Critics slam loss of Brazil’s environmental chief

Brazil’s hard-line environment minister quit last week in a move lauded by agribusiness interests.

Jamil Bittar/Reuters/File
Marina Silva: Former environmental minister.

The reactions of the business community and the green lobby to the resignation of Brazil’s environment minister last week illustrated just what she meant to Brazil.
Business leaders, particularly from agricultural states, celebrated Marina Silva’s departure and called it a victory for development.

“Her overly ideological decisions have held Brazil back,” says Assuero Doca Veronez, a cattle rancher in Ms. Silva’s home state of Acre and the Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock Farming’s environmental spokesman. “Her aim was to stop the agricultural frontier advancing. The country could have been growing faster if she had been more flexible.”
Environmentalists, meanwhile, say Silva’s resignation exposed as a sham President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s supposed attempts to protect the Amazon. Without her, the environment will suffer, green activists say.

“Marina’s resignation underlines the carelessness with which Lula’s government is handling the environmental agenda and the protection of the Amazon,” says Paulo Adario, Greenpeace’s Amazon campaign coordinator. “Marina takes all of Lula’s environmental credibility with her, credibility which she has brought to his government over the last five years. Without her, King Lula is completely naked.”

Tensions are climbing

As if to underline the conflict between economic development and environmental protection, some 1,000 indigenous Brazilians protested a proposed $6.7 billion dam this week in the Amazonian city of Altamira. Painted and feathered protesters attacked a electric company official with machetes and clubs after he spoke to the group Tuesday.

Brazil is busy building huge hydroelectric dams, roads, and other infrastructure to boost the country’s sluggish rise as a regional economic power. But its boom means paving, flooding, and stringing power lines through thousands of miles of pristine jungle.

Silva is particularly sensitive to the dam project as it take places in the remote western Amazon where she was born and raised.

A poor rubber tapper from the western Amazon who only learned to read and write as a teenager, Silva was a powerful symbol of a government that Lula – himself once a poor, factory worker – hoped would be more representative of this vast and varied nation. But Silva was increasingly marginalized and resigned citing “the difficulties I have been facing to pursue the federal environmental agenda.”

Analysts said she had tired of losing recent power struggles with governors and ministers who put economic development over environmental protection.

“Everything she tried to do she was stymied,” said Peter May, assistant director of Friends of the Earth in Brazil. “She was pretty isolated.”

Silva’s early successes

Silva did have some early successes. Her presence gave the ministry a credibility and visibility it had previously lacked and she put together a plan to slash deforestation to the same level as the early 1990s. She also convinced Lula to set aside 24 million hectares as protected areas, several times more than the previous government.

But too much of what she achieved was either being rolled back or was not fully implemented, environmentalists say. Deforestation is on the rise again and much of those protected areas are protected only on paper.

Lula overruled her on the big issues, from his embrace of nuclear power to other development projects outlined in his government’s Growth Acceleration Program.

Perhaps worst of all for environmentalists is the feeling that Lula has sided too often with the agricultural lobby, a contention given some credence by the fact that since he took power Brazil has grown to become an agricultural superpower and one of the world’s biggest producers of beef, chicken, sugar cane, soy beans, coffee, and orange juice.

“Agribusiness is politically and economically important for Lula,” says Mr. Adario. “The debate has changed and the situation now favors the enemies of the forest, not those who want to conserve it through responsible development.”

The unenviable task for her successor Carlos Minc will be to please his government paymasters, big business, and green activists all at the same time.

Mr. Minc, like Silva, takes office with a solid reputation. In 1989, he won a United Nations prize as one of 500 notable green campaigners and he has won respect for his work as environment secretary for Rio de Janeiro State.

Minc vowed to continue Silva’s work and sparked immediate debate by proposing a new Forestry Police to patrol protected areas in the Amazon. He also told reporters he fully supported a plan to deny credit to farmers who do not comply with environmental legislation. The plan announced in January after interim figures showed Amazonian destruction on the rise once more, has irked agribusiness.

Farmers in Mato Grosso, Brazil’s agricultural heartland, say they are cautiously optimistic about his arrival.

“What we all wish is that he is not as radical as Marina Silva,” says Joao Birkham, the head of a Mato Grosso soy farmers’ organization. “There was no talking to her. We know that he will have to take the same line, but he seems more pragmatic and we hope we can at least discuss things with him.”

Key development projects

Belo Monte Dam – The $7 billion project will supply an estimated 6 percent of Brazil’s electricity needs in 2014. Critics say it will harm fish stocks vital to 14 Amazon tribes.
Santo Antonio Dam – $5 billion Madeira River project will provide 4 percent of Brazil’s electricity needs by 2012. Critics say it will require transmission lines through the Amazon.
Jirau Dam – $5 billion Madeira River project will provide another 4 percent of electricity needs by 2013. Critics say it could cause flooding into Bolivia.
Highway to the Pacific – $810 million highway would link the western Amazon to Peru, providing cheaper transportation to ports. Critics say the new road would increase deforestation.

Source: Associated Press

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