Industrialism and environmentalism in Brazil's elections

Environmentalism may be important in the upcoming elections, and not only because the Green Party could sway the election outcome
Bruna Rocha
4 August 2010

Learning to read and write at the age of sixteen, Marina Silva is one of murdered trade unionist-turned-environmentalist Chico Mendes’ most prominent disciples in the Amazonian state of Acre. In a highly disputed contest, it may be she who will decide the outcome of Brazil’s presidential elections in October, when almost 136 million Brazilians vote to decide who will succeed President Luís Inácio Lula da Silva. At the time of writing, the latest polls show his chosen successor, Dilma Roussef, five points ahead of José Serra, who represents the PSDB party, the Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira. Technically they are still neck and neck, but this may change after the first televised debate is held on 5 August.

Although a new member of Brazil’s Partido Verde, Marina is a long time defender of environmental issues. She was one of the Workers’ Party’s founding members. Elected senator in 1994, she became minister for the environment for the Lula government between 2003-2008, resigning due to pressures spearheaded by Dilma herself to relax environmental laws.

Marina’s deputy, Guilherme Leal, ranked in the 2010 Forbes rich list as No.463, is a businessman who has supported social-environmental causes for decades. His cosmetics company, Natura, uses Brazilian native species farmed and harvested sustainably by traditional communities in its products.

Dilma and Serra both try to follow the blueprint set down by Lula, who enjoys extraordinary popularity. They fail miserably: Dilma was almost unknown before Lula chose her to be his successor. An uncharismatic technocrat, she is now being groomed into a figure more palatable to the general public; Serra is an authoritarian figure, who criticises the government while assuring us that he will not only maintain its social programs, but will amplify their scope. Marina’s merit has been to push environmental issues onto the agenda. However, although she has taken steps to allay such fears, she tends to get seen as a one-issue candidate, whose evangelical Christian background scares many away.

José Serra of the PSDB has been governor of the state of São Paulo – the country’s economic powerhouse – since 2006. The PSDB or Social Democrat Party previously commanded Brazil’s federal government for two four-year terms from 1995 to 2002 under the leadership of sociologist Fernando Henrique Cardoso, known as FHC. During those eight years, the PSDB successfully stabilised Brazil’s economy, ending hyperinflation. However, their neoliberal policies actively stimulated the privatisation of state companies.  


Demotix/Christian Franz Tragni. All rights reserved.

Dilma, who as a teenager joined one of the leftwing armed groups fighting the military dictatorship, and was arrested and tortured, only joined the thirty-year-old Workers’ Party or PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores) in 2001 and was minister for energy and mines from 2002 to 2005. She then became the government’s chief minister. When Lula launched the Programa de Aceleração do Crescimento (PAC, or Growth Acceleration Program), he described Dilma as its “mother”. PAC’s aims are to speed up the development of Brazil’s infrastructure and improve conditions in poverty-stricken areas.

Much of the mainstream media likes to portray the election as a “plebiscite” between two strong leaders, FHC and Lula, represented by their respective successors, Serra and Dilma. They often don’t talk about government and opposition candidates, instead referring to “the PT’s candidate,” “the PSDB’s candidate,” “the PV’s candidate”. This scenario is disheartening for many Brazilians who see little to get enthusiastic about.  A major factor in the reigning disillusionment is the question of political alliances. As each party’s amount of free TV and radio airtime depends on its size, alliances seem to be based more on air-time than on ideologies or programmes.

Dilma’s running mate is Michel Temer, leader of the PMDB party, the Partido pelo Movimento Democrático Brasileiro; the PT’s main ally. The PMDB is present in almost all of Brazil’s 5000 or so municipalities, and is the successor of the MDB, the umbrella opposition movement established during the military years. Little of this honourable history can be seen to reflect upon the current PMDB though, which is home to a plethora of different agendas and interests, representing varied shades of the political spectrum. Consequently, Dilma has had to water down her programme of government to make it more acceptable to the PMDB.

Serra’s PSDB was established by a dissident wing of the PMDB in 1988. The PSDB’s main bedfellows are the recently renamed Democratas, previously Partido da Frente Liberal, representing some of Brazil’s most right-wing interests. A young and relatively unknown federal congressman from Rio called Índio da Costa was chosen at the last minute to run as Serra’s deputy. He immediately accused the PT of having links to the Colombian guerrilla movement FARC and to narco traffickers.

So this is an election dominated by pragmatic, rather than programmatic alliances. It is probable that the presidential election will be decided only in the second round, with neither Dilma nor Serra getting the necessary 50% in the first round. Besides the president, Brazilians will be electing new state governors, and federal and state representatives.

The Lula administration has successfully lifted millions of Brazilians out of poverty. Many more families have access to electricity and Brazil’s economy is doing well – Brazil has emerged virtually unscathed from the recent world crisis. The self-esteem of Brazilians has risen and Brazil’s foreign policy has largely been a success, with the country positioning itself as an independent nation leading the way into a new world order. On the other hand, its development model has been based on an energy matrix that depends on hydroelectric power from Amazonian rivers; diversification of energy sources just hasn’t happened. This is reminiscent of the military years, when huge infrastructure projects, largely funded by the state, sought to ‘integrate’ the Amazon into the rest of the country.  The closer we get to the elections, the greater the pressure for these projects to be pushed through, regardless of whether society is or is not in favour, and whether their social and environmental impacts have been properly assessed and addressed, as laid down by the 1988 Constitution.

Over the Lula years, this legislation has constantly been referred to as an obstacle to progress. Belo Monte is the name of a hydroelectric dam due for construction in the Amazonian state of Pará. It will supply subsidised electricity for highly polluting aluminium industries. Situated on the Xingu River, one of the Amazon’s main tributaries, more earth will need to be shifted for Belo Monte than was shifted during the construction of the Panama Canal. Apart from scientists, environmentalists and local communities, economists have also criticised the project as economically unviable.

Brazil’s main construction companies (Odebrecht and Camargo Correa) even pulled out as potential investors, but so keen is Lula to build the dam as a PAC showpiece project, that funds from the national development bank, BNDES, will finance its building.  In February, public prosecutors were threatened with court action if they questioned Belo Monte’s licence. 

This is what worries many. The Lula years have been good for Brazil in many ways, however there seems to be a basic disregard for regulatory institutions enshrined in law that may in some way delay the government’s plans. Dilma has been described as someone who is “the most democratic person in the world, so long as one agrees with her 100%”.

If elected, Serra is expected to continue with the current government’s developmentalist model. Through his alliance with the Democratas, he would bring some of Brazil’s most reactionary landed interests into government, and some fear he would resume the privatisation of state companies, such as Petrobrás, which have greatly expanded over the Lula years. The track record of the PSDB in São Paulo state, which the party has governed for 16 years, is hardly laudable. There has never been a proper investigation into the “crimes of May” when almost 500 people were killed in a space of 8 days in May 2006, in an apparent police reprisal for attacks on the police by an organised crime faction; the salary of teachers in state education is amongst the worst in the country; tolls charged on roads are the highest in Brazil; the tube system only expanded 11 km in 15 years of PSDB governance in the state.

The Green Party is currently loosely allied to the PSDB. Their continuing support for them in the second round, or a switch to the PT, is what may sway the election one way or the other.

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