Brazil and the environment: beyond the US withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement

By Sara Loo
A collaboration with delegates who represented Brazil at the 33rd Norris and Margery Bendetson International EPIIC Symposium at Tufts University, 1-3 March 2018

Discussions of environmental issues in the media have been monopolised by criticisms of President Trump’s promise to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement long before he officially did so last August. Consequently, the issue of environmental protection has gradually been defined by a retreating US-led international order and a mockery of it being the only country excluded after Syria, the final remaining country, signed the agreement last November. Indeed, the ramifications of the US withdrawal are deep— the loss of financial aid from richer to poorer countries to help the latter cope with a warming world makes it even harder for developing countries to balance pressing needs of economic growth and environmental protection. However, the truth remains that such international agreements, while symbolic, are broad; the Paris climatInvalid URL for PDF Viewere agreement’s ‘success’ was precisely attributed to the bare minimum standards it set for all countries. It would be more meaningful, therefore, to examine internal dynamics of states in which environmental protection is an important issue. Brazil has the second largest forested area in the world and had been in the spotlight with regards to environmental protection (perhaps just until Trump’s withdrawal was deemed more worthy of coverage). To refocus on what countries have rather than should have done, the environment in Brazil will be explored from the legal, civic and economic perspectives by three students from Brazil: Julia, a fourth year law student in Universidade federal de Minas Gerais working at the prosecutor’s office, Laís, a third year international relations student at Pontificia Universidade Catolica de Minas Gerais and Gisela, an environmental and corporate lawyer.

The absence of laws?

In November 2015, Brazil experienced the greatest environmental disaster in Latin America’s history, ‘desastre de Fundâo’ when Samarco’s Minas Gerais dam made of toxic waste broke, leaving 18 dead. As Julia highlights, “this is a product of three main reasons: the lack of effective public participation, corruption, and the importance of mining companies for economic growth.”

Contrary to popular belief, Brazil has one of the most elaborate, well-written and specialised environmental legislation. The problem is thus not the absence of legislations per se but, as Julia comments, that elaborate laws are “good for environment protection but also difficult to abide by as strict laws make enterprises economically unviable.” As a result, enterprises have incentives to circumvent existing laws— what led to the desastre de Fundâo was mining waste not treated as it was expensive and Samarco had an incentive to build dams made of actual waste. This in itself was not problematic, until corruption played in— Samarco had successfully bribed the state government to get an expedited license despite structural flaws in the design of the dam. What resulted was the release of toxic waste, causing deaths, outflows into the main river and ocean after small earthquakes triggered the final collapse of the dam.

More generally, Julia also points out that “Brazil has taken great strides in improving its environmental legislation in the last decades through reforming laws related to forests, endangered plants and animal species and securing the protection of Brazil’s most deforested ecosystems,” ensuring that “economic progress does not take precedence over environmental health.”

Taken together with president Temer’s speech at the 72nd session of the General Assembly, which suggested that there has been a decrease of 20% deforestation in the Amazon region over the last year may lead us to conclude that Temer’s government was, just as he claimed, “back on the right track and on this track [they] shall remain.”

“there has been a decrease of 20% deforestation in the Amazon region over the last year”

However, is this really the case? Laís highlights a glaring inconsistency: last August, before this speech at the UN, “President Temer has not only reduced environmental preservation units but overturned a 1984 decree, permitting the exploitation of mining reserves in the Amazon forest by private companies.” As Laís suggests, “allowing private sector enterprises to explore a preserved area is not taking care of Amazonia; it sounds more like selling Amazonia.” Indeed, the Renca
reserve – which spans 46,000 sq km on the border of the Amapa and Para states was abolished to attract foreign investment, in an attempt to boost the economy that has been struggling to emerge from its deepest recession in decades, prompting concerns of an influx of mineral companies, road-builders and workers into the species-rich forest. Is the rapid unravelling of environmental protections to please powerful agricultural and mining lobbies under Temer’s government a pessimistic turn for Brazil’s environmental future?

Sustainable development: an impossible dream?

Of course, it is easy to highlight inconsistencies in commitments and reality, especially by developed countries. However, Julia reminds us that “the dilemma between sustainable development and economic growth is something underdeveloped and developing countries struggle with; few countries can achieve sustainable development.” In fact, given the rich natural resources of Brazil, it “needs to attract investment and mining companies that may degrade the environment but are fundamental to the economy. It may not be a good idea to put toxic waste in the dam but the subsequent law project that forbade dams in populated areas was not something states whose economies are dependent on mining can afford to lose.” Not only so, “the cost of technology to treat waste is high and to make these companies pay so much more risks losing enterprises in Brazil.” Indeed, this is where developed countries have to play a role by channeling assistance to allow for sustainable growth. But the continued lack of any clear road map to provide $100bn per year by 2020 and substantially scaling up financial support after 2020 only leaves Brazil and other developing countries in the difficult position of either having to forestall economic growth altogether or degrade the environment further.

Perhaps this explains Laís’ observations, that President Temer’s speech “omitted the fact that even with the decrease in deforestations, the levels are still high, according to information provided by the Executive Secretary of the Climate Observatory, Carlos Rittl.” Furthermore, although “President Temer claims that the country is committed to the Sustainable Development Goals of 2030 and is willing to defend and to accomplish what is stated at the Paris Agreement, reality proves that he is not helping to achieve them.”

For sure, it is important to be critical of one’s own government, but it is also worth pointing out the double standards developed countries have set. As Gisela argues, rich countries had their time to degrade the environment and ruined most of it. Having realised what they have done and are now financially capable to make sustainable development programmes, they hold the same expectations of developing countries. But developing countries today also have a right to develop their economy.

Ultimately, it may be easy to victimise people who suffered from effects of dam spills without realising what their priorities are. For sure, such disasters should never be looked upon lightly, but it is also important to understand that “for the average Brazilian, economic growth is much more important than environmental protection” Julia says, “the average person does not understand the meaning behind species and plants. For those from mining cities, they want the mining company to come back despite the great damage to environment because they want their jobs back.”

“for the average Brazilian, economic growth is much more important than environmental protection”

The rise of civic participation

This points us to the question, how can Brazil or any state with the environment an issue of concern resolve the inconsistencies in the light of the lack of external funding? On top of enhancing mechanisms within the state to better prevent corruption, Latin America seems to be moving in the right direction towards incorporating civic participation. On 4 March this year, The Escazú Agreement (Regional Agreement on Information, Public Participation and Access to Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean) was adopted, signed by 24 Latin American and Caribbean countries. It is the first regional agreement in the Americas to implement Principle 10 of the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, which states that the best way to deal with environmental issues is through public participation reaching all citizens concerned and encompassing the right of access to information, to participate in decision-making processes and to have access to justice.

Julia emphasises the importance of Brazil as a signatory to this agreement as “not only does Brazil have the second largest forested area in the world— 60.7% of our territory is covered by forests, including, but not limited to, the Amazon rainforest—, but it is also one of the most dangerous countries in the world for an environmental activist to live in.” Indeed, despite the elaborate legislative reforms, the right to participation has not been encompassed. “Without an effective and structured policy of environmental education, it is unlikely that civil society will truly realise how fundamental the rights to participation is in ensuring a healthy environment.”

This Escazú agreement in place provides people with a voice, which companies are obliged to hear, such that they do not only have to convince the government but also the people. In this sense, the people serve as a form of check on corruption. For instance, as Julia posits, in the case of Fundâo, “effective Public participation could have allowed citizens, NGOs, geographers and biologists to notify the state and prevent the problem; conversely, when there is only one body that issues licenses, analysts can be bribed easily.”

Sadly, against the spirit of the Regional Agreement, just 24 days after the adoption and signature of the document, Brazil has a federal law initiative ready to be voted at the House of Representatives which creates a special licensing process for enterprises supposedly strategic for the “national sustainable development.” Julia points out that this “makes it easier and quicker for companies to begin operations in possibly environmentally damaging enterprises, by guaranteeing they will only need to apply for one licensing, as opposed to the three separate licenses required currently.” In addition, the new institute, “Program of Environmental Communication” which has been created to receive questions, suggestions and complaints from the populations during 30 days “does absolutely nothing for the right to participation since the programs will be implemented after the license is granted and is run by the pollutant company.”

The quest for environmental protection in Brazil is indeed a long journey which has experienced waves of successes and regressions— detailed laws reformed to be even more specialised only gave way to interests of enterprises; promises to protect the environment overcome by economic priorities; the recent move to include civic participation reversed with the new licensing law. However, recognising the difficulties and trends is not the same as unabatedly criticising Brazil for its lack of action, or to reduce its efforts completely. Perhaps if we were to focus less on the US withdrawal from the Paris Climate agreement or the number of countries which signed the treaty (for signing is legally and substantively meaningless anyway), but more on internal dynamics and efforts, we will portably be able to channel more constructive efforts to collectively protect the environment.

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