Trans-Amazonian Highway outside Altamira in the northern Brazilian state of Pará.
Credit: Mario Osava/IPS
Politicians Out of Sync With Public Sentiment on the Environment
By Mario Osava
While the vast majority of Brazilians place priority on environmental conservation, their elected leaders continue to focus on economic interests and short-term gains.
BRASILIA, Jun 27 (Tierramérica).- The environmental movement continues to gain credibility and support as scientific findings confirm its warnings and natural disasters become increasingly frequent. Yet this growing awareness has yet to reach political decision makers, much to the frustration of environmentalists.
A prime example is the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress, where an overwhelming majority voted in favor of changes to the 1965 Forest Code that threaten to further accelerate deforestation.
The final tally was 410 votes in favor, a mere 63 against and one abstention, after months of heated debate over reforms that could lead to the devastation of the Amazon rainforest, environmental disasters, and future losses even for the farmers who will benefit from the reforms in the short term.
The ruling coalition, which was divided in the lower house vote, must now try to reduce the damage in the Senate, where the reform bill will be put to a vote in the coming months. But it will be a difficult task given the power wielded in Congress by the so-called “ruralista” bloc, which represents the interests of farmers and cattle ranchers, especially now that their power has been bolstered by the landslide vote in the Chamber of Deputies on May 24.
The decision handed down by the lawmakers is totally out of sync with the views of the majority of Brazilians, according to a recent survey conducted by Datafolha, the polling institute of a major São Paulo newspaper, at the request of a group of environmental organizations.
The results of the survey, published Jun. 10, showed that of the 1,286 people interviewed, 85 percent said that protecting forests and rivers is a priority, even if it affects agricultural production, while only 10 percent supported the opposite view, despite the fact that Brazil is a major agricultural power.
The vast majority of respondents were also opposed to the proposals approved in the lower house to grant an amnesty for illegal logging and to free landowners from the obligation to replant trees in protected areas that have been illegally cleared. And most Brazilians would support a presidential veto if the Senate ratifies the bill passed in the Chamber of Deputies.
This disconnect between popular sentiment on the need to protect the environment and the decisions adopted by the country’s political power is frequently evidenced, even in international negotiations on climate change, for example.
Between environmental demands and political decision-making mechanisms, at least in a democracy, there is a “clash of timetables”, said Elimar Nascimento, director of the Center for Sustainable Development at the National University of Brasilia (UNB).
While the environmental crisis requires long-term measures to confront risks that could take decades to fully develop, the focus in politics is on immediate concerns and fast results to ensure reelection in a few short years, Nascimento told Tierramérica.
The conflict between the timetables of politics and the environment is one of the challenges currently faced by the democratic system, according to the academics who gathered in the French city of Poitiers for the summer school hosted by the International Research Institute - Policy of Civilization, where they discussed the provocative question of whether democracy will survive the 21st century, said Nascimento, one of the participants.
Other challenges to democracy include the weakening of the representativeness of political parties and governments, the tendency for public policy decisions to be made in private circles, the exclusion of certain peoples and cultures, particularly in Asia and Africa, and the erosion of politics as a source of social change, overtaken by technological innovation.
There is hope, said Nascimento, in the movements that have emerged in recent months in Spain, such as the M-15 movement, and in the Arab countries, which are seeking a “new form of political action” that makes use of the internet and social networking sites.
A possible solution to overcome conflicts like the one that has arisen between Brazilian farmers and environmentalists is to adopt “economic mechanisms” that promote greater valuation of forests and other natural resources, Virgilio Viana, a forestry engineer and former secretary of Sustainable and Environmental Development in the northern state of Amazonas, told Tierramérica.
Rural Brazilians look at native vegetation as an obstacle to productive activity that needs to be cleared away. They do not recognize the fact that forests along the banks of rivers and streams protect the supply of water that is crucial for agriculture. They also fail to see that the forests are home to bees that pollinate their fruit trees and protect their crops from pests, said Viana.
Remuneration for farmers for the environmental services provided through forest conservation would serve as a powerful instrument for “changing this paradigm,” he believes. This is a key issue that should be included in the current debate, said Viana, who is also the general director of the Sustainable Amazonas Foundation, which was specifically created to provide financial compensation for inhabitants of protected areas in the state who help preserve the forests.
Contrary to the belief of most environmentalists, environmental legislation in Brazil is “extremely poor” because it is subject to widespread violations and is overly focused on penalties and repressive control, while ignoring incentives, commented Viana. Nevertheless, he is opposed to the amnesty approved by the Chamber of Deputies for individuals guilty of illegal deforestation.
The Forest Code was adopted in 1965 but has undergone various reforms since that time. In 2001, for example, the proportion of forested land that must be set aside as a “legal reserve” - areas of native vegetation on privately owned rural landholdings that must be preserved intact - was raised from 50 to 80 percent in the “legal” Amazon region, a geographic division that includes all states partially or totally covered by the Amazon rainforest biome.
What farmers want is “legal security”, legislation that is not repeatedly modified by decrees and other measures which mean that almost everyone ends up on the wrong side of the law, maintains Seneri Paludo, executive director of the Agriculture and Livestock Federation of the State of Mato Grosso, which represents the country’s biggest soy bean producers.
In Paludo’s opinion, the legal reserve requirement is a “a mistake”, because it forces rural landowners to fulfill a public function tantamount to maintaining national parks. In order to comply with the law, if farmers want to expand their operations, they must move increasingly deeper into the Amazon forest, since they can only use 20 percent of their land for farming. This leads to more deforestation and the extension of roads deeper into the rainforest, Paludo told Tierramérica.
The current controversy over the Forest Code highlights the conflict between economic interests, especially those of rural landowners, and the growing environmental awareness of the general public. But when it comes to political decision making, it is immediate interests that prevail.
Activist Adriana Ramos of the Socioenvironmental Institute believes this distortion can only be remedied through political reform. Public financing for electoral campaigns, plans with targets and other commitments that must be fulfilled, rendering of accounts and other rules of ethics would force the Congress and politicians to better reflect the will of the electorate, she maintained.