beamed dramatic live
pictures of the governor’s departure from the downtown building under a hail of assorted
fruits and vegetables, eggs, rocks, sticks, and even plastic chairs and empty cans. Aides
tried to protect the governor as he exchanged insults with protestors at very close range.
But at least one projectile hit the target, so along with the previous week’s bruise,
Covas now sports a nasty bump and a cut lip.

These incidents have been replayed and analyzed to exhaustion in the past few days, as
the most varied explanations are offered for what’s going on. Social upheaval? That’s what
government opponents would have everyone believe. Have Mário Covas and José Serra done
anything to deserve the wrath directed at them? Not specifically, although Covas has been
lackluster at best in his second consecutive term as São Paulo governor. And Serra is at
the helm of a truly troubled area, which isn’t about to show major improvements for lack
of funds. The fact that both are possible future presidential candidates might begin to
explain things. Both are also members of the PSDB—President Fernando Henrique
Cardoso’s political party. Combine that with the words "election year" and the
question marks begin to fade away.

Untimely strikes, exaggerated assessments, surprise revelations, personal attacks, fire
and brimstone speeches, have all been a part of Brazil’s routine whenever elections draw
near. It’s an approach that ignores party and ideology, and does Brazil a great
disservice: all sides concentrate on attempting to expose the opponent’s misgivings, and
generating bad publicity if at all possible. Most of the campaign effort ends up going
into mud-slinging and finding ways to embarrass or complicate an opponent, with far too
little time devoted to explaining what a candidate would actually do if elected.

Events so far show things headed in much the same direction as in previous elections.
The opposition, often in tandem with the labor movement and other organized groups, uses
every possible opportunity to try and harm the incumbent’s image and capability to offer
support to candidates at the municipal level. For its part, the government and its allies
resort to similar techniques to discredit opponents, even taunting them to draw the
desired results in some situations. A look at the facts surrounding the current teachers’
strike in São Paulo helps to explain how both sides operate.

For example, the clash with police is being used by the opposition to criticize the
government for its heavy-handedness. In fact, the protest was held at São Paulo’s
landmark Avenida Paulista, a major artery where protest marches are forbidden to begin
with. There are 26 hospitals in the immediate area, and blocking the avenue could put
lives on the line. With over 100 locations in São Paulo where protests are authorized,
there is no reason at all to stage them at Paulista. Still, police agreed to let the march
go on when the teachers’ union promised it would only occupy half the avenue—traffic
flow would continue on the other half. It was only when marchers insisted on occupying the
entire avenue that riot police went into action.

The numbers game played by both sides is another indication that everyone is well into
campaign mode. The police said 7 thousand protesters took part in the march, while
organizers called it at "between 30 and 40 thousand". The union says teachers
have had no pay increase in five years. In fact, there have been several increases over
five years, totaling between 130 and 200 percent, depending on salary and function. This
must be put in perspective: teachers in the public system in São Paulo, or throughout
Brazil for that matter, are not well paid, so high percentages shouldn’t leave the
impression that they’re now earning top wages. Teachers are right to be asking for more,
but to deny past increases, or that there’s been an effort to improve their lot, is silly
politicking and nothing more.

At the government end, one has to wonder what governor Covas’ real intentions were,
when he decided to walk through the striking teachers’ camp at the Education Secretariat.
He did this without police protection, although a riot squad was on the scene—it kept
a distance on his direct orders. This was highly unorthodox and risky behavior.
Authorities never enter that particular building through its front door—there is a
side entrance which he and other officials normally use, which would have avoided the
protesters altogether. It is fair to conclude the governor wanted to cause a commotion,
which might be exploited later.

The answer came on the following day, when Covas called a news conference and showed
reporters a video of Congressman José Dirceu, national president of the left-wing
Workers’ Party (PT), telling a crowd "they (the government) must be beaten in the
ballot box and on the streets". Covas implied that Dirceu was suggesting that
government members should be attacked, and that striking teachers were only following that
recommendation. It can be argued the governor may have taken things somewhat out of
context. The exact term used by Dirceu, "apanhar", doesn’t necessarily
imply physical punishment. The English equivalent would be beaten, which could simply mean
beaten as in at the end of a game, or an election…

Voters could be in for much more of this over the next few months. The PT’s candidate
for mayor of São Paulo, Marta Suplicy, is currently a front-runner in all polls. The
government’s candidate and current Vice-Governor Geraldo Alckmin has so far failed to make
an impact. The tendency, then, is for the government to begin working to prop up Alckmin,
at the expense of the PT and other opponents if necessary, while the PT does its best to
prevent Alckmin’s candidacy from gaining any momentum. There should be no lack of
fireworks between now and October…

After the Fall
São Paulo’s rundown, dirty and disorganized
appearance has become an election issue.

Brazil’s largest city is breathing a collective sigh of relief. One thousand,
two-hundred and forty-one days of perhaps the worst administration ever seen in São Paulo
ended, at least temporarily, on Thursday, May 25th, when mayor Celso Pitta was removed
from office following yet another court defeat. For the second time in two months, the
mayor chose an embarrassing way to react to a negative court decision, and escaped out the
back door to avoid being served notice. All for naught: an appeal filed by his lawyers was
thrown out that same evening. Pitta resurfaced 15 hours later and finally relinquished
power on Friday morning to Deputy Mayor Regis de Oliveira.

Given the massive web of corruption currently being investigated in São Paulo, much of
it involving the mayor himself, any number of serious charges could have led to Pitta’s
undoing. Instead, what finally tipped the legal scales against the beleaguered mayor was a
charge of misuse of public funds, connected to a loan of R$800 thousand (about US$430
thousand) he received from wealthy businessman Jorge Yunes. The court considered the loan
possible illicit compensation for zoning changes that affected properties owned by Yunes,
which shot up in value. Considering estimates that show São Paulo may have lost more than
US$1 billion to corruption last year alone, this is sort of like Al Capone being nailed
for tax evasion and nothing more.

Pitta’s son helped things along by telling police the loan was never made in the first
place: it was, he said, "an excuse" to justify his father’s standard of living,
which is incompatible with a mayor’s paycheck. The courts decided Pitta could not remain
in office while all this was investigated, because that would give him the opportunity to
obstruct the search for evidence in city departments. In delivering the decision, one of
the judges wrote that Pitta is "obstinate when it comes to acts of administrative
dishonesty". Pitta, who only remained in office this long because of successive
appeals, has now been convicted five times on a variety of administrative improprieties,
with five other cases still making their way through the system, and numerous other
charges and accusations still to come, many made by his own ex-wife. On top of all this,
impeachment proceedings against him are still under way at City Council, and will continue
even though he is out of office.

After handing things over to Regis de Oliveira, Pitta vowed to continue battling in
court to be reinstated as mayor. Analysts believe his chances of accomplishing this are
slim at best, so the likelihood is that interim mayor Oliveira will stay on until January,
when a newly elected mayor and city councilors take office following upcoming municipal
elections throughout Brazil in October. Oliveira promises a multi-party
"consensus" administration, aimed at "recovering morality and dignity"
in São Paulo. If he simply begins to run the city, Paulistanos (São Paulo city
residents) will be thankful enough: the city’s appearance reflects what’s been happening
at the top, as officials concern themselves with political survival and literally ignore
day-to-day matters. An investigation by a local television news team showed that so far
this year, São Paulo’s City Council has only voted on three projects, and if it were to
vote on one project per day, starting now, it would take ten years to clear the backlog.
The results of such widespread inaction are visible throughout the city—to a point
where São Paulo’s rundown, dirty and disorganized appearance has become an election
issue.

There’s a much broader context here that goes far beyond the city of São Paulo, and is
of great importance to Brazil’s current stage of political and social development. Pitta’s
removal from office is by no means the end of anything. Quite the contrary, this is more
like the beginning: what happens next, not just to Pitta but to his mentors and
associates, is now the big question—specifically how much, if any of what is now
attached to or alleged about Pitta, will eventually be attributed to his political
"creator", controversial former mayor, governor and presidential candidate Paulo
Maluf.

Pitta was a political unknown until he became Secretary of Finance during Maluf’s term
as mayor of São Paulo, from 1992 to 1996. Before that, Pitta was an executive with a
company owned by Maluf’s family. Maluf is emblematic of Brazil’s old-style of politics,
which society has only recently begun to understand as negative and objectionable. He’s a
remnant of times when administrators known to be corrupt, but who showed some level of
efficiency, were considered acceptable and even admired by voters. Efficiency was often
measured by large, visible projects like avenues, bridges and tunnels, usually inaugurated
with splashy events that included long speeches, fireworks, and flag-waving public
servants bussed in for the occasion.

Maluf might just be the most vivid example of that style of politics still active in
Brazil. In fact, he’s worth a look by the people at the Guinness Book of World Records,
because of the incredible number of charges and accusations of corruption that have been
aimed at him over the years. This ends up working in both directions: detractors say he
isn’t punished because he’s a master at covering his tracks and maneuvering in the courts,
while supporters say the charges are political in nature, nothing but sour grapes and
envy, and haven’t led to convictions, which "proves" Maluf is innocent on all
counts…

Whatever the case, the fact is that much of what plagued Celso Pitta during his
shortened term as mayor originated when Maluf was mayor and Pitta his Secretary of
Finance. This includes everything from the illegal issue of municipal bonds to massive
cost overruns on public works projects, including a series of tunnels which accusers say
cost more to build per kilometer than the tunnel below the English Channel connecting
France and England. The huge corruption scheme dubbed the "Inspector’s Mafia",
at the heart of São Paulo’s corruption scandal, surfaced during Pitta’s term but what’s
been exposed about it so far shows that it all began when Maluf was still mayor.

As things stand, Pitta joins the ever-expanding ranks of Brazilians who must now
"face the music", at a time when Brazil, as a nation, is learning that it needs
to zero in on impunity. Far too many who’ve done wrong in the past have escaped without
punishment or repayment of any kind, but the trend is in the opposite direction now, as
recent events clearly indicate:

-Dozens of city inspectors have been convicted and jailed in the past year, in
connection with the Inspectors’ Mafia scandal. Two city councilors and a state legislator
have been removed from office, and one councilor remains in prison;

-At the end of May, former finance minister Zélia Cardoso de Mello was convicted of
corruption and sentenced to thirteen years and four months in prison. A notorious member
of the Collor de Mello administration, which ended with the president forced out of office
because of corruption, she now lives in New York and is appealing the sentence;

-Police are searching for former labor court judge Nicolau dos Santos Neto, accused in
connection with a major corruption scandal in which over R$140 million (about US$76
million) destined for construction of a new labor court headquarters in São Paulo, were
diverted. The judge was tipped off about his arrest and had left his home when police
arrived. The owner of the construction company involved, Fábio Monteiro de Barros Filho,
has been in jail since earlier this month, and Senator Luiz Estevão may be the object of
impeachment proceedings for his involvement. The Brazilian Senate is currently under heavy
criticism for obvious delaying tactics being used to try and spare their colleague;

-A former regional superintendent in Pará state for IBAMA, the government’s
environment and natural resources institute, Paulo Castelo Branco, was arrested in May,
caught in the act as he collected R$500 thousand (about US$265 thousand) from a logging
company—a bribe to allow the company to proceed with illegal logging projects in the
Amazon region;

-Former first-lady Rosane Collor was convicted in early May for misappropriation of
funds while presiding a social assistance institute where the current first-lady usually
holds a ceremonial presidency. Charged with using institute funds to throw a private
party, she was sentenced to eleven years in prison. She is appealing;

For years, impunity has been identified as a national cancer in Brazil, which must be
shed. So punishing the guilty, whoever they are, must become commonplace if the right
message is to make its way through society and become imbedded in the national psyche.
That must replace the thinking that dominates now: that nothing will happen, that the
powerful will walk away with a shrug, or as Brazilians like to say, that it’ll all end in
one big pizza party, with the accused laughing all the way home, or worse, all the way to
the bank.

This is a major change that’s an absolute must in Brazil—something that society
must pilot into place. And there will be powerful opponents to the effort, because there
are still plenty of people in Brazil who would like to continue believing that it’ll
always be "business as usual". Former president Fernando Collor de Mello for
example, who left office in 1992 to avoid impeachment for involvement in a widespread
corruption scheme, is working hard in the courts to be allowed to attempt a political
comeback. He’d like to run for mayor of São Paulo. And Paulo Maluf, whose unforgettable
contributions to the abused city of São Paulo include Celso Pitta, has already announced
he’ll be after the mayor’s chair once again come October. This alone will be a major test
for the people of São Paulo: when Maluf supported Pitta’s candidacy in 1995, he stated:
"If Pitta doesn’t turn out to be a great mayor, don’t ever vote for me again".
Hopefully, Paulistanos will remember, and the courts won’t forget about Pitta
because he’s no longer in the mayor’s office.

Hurting the Amazon
Currently, there are 165,000 square kilometers of
cleared and abandoned lands in the Amazon,
a jarring remnant of past projects which did little more than clear
the forest and yield a crop for the first two or three years.

For a while in early May, Brazilians experienced a stunning example of the gall that
characterizes many of this country’s elected officials. It was the type of condescending,
underhanded political behavior that says "we’ll try just about anything if we think
we can get away with it"—including further devastating the Amazon Rainforest for
easy short-term financial gain. On the very positive side, last week’s short-lived episode
also showed that this sort of attempt to pull the wool over a nation’s eyes no longer
escapes unnoticed.

Spearheading this particular effort is a member of the Lower House of Congress from the
southern state of Paraná. Virtually unknown outside his home state, Moacir Micheletto
will now have the dubious honor of being remembered for his final report as coordinator of
a congressional subcommittee reviewing the federal Forestry Code. He chose to ignore
numerous suggestions from the National Environmental Council—a body formed by the
government to identify ways to ensure that sustainable development options are pursued.
Some 8,000 people were heard by the Council in public sessions designed to develop and
refine proposals. Instead of considering their work, Micheletto came up with a real gem: a
proposal to revise the Forestry Code and reduce from 80 to as little as 20 percent, the
portion of a property in the Amazon region that must be preserved in its original state.

Observers from various quarters saw this for what it was: an Amazon-wide chainsaw
massacre in the making, in benefit of those who would clearcut and log the rainforest into
oblivion. Micheletto insisted his proposal was not a license for loggers and farmers to
step up destruction of the tropical rainforest, because state governments would first have
to define the most appropriate use for each tract of land. He added the percentage of a
property that must remain intact might actually be 50 percent in some cases, depending on
each state government’s conclusion about land use. But his arguments couldn’t hold water,
in great measure because Mr. Micheletto simply doesn’t have the credibility to convince
most people that anything he could come up with would favor sustainable development.

For openers, he is a member of the powerful "ruralist" lobby in Brazil’s
Congress—members who often vote as a cohesive unit, regardless of party affiliation
or political ideology. The ruralist lobby is said to include 170 of a total of 542 members
of the Lower House, or Chamber of Deputies—enough to push through some mighty
damaging bits of legislation their leaders might find somehow advantageous. This is about
as out in the open as self-serving politics gets. Members routinely defend initiatives
that fly in the face of society as a whole, but benefit their backers and, in many cases,
themselves—many are directly involved in the activities they attempt to prop up at
the environment’s expense. And all along, they grant interviews and discuss what they’re
doing, as if openly working to defend a specific, powerful interest group, at the obvious
expense of the vast majority is, well, normal.

Of the 13 members on the subcommittee chaired by Micheletto, 10 belong to the ruralist
lobby, so when the votes came in, the final tally was easy to predict: 10 to 3 in favor.
But politics aside, a strictly "common sense" analysis of what they’re proposing
spells long-term disaster for the Amazon. The 80 percent preservation rule now in place,
which Micheletto’s proposal would seriously roll back, was introduced in 1995 by
presidential decree to slow down the rate of deforestation. It worked: the Amazon lost
about 12,000 square miles of rainforest to logging and agricultural projects in 1995,
compared to just under 7,000 square miles last year. This is why there’s so much
reluctance to change that percentage. According to WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature)
Executive Director for Brazil, Garo Batmanian, "Brazil will again set records for
deforestation" if the percentage is reduced.

Even Brazil’s Environment Ministry, which backs the proposals put together by the
National Environmental Council, has come up with a set of hard-hitting numbers that expose
what the ruralists want to do as sheer lunacy. The Ministry estimates that, should
Micheletto’s proposal stand, the Amazon would lose an additional 400-thousand square
kilometers to "legal" deforestation, an area equivalent to the entire landmass
of neighboring Paraguay (406,000 sq. km.). Each year, logging and farming would result in
the loss of tropical forest areas equal to roughly the size of Belgium. Even more
convincing are the Ministry’s numbers exposing the near-absolute failure, in economic
terms, of the type of exploitation the Amazon region has been subjected to for several
years. Those numbers alone are solid enough reason to prevent any further deforestation
that pursues typical Amazon "development" strategies, if they can be described
as such:

-Currently, there are 165,000 square kilometers of cleared and abandoned lands in the
Amazon, a jarring remnant of past projects which did little more than clear the forest and
yield a crop for the first two or three years. This is the process the Environment
Ministry wants stopped, and ruralists would accelerate: farmers clear the land, plant and
harvest while they can (not long), move on to clear the next patch of land and start the
process once again, leaving behind worn out, useless deforested areas. The ministry wants
these areas put back to some sort of productive use, or restored as forested areas, before
any further deforestation for agricultural purposes is allowed;

-Studies by the ministry show that 62 percent of all lands in the Amazon region are
highly inappropriate for agricultural activities. At best, once cleared they’ll provide
five years’ worth of profitable activities. The numbers only reinforce what mere
observation of what goes on in the Amazon has already made obvious enough. Once cleared,
the land’s ability to sustain crops is quickly exhausted. The lush, sprawling rainforest
is an impressive sight, which might lead one to believe crops could prosper there as well,
but trial and error has shown that the exact opposite is true: Amazon soil is mostly
sandy, and what sustains the rainforest is the organic material the forest itself
produces—leaves, falling branches, etc., combined with the extreme humidity in the
region;

-Finally, there’s a strong economic argument: the government’s IPEA, Institute for
Applied Economic Research, has concluded that properly managed activities that revolve
around the rainforest itself tend to be far more efficient and profitable than other
activities attempted so far in the Amazon. The IPEA has calculated the amount
"lost" in the agricultural sector alone: US$5.9 billion, or about 1.5 percent of
Brazil’s GDP. Numbers like these are all the encouragement the government needs to block
old-style attempts to cut down tracts of forest under the guise of "economic
development";

The ruralist approach isn’t new. They frequently try, for example, to relax
deforestation rules involving what’s left of the Atlantic Forest, a less-known Brazilian
cousin of the Amazon, already down to about 7 percent of its original size. The Atlantic
Forest once covered much of Brazil’s east coast, an area where most major cities and
heavily populated areas are now located. Preserving what’s left of it is quite a task, and
one can always count on a proposal from the ruralists to eat away at what little of it is
left. Organized movements in defense of the Atlantic Forest have managed to give the issue
the prominence it deserves, and increase awareness of the need to preserve what’s left of
an ecosystem even more diverse than the Amazon itself. Recent attempts by ruralists to
privilege farmers and further harm the Atlantic Forest have all been rolled back, through
extensive public and media pressure that followed each proposal.

Moacir Micheletto’s report will go before Congress for a final vote on May 24. Its
release on Wednesday, May 10, was met with such widespread rejection from society, the
media, environmentalists and even government itself, that at first glance it would seem to
have no chance of approval. Environment Minister José Sarney Filho, son of the former
president and now senator José Sarney, described those behind the Micheletto report as
"the backward sector" of the ruralist community, and President Fernando Henrique
Cardoso has said, through a spokesman, he will veto the proposal if it passes in Congress.
But environmentalists and other sectors of society, including "extractivists"
who make a living from the rainforest in a sustainable manner, are taking no chances:
they’ve organized protest rallies and will continue throughout Brazil until the final
decision is reached in Brasília.

It’s important to stress that this was, indeed, a short-lived tempest: the outcry was
such, and so immediate and far-reaching, that it became clear Micheletto’s report could
not make further progress. Even President Cardoso, not exactly known for reacting quickly
to most anything, announced within 24 hours that he would veto the project. This is
encouraging to see, especially because it is not new. On the environmental front, there is
enough awareness in Brazil to generate quick, decisive pressure that rolls back
ill-conceived proposals—this is not the first time it happened in recent years.

On a political level, the affair exposes what’s so wrong with the current system, which
provides more than adequate shelter for a variety of Michelettos—all perfectly
willing to consider and propose what is obviously against the common interest, but
desirable, useful and profitable for the few whose interests they truly represent. It’s
certainly healthy and positive to witness democracy at work, where such proposals must
come out in the open and be in everyone’s full view before being enacted. What’s needed
now is the next major step: fundamental change to the system that currently allows
Micheletto and friends to survive politically, even while acting openly against the
interests of the vast majority of voters.

Adhemar Altieri is a veteran with major news outlets in Brazil, Canada
and the United States. He holds a Master’s Degree in Journalism from Northwestern
University in Evanston, Illinois, and spent ten years with CBS News reporting from Canada
and Brazil. Altieri is a member of the Virtual Intelligence Community, formed by The
Greenfield Consulting Group to identify future trends for Latin America. He is also the
editor of InfoBrazil (http://www.infobrazil.com),
an English-language weekly e-zine with analysis and opinions on Brazilian politics and
economy. You can reach the author at editors@infobrazil.com
 

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