Brazilian alternative rock band Legiao Urbana had its heyday in the 1990s, but that hasn't stopped its trademark song "What Country is This?" from living on.
With a verse that warns "Brazil will get rich/We will earn a million/When we sell all the souls/Of our Indians in an auction," the tune found its way onto the pages of the leading business daily, Valor, this week. Journalist Daniela Chiaretti invoked it to attack the government’s environmental policy or rather, as she saw it, its lack of one. The song's sentiment "plays well for the Brazil of 2012,” wrote Chiaretti.
In a June 4 commentary, Chiaretti lamented a variety of recent government decisions taken as Brazil prepares for the June 20-22 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, popularly known as Rio+20. The country's position as host has sparked soul-searching among Brazilians conflicted by the demands of economic growth and of preserving the environment.
On the eve of hosting the UN mega-conference on sustainable development, the government reduces the sales tax on cars, the Congress approves the reduction of seven conservation areas in the Amazon, and there is another controversial chapter in the soap opera of the Forest Code. But tomorrow, on World Environment Day, the authorities will adopt a "green" pose and remind us how Brazil is sustainable. What country is this?
In fact, the next day, President Dilma Rousseff authorized the creation of two new conservation areas, increased the size of three national parks, and announced measures aimed at improving the health of Brazil’s indigenous people. Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira released figures showing that deforestation in the Amazon between August 2010 and July 2011 was at its lowest in 23 years.
Some Brazilian netizens took the deforestation statistics at face value. On Twitter, Ligia Fontanele was typical in declaring, “What good news for Environment Day!” Others displayed skepticism. “Deforestation in the Amazon is the lowest in history, says minister,” posted Paulo Jubilut. “Is it really? Or did she say this because Rio+20 is around the corner?"
Brazilians once joked that there was no need to worry about deforestation in the Amazon because there was so much jungle, it would never run out. Now they say the deforestation rate has fallen because there's so little forest left to cut down. “Look, deforestation in the Amazon decreased, of course, right? They already cut down almost everything now, it is going to decrease,” Guilherme F posted.
Brazil’s agricultural lobby took the figures seriously and argued that they vindicated the argument that agricultural growth and forest protection can go hand in hand. On his Forest Code blog, agronomist Ciro Siqueira wrote, "Those who followed the debate about the reform of the Forest Code saw non-government organizations and environmentalists claiming that Amazon deforestation was increasing because of the expectation of an amnesty in the Forest Code." He said, "It was a lie."
The government’s most controversial development project, the Amazon hydroelectric dam Belo Monte, against which Hollywood director James Cameron has led protests, was also back in the news. Brazil is justifiably proud of the dominant role hydro-electricity plays in its energy matrix. However, Belo Monte’s construction involves flooding a huge chunk of Amazon forest.
The dam featured prominently in a lengthy interview by prize-winning journalist Eliane Brum, published this week in Epoca magazine, with Erwin Krautler, the Austrian-born bishop of the Catholic Xingu prelature in the Amazon. The piece was widely circulated. Krautler has defended indigenous rights for decades and has spent the last six years guarded by police following threats to his life. In the interview, he attacked the government's plans for Belo Monte, which he said would destroy the lives and culture of indigenous groups.
Dilma and her predecessor Luis Inacio Lula da Silva will go down in history as the "predators of the Amazon,” the bishop said. He said his meetings with Lula in Brasilia had left him confident the project would be shelved, yet it went ahead.
Does Brasilia frighten you, Brum asked? Krautler replied:
Yes, it frightens me. My God! I was with Lula twice, and also with other people. I had good contacts, good people in Brasilia who were on our side. Now, lately, we are in a certain isolation. Because those people who in the past fought with us, who were on our side, who defended the same cause, who fought for the same cause, now defend the opposite.
Not everyone was so dire. In a post on the influential Blog do Noblat for the O Globo newspaper, environmental law professor Romulo Sampaio saw hope in the recent closure of Rio de Janeiro’s giant Gramacho garbage dump, immortalized in the documentary "Wasteland" about the rubbish pickers who eked out a living there. Sampaio wrote: “Let Gramacho and Rio+20 serve as inspiration so that we can take national and above all local environment policies seriously.”
There was an idea: rather than bitterly posing the question, "What country is this?", working to provide a constructive answer.
(Dom Phillips is the Rio de Janeiro correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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