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Lula's last challenge: the Amazon

Brazil's president will present a "green" face at Copenhagen's climate-change summit. But has he truly rethought his old "developmentalism", asks Sue Branford.
Sue Branford
9 December 2009

President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has over the last few months been riding the crest of a wave. The Brazilian economy is coming through the global economic crisis relatively unscathed; under his leadership the country has gained a much more powerful voice abroad; and after seven years in power he is still enjoying very high levels of political support at home.

The former industrial worker, who looks exceptionally youthful for his 65 years, will arrive in Copenhagen for the climax of the United Nations climate-change summit (7-18 December 2009) as one of the most powerful leaders of the emerging world. And his message will be forceful: the serious global climate crisis was caused by the rich developed nations and it is they who must provide, free of charge, the billions of dollars and the clean technology that the main victims of the crisis – the nations in the south - need for mitigation and adaptation.

To give added authority to his demands, Lula will be announcing an ambitious domestic goal:  to reduce by 36%-39% the predicted level of Brazil’s greenhouse-gas emissions by 2020. This is an important new development, because Brazil is the world’s fifth-largest emitter of greenhouse-gases, largely because of the huge areas of forest that it fells each year. And, to show that  Brazil means business, Lula will say that his government has already managed real progress in curbing deforestation: the area of cleared forest dropped to 7,008 sq kms in the August 2008-July 2009 period, a 45% decline from the same period in the previous year.

It is a strong message - yet something doesn’t ring quite true. Few could doubt Lula’s passionate commitment to ending hunger in Brazil; in these seven years his Bolsa Familia project has lifted 12 million families out of absolute poverty. It is an impressive feat and the main reason why Lula still is so popular among the electorate.

But Lula has never shown any real concern for the environment. Ever since he burst on to the political scene in the late 1970s at the head of a radical urban trade-union movement, Lula has defended the need for the Brazilian economy to grow rapidly. He has repeatedly dismissed the concerns of environmentalists who have repeatedly warned him that a headlong rush into development in delicate ecosystems such as the Amazon basin could compromise the country’s long-term sustainability. But times change and politicians evolve. Could Lula finally grasp the scale of the environmental crisis that Brazil and the world face?

A developing model

There are reasons to be doubtful. One of Lula’s pet projects has been a large development programme entitled the Programa de Acceleração do Crescimento (Accelerated Growth Programme / PAC) - which in turn forms part of a much bigger South American project called the Iniciativa para a Integração Regional da Infraestrutura Sul-Americana (Initiative for the Regional Integration of South American Infrastructure / IIRSA). Some of the money has gone into providing rural communities with running water and electricity - which is something few could argue with. But a large part of  PAC’s $200 billion budget has also funded the construction of  giant hydroelectric power-stations and massive highways in the Amazon basin.

The main objective is to provide large mining and gas projects, loggers and agribusiness with the infrastructure they need. While, in theory, it should be possible to carry out such ambitious projects while ensuring that the country’s tough environmental laws are respected, this has never been the case. Ever since the ill-fated decision in the 1970s to build the giant Transamazon Highway across the heart of the Amazon forest, such projects have attracted a huge influx of land-speculators, loggers and cattle-farmers. These incomers have extracted the valuable timber and slashed-and-burned the forest at will, completely outside the control of the Brazilian state. This has happened just as much under Lula’s government  – perhaps even more – as under those of his predecessors (see "Brazil's Amazonian choice", 19 May 2008).

One of the PAC-funded projects is a massive 11,000-megawatt hydroelectric power-station, called Belo Monte. It will require a dam across the Xingu river in the heart of the Amazon forest and will flood 400 sq km of land. Indigenous groups, who have been fighting off this dam for over thirty years, are once more up in arms; Chief Raoni Txukarramae (famously befriended by the musician and campaigner, Sting) is leading the protests. Another of the projects is a giant highway from the Brazilian state of Acre to the Pacific coast in Peru. The road will make life easier for many isolated communities, but it will also provide loggers with a much easier route to Asia – with potentially disastrous results for the Amazon forest.

It seems highly unlikely that Lula – or any subsequent president – can deliver the promised cut in greenhouse-gas emissions while pushing ahead with these kinds of development projects. Indeed, official figures produced at the end of November 2009 - but not likely to be mentioned by Lula in Copenhagen - show that forest-clearance is bounding back with a vengeance. The area of forest cleared from August-October 2009 – the first three months in this year’s slash-and-burn cycle – was 682 sq km, a 30% increase on the same period in 2008. It seems that the environmentalists’ fears are being realised: the earlier decline was not the result of effective government policies, as Lula claims, but was merely a reflection of  the general downturn in the Brazilian economy. 

A need to rethink

What is needed is a radically different concept of development, in which economic activity occurs only if it respects the constraints of the ecosystem. Indeed, thousands of river communities in the Brazilian Amazon live this way already. Many were established by rubber-tappers brought into the region from the impoverished northeast of the country during the rubber-boom of the early 20th century. They resolved the problem of being single men living alone in the forest by kidnapping women from indigenous tribes. Anthropologists are now discovering that these women, long seen as passive victims, played a key role in the formation of the new communities. They taught the rubber-tappers how to live in harmony with the forest, using it to satisfy their basic food needs while at the same time protecting or even enhancing its biodiversity. 

One such community is Mangabal, situated on the western bank of the upper reaches of the Tapajós river, one of the main tributaries of the Amazon. The inhabitants, aware that land-thieves were moving into the region, have fought a long battle to win collective rights over the land they occupy. They have nearly succeeded, for all that they now need to turn their land into a resex (a conservation unit known as an “extractive reserve”) is for Lula to sign the decree. But Lula is refusing to do so: two hydroelectric power-stations are planned along the Tapajós river to provide energy for giant aluminium-smelters.

Communities like the one in Mangabal have little say in the running of Brazil – and none at all in big international meetings such as the one being held in Copenhagen. Yet their experience is crucial. The Amazon forest is suffering a double-whammy: higher average temperatures are drying out the forest and continued deforestation is disrupting rain patterns. The communities there know how to adapt and how to survive better than anyone else. But these communities are still being evicted to make way for “development” projects. However “green” Lula’s rhetoric may prove to be in Copenhagen, there is little indication yet of the massive rethinking of the concept of development that is required to save the forest.

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