Brazil’s Plans for the Amazon Are Not as Green as Lula Paints Them

Brazilian AmazonCriticism of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s handling of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest by many foreign observers does not consider the severity of Brazil’s need to develop the region’s economy. There is, however, considerable substance to critics’ arguments that his administration repeatedly favors an infrastructural and economic development strategy over a conservationist policy. 

Nonetheless, the Brazilian president is confronted with a difficult set of circumstances made evident by the bitter debates within Lula’s administration, which came to a head with the May 13 resignation of the dejected Minister of the Environment, Marina Silva.

Although it is difficult to anticipate how Brasília’s current measures will affect deforestation in the Amazon, the most important ecological initiative of Lula’s six-year tenure thus far has been the Plan for a Sustainable Amazon (PAS). The document was originally signed in 2004 and later enhanced in 2007, but its implementation only began this year.

It is characteristically more pro-economic development than pro-environmental preservation. However, the PAS and related initiatives such as the 2004 Plan of Action for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Amazon (PPCDAM) could potentially slow deforestation by designating new areas as nature reserves, combating illegal logging and farming, and eradicating falsified land deeds throughout the region.

Overall, Brasília deserves some applause for developing a policy that responds to the international outcry against deforestation. Unfortunately, the needs of a growing economy and agricultural sector, in concert with high commodity prices, conflicts markedly with environmental groups’ unwavering commitment to preserving the region crucial to the survival of mankind.

Silva’s Departure Minc’s Inauguration

For some critics, Minister Silva’s resignation, coupled with new reports of increasing rates of deforestation, signify a lack of progress in the Brazilian government’s modest crusade to conserve the Amazon. Silva had been considered the essential spokesperson within Lula’s administration for the environmental movement.

Her six-year tenure as Minister of the Environment was littered with tough battles against powerful agribusiness and development interests that ultimately would destroy the Amazon, the area where she was raised as the daughter of rubber-tappers.

To understand Silva’s ouster, one must take into account the way Brazilian politics function. The country’s political system is a complex, relational game of corporatism at every level and Lula’s cabinet is no exception. The enormous executive branch currently contains more than 35 ministries – and is known for its non-stop inter-ministry feuding.

These ministries, when not given the leeway to work autonomously, fight for the ear of the president on nearly every issue. When dealing with a controversial issue like Amazon conservation, it is easy to see how Silva was overwhelmed by other ministers’ promotion of development and business in the region.

Sergio Leitão of Greenpeace-Brazil said, “The minister is leaving because the pressure on her for taking the measures she took against deforestation has become unbearable.” However, Silva’s replacement, Carlos Minc, says he will continue Silva’s battles by pursuing strict policies for the conservation of the Amazon. These will include new efforts to seize crops and livestock from illegally cleared Amazonian forests, and banning the sale of soybeans grown on such illegal lands.

While these measures are stringent, Minc will have to contend with the same powerful agribusiness interests and other infrastructural development plans that frustrated Silva. Reportedly, she was outraged by various schemes to construct hydroelectric dams throughout the Amazon watershed, including a planned dam on the Rio Madeira, a massive Amazon tributary.

Minc is likely to enter into conflict with Roberto Mangabeira Unger, head of Brazil’s newest cabinet post, the Strategy and Coordination Ministry. Unger, a former Harvard professor, is the minister in charge of coordinating the PAS – a position which has given him the Herculean, and perhaps contradictory, task of developing the economy and infrastructure of the Amazon region while conserving the rainforest.

In 2004 the Brazilian federal government inaugurated the PAS, hoping to collaborate with state and local governments as well as the private sector. Some key objectives for the plan were (as translated from Portuguese): “to implement a new model of development in the Brazilian Amazon, focusing on the appreciation of (or valuing of) the potential of its enormous natural and socio-cultural patrimony, increasing the viability of dynamic and innovative economic activities with insertion [of these activities] in regional, national and international markets, and the sustainable use of natural resources with the maintenance of ecological equilibrium.”

Minister Unger will have the most influence in Lula’s cabinet when it comes to Amazon policy. Unger trusts that economic development of the Amazon is possible while simultaneously conserving the resources of the forest. His characteristically equivocal statements are tantamount to the ambiguities of the former mission statement of the PAS, although it predated his tenure as minister.

In an interview published by the BBC on May 15, Unger stressed the Brazilian government’s focus on creating economic opportunities for the 25 million Brazilians living in the Amazon region. Unger believes the people living in the Amazon need to be given an organized economic option, otherwise they will create economic opportunity in a disorganized manner, leading to further deforestation.

There are two poles of thought toward Amazon conservation: one advocates that the entire forest go untouched and become a “park,” while the other views the entire region as open to “disorganized low-intensity ranching.”

Between these two extremes lies a “coherent and effective economic strategy,” presumably the government’s prevailing strategy as incorporated into the PAS. He says the government will maintain its “fundamental commitment” to three objectives: “sustainable preservation, defense and development.”

His promotion of the PAS is based on the envisaged large-scale development of roads, waterways, and dams, which would provide better trade options for Brazilians in the region. However, the question remains: how can integration and development of the economy of the Amazon occur without significant deforestation?

The government is taking measures to fight deforestation through the PPCDAM and projects such as Carlos Minc’s “pirate beef” operation [described below]. Additionally, one of the themes of the PAS (as translated from Portuguese) is “organization to combat deforestation in the Amazon region [and to combat the use of] falsified land title documents.”

But will the implemented measures be sufficient? Though its proponents say there is a desperate need to integrate the Amazon into the national and international economy, the development of transportation infrastructure in the region (for example, the plan to pave the Amazon-crossing highway from Cuiabá to Santarém) will inevitably lead to deforestation and environmental degradation in spite of the government’s artful strategy not to acknowledge this.

The building of roads and waterways through the Amazon will provide greater access to the interior of the forest for people who wish to illegally clear lands. The Amazon is so enormous, occupying nearly half of Brazil, that to sufficiently police its thoroughfares, the government would need a substantial force and huge amount of funding.

Overall, a stalwart environmentalist might say that the gains in recent Brazilian federal government policy (PAS and PPCDAM) regarding Amazon conservation do not in any way counter the negative aspects of PAS-related development projects that will inevitably cause deforestation and environmental decline. However, Minister Unger says these projects are necessary to provide economic opportunity in the region, and the rhetoric of the PAS claims innovative technology will be used to conduct such projects with minimal environmental impact.

Still, environmentalists correctly argue that any such development is detrimental. Also, it remains to be seen whether the highest degree of technology used for projects will, in fact, have a low environmental impact. Will such technology be available to the projects? And will, as is often the case, technology be sacrificed for cost-efficiency?

Recalling the history of Brazilian government culture in the 1970s and 1980s, one encounters a Brazilian model of “development” that was environmentally devastating. Governor Blairo Maggi (a controversial figure at the forefront of debate on the Amazon paradox) noted in a speech in Washington on June 10, 2008 that government programs at the time promoted exploitation with no regard to environmental cost.

Maggi added, however, that attitudes have changed including his. The lack of past awareness of the environmental impact of development in the 1970s and 1980s was reminiscent of similar ignorance in U.S. history in various eras of frontier life when people falsely sensed that they lived in a land of endless bounty.

PAS Conservation Efforts

PAS cannot be criticized without noting its important steps towards conservation. Recently, social programs have been developed within the PAS to assist those who formerly made a living by clearing the forest. As part of the PAS, the government is creating incentives for those engaged in illegal logging to change their economic livelihood.

Forty thousand families that previously generated income from logging will be given social security and unemployment benefits. The government also announced its intentions to allocate a total of 300 million euros (US$ 442 million) in loans to farmers so as to encourage forest-clearers to cease their illegal activity and engage in sustainable farming.

The Brazilian government is also making conservation efforts outside of PAS that deserve praise. On June 4, Minc announced that he is implementing new measures in a program called the “Pirate Beef” operation. This is a plan to seize cattle, grain, and produce ranched or farmed on illegally cleared Amazon lands and donate it to the government’s Zero Hunger program.

The plan will be carried out by officers from the Brazilian government’s institute for the environment with help from the Federal Police. In recent years the two organizations have increasingly cooperated to fight illegal logging and charcoal production.

Status of Amazon Deforestation

Several studies have shown a recent increase in the per annum rate of deforestation of the Amazon after several years of lowering rates. A Deter (translated as detection of deforestation in real time) report states that after three years of decline, rates of deforestation are set to rise this year.

It cites a loss of 1,123 square kilometers (434 square miles) in April of 2008. Several reports found 7,000 square kilometers (2703 square miles) of new agricultural lands, which had been converted in the second half of 2007. This is a significant increase from the deforestation rate for the year August 2006-August 2007, which reflected a total loss of 11,224 square km (4,334 square miles).

The activist environmental group Greenpeace also said that deforestation was set to worsen this year. Another Deter study found that between May 2007 and April 2008, the Amazon lost 9,495 square kilometers (3666 square miles) of forest cover, an area six times the size of the city of São Paulo. Specialists noted that when these statistics were being collected, the worst was yet to come as forest clearing is at its greatest tempo during the dry “burning-season” months from June to September.

Saving the Amazon Rainforest while simultaneously developing the region’s economy remains a paradox. International policymakers as well as environmentalists dealing with Brazil must, of course, respect the nation’s sovereignty when promoting rational policy initiatives. Many Brazilians have found rhetoric by such persons offensive.

Statements such as Al Gore’s famous 1989 claim that “(c)ontrary to what Brazilians think, the Amazon is not their property, it belongs to all of us,” or recent criticisms in both U.S. and British news sources that fault Brasília could be counter-effective, no matter how accurate such hortative statements may be.

The Lula administration already seeks to strengthen Brazil’s international profile for positive images and to continue its regional influence, while at the same time decreasing its reliance on the United States. Such criticism could make Lula and future administrations develop a penchant to distance themselves from these critics, even if it means making misguided policy decisions that favor short-run economic solutions at the price of lasting environmental preservation.

This analysis was prepared by COHA Research Associate Jared Ritvo. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs (COHA) – – is a think tank established in 1975 to discuss and promote inter-American relationship. Email:


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