On the border of Brazil and Paraguay, David Rodrigues Krug is chasing a unicorn.
That’s how he describes his work at the massive Itaipu Dam on the Paraná River, which forms a natural border between the South American neighbors. In three decades of operation, the five-mile-wide, 65-story dam has come close to generating 100 billion kilowatt hours (KWh) in a single year—but has never quite reached that goal.
“This is like our unicorn,” says Krug, chief of staff for Itaipu Binacional, the quasi-private company that owns and operates the hydropower plant. “We want to do it, but it has to be the perfect year in terms of water, in terms of the system. It would be our exceptional year.”
But the unicorn is getting more elusive amid a major drought that is depleting hydropower reservoirs across Brazil and tipping the nation into an energy crisis—underscoring its over-dependence on hydropower and the urgency to shift to other alternative energy sources, such as wind and solar. Brazil relies on hydropower for about three-fourths of its electricity, but across the southeastern and midwestern regions, dam levels are at one-fifth capacity, leading to electricity rationing and rolling blackouts across Brazil, including in the most populous state of São Paulo. This month, Brazil had to import electricity for the first time in five years.
The blackouts are due in part to Itaipu, which opened in 1984 and is now the second-largest hydropower plant in the world. Itaipu’s electricity generation fell 11 percent last year to 87.8 billion KWh— down from 98.6 billion KWh in 2013—causing it to lose its title of world’s largest hydropower generator to the Three Gorges Dam in China, which generated 98.8 billion KWh in 2014. (The Hoover Dam, by comparison, generates 4 billion KWh per year).
In last night's State of the Union address, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke about climate change (among many other things) and challengd climate change skeptics who "try to dodge the evidence by saying they're not scientists."
"Well, I’m not a scientist, either,” Obama said. “But you know what? I know a lot of really good scientists at NASA, and NOAA, and at our major universities. The best scientists in the world are all telling us that our activities are changing the climate, and if we do not act forcefully, we’ll continue to see rising oceans, longer, hotter heat waves, dangerous droughts and floods, and massive disruptions that can trigger greater migration, conflict, and hunger around the globe."
The comments come after NOAA's National Climatic Data Center released its annual State of the Climate report last week, showing 2014 was the hottest on record.
According to the report: "The December 2014 globally-averaged temperature across land and ocean surfaces was 0.77°C (1.39°F) above the 20th century average of 12.2°C (54.0°F), the highest on record for December since records began in 1880, surpassing the previous record set in 2006 by 0.02°C (0.04°F). This is the 10th consecutive month (since March 2014) with a global monthly temperature ranking among the seven highest for its respective month. December also marks the sixth month of 2014 to set a new monthly high temperature record."
Anyone who has been in southeastern Brazil for the past month can confirm that January will most likely surpass these records.
The re-election of President Dilma Rousseff as president of Brazil was not a foregone conclusion as little as a week ago. While the campaign could not have been dirtier, with charges of corruption, womanizing and wife-beating flying around, Rousseff’s Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers' Party—PT) now seems set for another four years in office.
The PT is on the verge of having the longest-running rule of one party in Brazil since the end of military rule in 1985.
Watching the Brazilian presidential campaign in Rio in its final days provided a useful window to talk to voters.
If this election reveals anything about the Brazilian electorate, it is that they are not yet ready to give up the socioeconomic gains of the years under the PT’s stewardship of the country.
The 12 years of PT government so far have created expectations for many millions of Brazilians to become part of the middle class. Even though the right-of-center candidate, former Minas Gerais governor Aécio Neves, promised to keep the social programs going, the majority of voters opted for the status quo.
The electorate was closely divided, though. With the final votes counted, Rousseff, with 51.6 percent of the vote to Neves' 48.5 percent, had only a 3 percent—or 3.5 million vote—difference.
That foreshadows a polarization of what some have characterized as two irreconcilable halves—much as is the case now in the United States.
After a 48-hour uprising, inmates at Guarapuava prison in the Brazilian state of Paraná yielded to authorities yesterday and released the 13 hostages that were being held in protest of poor prison conditions. Authorities reached an agreement with the prisoners, complying with at least one of their requests to move 29 inmates to a different penitentiary in Santa Catarina. Other demands included improving facility conditions, such as better food and treatment by guards.
The rebellion began on Monday morning when over 30 prisoners overpowered guards and took other inmates and prison guards hostage, transporting them to the roof where many were hooded and beaten. Only one wing of the penitentiary was overtaken, but close to 80 inmates participated in the uprising over the two days, burning mattresses, among other things.
While the rebellion was the first major uprising at Guarapuava in 15 years, prison rebellions are becoming more common in Brazil, with this being the twenty-first penitentiary rebellion in the state of Paraná this year. According to the International Centre of Penitentiary Studies, 247 out of every 100,000 Brazilian residents are serving time in prison, and Brazil currently has the world’s fourth-largest incarcerated population with 550,000 total inmates—coming in behind the U.S., China and Russia.
At the front of one of Paraná’s largest Pentecostal churches, beneath a ceiling of glowing neon tiles arranged in the pattern of a giant cross, are two ornately framed pictures: one is of a new $300 million, 10,000-seat temple in São Paulo, and another is of a future $122 million, 5,000-seat structure here in downtown Curitiba.
Brazilian evangelicals are looking to the future—but Marina Silva, despite being the sole Pentecostal presidential candidate in the election, is not a part of their plans.
“What we want is someone who can open doors for the church,” Alessandre Freitas, a lead pastor of this congregation of the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, told me after delivering a fiery two-hour sermon Sunday night that left his voice hoarse. “I think with Dilma it will be better.”
That conviction bore out Sunday when many evangelicals voted for President Dilma Rousseff—who is nominally a Catholic, but also a strong ally to the Universal Church of the Kingdom of God, the nation’s second-largest Protestant denomination after the Assemblies of God (to which Silva belongs). Both are charismatic Pentecostal faiths where pastors and laypeople alike invoke the name of Jesus to heal the sick and chase away demons.
Rather than being motivated by faith to support Silva, many evangelical Christians voted with the conviction that what’s best for the church is a strong and powerful ally in Palácio do Planalto. That meant voting for Dilma Rousseff, who won 41.5 percent of the overall vote, while center-right candidate Aécio Neves took 33.7 percent and Silva captured only 21.3 percent. Because no contender garnered an outright majority, Brazilians will return to the polls October 26 to choose between Rousseff and Neves.
Latin America has set a record in the developing world for reducing food insecurity, achieving a 9 percent drop in hunger in the last 24 years. The UN announced on Tuesday that hunger in the region fell from 14 percent of the population in 1990 to 5 percent in 2014. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) specifically commended Bolivia and Brazil for their hunger reduction programs, citing them as examples for other countries.
Brazil, in particular, celebrated being removed from the World Hunger Map as a result of increased spending on food security and social programs. The federal government increased social spending by 128 percent between 2000 and 2012, leading to a more than 80 percent decrease in the number of undernourished Brazilians. The Fome Cero (Zero Hunger) program has also led to poverty reduction, with poverty dropping from 24.3 percent to 8.4 percent between 2001 and 2012, and extreme poverty falling from 14 percent to 3.5 percent in the same period.
In the Andean region, the FAO labeled Bolivia and Ecuador exceptional cases for their investment in social programs that specifically target typically marginalized communities, such as the large Indigenous populations in both countries. By instituting programs across various sectors, Bolivia was able to reduce extreme poverty by 17.2 percent, and reduce overall poverty by 7.4 percent between 1994 and 2008.
While other development challenges such as crime and low economic growth exist, Latin America is on track to meet the Millennium Development Goal of halving the percentage of people living in extreme poverty by 2015.
In the early 2000s, Colombia’s oil industry was weakening. There had been a decrease in new discoveries, followed by a decline in production from a peak of 800,000 barrels per day (b/d) in 1999 to nearly 550,000 b/d in 2004. Exploration and production had moved to increasingly remote areas with higher security risks and risky geology, requiring more capital and technology. As such, the Colombian government remained dependent on Ecopetrol, the state oil company, which represented the entirety of the Colombian oil industry.
Today, Mexico’s oil industry stands in a similar state of decline, as described by a recently released Americas Society/Council of the Americas white paper, “Mexico: An Opening for Energy Reform.” Oil production in Mexico as a whole has fallen from 3.8 million b/d in 2004 to 2.5 million b/d in 2013. Production of the Cantarell oil field, the most lucrative of Mexico’s shallow water reserves, peaked in 2003 at 2.1 million b/d, and is now producing less than one quarter of that.
Just as in Colombia, the problem in Mexico does not lie in a lack of resources, but rather in a lack of capital and technology. Mexico in particular maintains extensive shale deposits that remain largely untapped. The roots that bind Petróleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, and the Mexican government run even deeper than those that once bound Ecopetrol and the Colombian government. Mexico’s state oil enterprise pays for approximately 40 percent of the country’s budget—and since the government acts as both a regulator and an owner, transparency and accountability suffer.
From the age of 10, Marina Silva would wake up before dawn to prepare food for her father, so that he could set off through the dense jungle before the heat of the tropical sun made it impossible for him to keep working. In Silva’s community of rubber tappers in Brazil’s northwestern state of Acre, survival depended on the collection of natural latex that bleeds like sap from the Amazon’s seringueira tree.
Today, the vice-presidential candidate and former minister of environment draws upon her past experiences in Acre as a model of sustainable living, promoting a government policy of cooperation with forest-dwellers to develop Brazil.
“Gone is the logic of doing for the people,” Silva said last week during the 66th annual meeting of the Sociedade Brasileira para o Progresso da Ciência (Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science–SBPC). “It is [a logic of] doing with the people…a new vision for the development of Brazil…that takes into account sustainability in all of its dimensions: economic, social, environmental, cultural, political, even aesthetic.”
Silva presented her new vision at the conference, held at her alma mater, the Universidade Federal do Acre (Federal University of Acre–UFAC), in the state capital of Rio Branco. The meeting in the oft-forgotten state of Acre united some 5,400 national and international policymakers, rubber tappers, subsistence farmers, student activists, and individuals from over a dozen Indigenous ethnicities.
For the past month, I have been working in Brazil providing production services for international broadcasters covering the World Cup. Twelve Brazilian different cities hosted the tournament, which began on June 12 in São Paulo, and 32 nations from all over the globe participated—bringing hordes of players, fans and reporters to remote parts of Brazil that had never heard their languages or seen their flags before.
I traveled to six of these host cities by air and road, and witnessed just how vast and versatile this country of 200 million people really is—and I didn't even see the half of it.
My four-week journey began in the northeastern city of Natal, capital of Rio Grande do Norte, where I flew into the new São Gonçalo do Amarante–Governador Aluízio Alves International Airport. The privately-owned terminal had been inaugurated a week before our arrival. Its tall ceilings and glass façade were beautiful and modern, with curvy windows that reflected the light from the afternoon sunset. Our 12 pieces of luggage arrived promptly and the employees were helpful and courteous.
However, the airport is far from Natal’s city center, and street signs and pavement were absent at several points along the 20 mile (32 km) route. My taxi driver complained that the airport only had one entry, and cursed the new structure and the World Cup for making the local airport twice as distant as the old one.
On July 15, the leaders of the five BRICS countries—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—will convene in Fortaleza, Brazil. This will mark the sixth official meeting between the member nations since the creation of the group in 2009.
Only two days after the final of the World Cup, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has the opportunity to extend the global spotlight on her country by hosting the BRICS leaders.
For Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi, this will mark his first visit to Brazil and only his second international tour since entering office in May—so Indians will be listening closely to hear his public stance on various issues. Chinese President Xi Jinping will also be making his first trip to Brazil, though he is in no way a stranger to Latin America, an important source of raw materials for China and target for foreign direct investment. Russian President Vladimir Putin will likely be thankful for the change in landscape after receiving such negative attention from the West for Russia’s policies toward the Ukraine. And President Jacob Zuma of South Africa is hopeful that the sixth Summit will produce results that were envisioned in the fifth meeting he hosted last year in Durban.
June 1: This AQ-Efecto Naím segment looks at sustainable cities in the hemisphere.