Brazil hosts Rio+20: a big surprise to some at home

Environmental consciousness may be on the rise in Brazil, but only 22 percent of Brazilians know what Rio+20 – the global sustainability conference they are hosting – is, writes a guest blogger.

By , Guest blogger

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    A Brazilian Navy boat patrols the Copacabana beach as national flags flutter on the Copacabana Fort, where the Rio+20 forum will be held, June 11.
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• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa. The views expressed are the author's own.

With Rio+20 rapidly approaching, all eyes are on Brazil and its environment [Read the Monitor's global package here]. But what do Brazilians actually think about environmental issues?

One of the most controversial environmental issues, the Forest Code, was passed by the president and seems to be plowing ahead. [President] Dilma [Rousseff] made a number of modifications and vetos, and after she sent the bill back to Congress, it received over 600 amendments. (Given how contentious the bill became, Dilma herself didn't actually announce the changes she made; she sent her ministers to do it.) With Dilma's changes, the bill is still fairly ambiguous and left both environmentalists and agribusiness interests unhappy. One of the biggest points of contention dealt with amnesty for deforesters; while she vetoed amnesty for large deforesters, amnesty for small-scale deforesters remained in the bill. Things took another strange turn today when some of the ruralistas tried to get the Supreme Court to block Dilma's changes to the law. Now, Congress says it won't have a final vote on the final changes until July. But some question whether the changes to the law will matter in the long run, given that the parts of the country most affected by deforestation are areas with weak rule of law where many already ignore the rules.

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Given that the Forest Code has gained a lot of negative attention both in Brazil and beyond, the government has made some last-ditch efforts to produce some environmentally friendly news. This week, the government announced that according to the state-run agency INPE, the Amazon has seen the lowest deforestation rates since 1988 and that over 81 percent of the original forest has been preserved. The time period in question is between August 2010 and July 2011, but deforestation also reportedly fell between August 2011 and May 2012. The crux of the announcement – about the 2010-11 numbers – were actually just a rehash of an announcement already made last year. But Dilma also took the opportunity to announce the creation of two new nature reserves (in Paraná and Rio Grande do Norte) and seven new indigenous reserves in the Amazon.

But as the hosts of one of the most important global environmental events, what do Brazilians think about the environment, the Amazon, and deforestation?

  • Knowledge about the environment is on the rise in Brazil. Over the past 20 years, consciousness about deforestation, environmental protection, and other issues have steadily grown, as more and more Brazilians believe a healthy environment is good for the country. According to a survey released today, though only 22 percent of Brazilians know what Rio+20 is, more Brazilians are concerned about the environment. The study showed that Brazilians listed the environment as the number 6 concern for the country; in a similar study in 1992, the environment didn't even appear on the list. Interestingly, of those who said they were "very proud" of the country, most listed the environment as the number one reason for feeling proud of the country, above socioeconomic development and the Brazilian people. Also, 65 percent said it is important to protect the environment for "survival." It's also interesting to note that in 1992, 47 percent did not know or didn't give an opinion on Brazil's main environmental problems; in 2012, it decreased to 10 percent.
  • More Brazilians are taking action about the environment. Though only an estimated 2 percent of household trash is recycled in Brazil, the environment survey released today indicated that 48 percent of Brazilians separate their trash for recycling. One in five Brazilians have taken environmental action, including separating the trash, planting trees, and group clean-ups. Around 76 percent of those who live in cities trying to reduce plastic bag use said they have committed themselves to the campaign. Brazilians also mobilized against the Forest Code. A petition signed by nearly 2 million people--of which 1.5 million were Brazilian--was delivered to Dilma asking her to veto the entire bill. A number of high-profile celebrities ranging from Gisele to Rodrigo Santoro to Fernando Meirelles mobilized support among Brazilians to protest the law both on the streets and on the web.
  • The Amazon is ours, Brazilians sometimes say when asked about who is responsible for one of the world's largest rainforests. But for many Brazilians who live in the country's largest cities, the Amazon is something of a faraway concept, even though the Amazon rainforest accounts for between 40 and 50 percent of Brazil's total area. Still, the rallying cry of maintaining sovereignty over the Amazon--a Amazônia é nossa--may not take into complete account the fact that the Amazon basin is spread over nine countries, and around 40 percent of the total area is located in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. There's also a lot of sensitivity around criticism and pressure from abroad to protect the Amazon, and some believe that foreigners should have no say in Amazonian protection efforts.
  • Brazilians are very protective of the Amazon, and beyond sensitivity to outside influence, some are even suspicious of foreign intervention there. There's a long-running urban myth that foreigners are trying to take over the Amazon, a conspiracy theory that has persisted to this day. While a number of experts have tried to debunk this myth, there is evidence that foreigners support stronger restrictions on Amazon deforestation. A January 2012 survey of foreigners from 18 countries asked about their perceptions of Brazil showed that 40 percent believe the Amazon should be administered according to international law rather than Brazilian law. Plus, 65 percent said they'd be willing to donate money to help preserve the Amazon. But since Brazilians are wary of foreigners' involvement with the Amazon, would those unaware of the event--around 80 percent of the population--support Rio+20 if they knew what it was? In the end, it may not matter, since setting legally binding targets seems very unlikely. The good news is that more and more Brazilians are becoming more invested in the environment, which will hopefully mean that more people willl seek to hold leaders accountable for environmental protection and sustainability.

Rachel Glickhouse is the author of the blog Riogringa.com.

The Christian Science Monitor has assembled a diverse group of Latin America bloggers. Our guest bloggers are not employed or directed by the Monitor and the views expressed are the bloggers' own, as is responsibility for the content of their blogs. To contact us about a blogger, click here.

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