Brazil’s agriculture and its overall economy experienced strong growth in the 2000s – at the same time deforestation rates tumbled more than 80%. The experience shows that Brazil has the know-how necessary to protect the Amazon, and that it’s not necessary to choose between conservation and economic development, former environment minister Marina Silva said in an interview.
In New York City for United Nations Climate Week, Silva spoke to AQ’s editors just hours after President Jair Bolsonaro delivered his address to the UN General Assembly just across town. Silva, who lost her own bid for the presidency in 2018 but remains influential in the global environmental community, expressed disappointment with the speech. She also agreed that international public opinion is unlikely to significantly sway Bolsonaro’s policies when it comes to rapidly rising deforestation and fires in the Amazon.
Instead, agribusiness interests are probably “the only place where pressure can be effective,” she said. “They can’t hide when Brazil’s social, environmental and economic interests are on the line, as well as our diplomatic ties and international commitments.”
Here are excerpts from the hour-long conversation, edited for clarity and length.
Americas Quarterly: The period from 2004 to 2012 saw the biggest decline in deforestation in Brazil’s modern history – from 2.78 million hectares in 2004 to 460,000 in 2012, a decline of more than 80%. This started with your tenure as Brazil’s environmental minister – and contrasts with today’s trend. How was this progress possible?
Marina Silva: The first thing we did was not fight with reality, but recognize we had a grave problem. When I took the post as environment minister in 2003, deforestation was in an upward trend, and the curve was steep. A three-pronged plan to control and prevent deforestation in the Amazon was needed: to combat illegal practices, regulate land ownership issues and support sustainable activities to allow the region to transition to a different model.
AQ: The same forces that support illegal deforestation today were also present in Brazil then.
MS: Yes, and they even had representation inside the ministries. But at that time no one was in denial of climate change.
After we structured our plan, we went to work. In 10 years we were able to bring deforestation down by 83%, stopping some 4 billion tons of CO2 from reaching the atmosphere. And this while the economy was growing at a 4% rate yearly on average, and the agribusiness sector itself was growing above 2% yearly. For the first time we had a policy in place that was able to bring deforestation down by tackling the structures that allowed it to happen in the first place.
This structural change is directly connected with the collaboration happening between IBAMA (Brazilian Environment Institute, a monitoring body) and the Federal Police, using intelligence. There were 25 large operations led by the Federal Police, 725 people arrested in the five years I was in the ministry. We stopped 60,000 illegal deeds related to land in protected areas from being legalized, and served four billion reais ($1 billion) in environmental fines. We were able to pass regulation criminalizing the entire supply chain of illegal forest products, from deforester, to the party that transported it, to the seller and the buyer. We created 24 million hectares of conservation units, not in remote parts of the Amazon, but in areas under pressure from invasions.
With all that we can say we had a structural fall in deforestation. It shows that what we see today is not a lack of know-how, institutions or technical knowledge. It is a political decision, and a lack of ethical commitment towards protection of natural resources and local communities — or even towards Brazil’s own economic, social or environmental interests.
AQ: What are the options to reverse this process? Or will it get worse before it gets better?
MS: At the opening of the UN General Assembly, I saw a president completely oblivious to the grave problems facing Brazil. Taking an isolationist position, picking a fight with the global media, with France, the UK, the UN itself, everyone, as if we were amidst the Cold War. It was like an appetizer for Trump’s speech.
It was embarrassing, with all the problems Brazil is going through: Forest fires, deforestation up 222% from August 2018, a country with high rates of violence, 12 million unemployed and practically in a technical recession, with no growth and no investment. The president speaks as if he were starting the country from zero.
It is incredibly concerning, because President Bolsonaro unfortunately is unconsciously incompetent to deal with all this. But his environmental minister is absolutely conscious, and competent, and he is absolutely aware and competent as he pursues the deconstruction of the environmental management system that was in place. His plan is to implement a 20th century agenda, while 21st century economics is a low-carbon one, that protects biodiversity and diversifies the energy matrix with clean energy.
The president plans to spend 40 million reais ($10 million) in advertising for example, he could use those resources to strengthen monitoring instead.
AQ: It seems unlikely international pressure will have much impact on this government. And Bolsonaro has clear support from Donald Trump. So the question is, where are the pressure points that those that want to revert this trend can press?
MS: There was a recent poll that showed that nine of 10 Brazilians are against policies that destroy the Amazon. This is very important. International public opinion also matters. But the only place where pressure can be effective is when it comes from agribusiness. And they are not doing as they should.
Making statements with NGOs and the scientific community, that already agree that the Amazon needs to be protected, isn’t enough. When the agribusiness sector rose against closing the environmental ministry (shortly after Bolsonaro was elected), the president walked back his decision. Later, there was successful pressure from the sector when the government mentioned leaving the Paris Accord, something really bad for the country’s image – and for its trade deals like the Mercosur and EU, and its pledge to enter the OECD. So now they need to go beyond appearances and press for concrete measures to be presented during the COP25 in Chile, pressure the government to revive anti-deforestation policies, bring back the low-carbon agriculture program that was weakened during Dilma Rousseff’s government, almost killed when Michel Temer was president and has turned to dust under Bolsonaro.
So, there is a sector that can make a difference, and that is agribusiness. They can’t hide when Brazil’s social, environmental and economic interests are on the line, as well as our diplomatic ties and international commitments.
AQ: We see in the current government a notion that to protect the Amazon is bad for the economy, while record low levels of deforestation in the 2000s coincided with a cycle of growth.
MS: Our objectives were established horizontally – with all other ministries. It wasn’t just environmental ministry policy; it was agriculture, transportation, the entire government, and included participation from civil society to monitor and strengthen management and governance. We worked towards supporting productive activities that were sustainable, and had to rely on the work of other sectors, like agriculture and development. My team had geographers, biologists, economists, physicists, but one thing in common: all were environmentalists. Our work affected water resources management, forest policies, solid waste management, permits for infrastructure projects. And our motto was – we will lead by example. And Brazil gained global respect and credibility not based on rhetoric, but by example.
AQ: How hard would it be to rebuild what has been dismantled since January?
MS: Brazil was an environmental villain up to the 1990s, but at least our presidents were embarrassed by it, and when something happened they would act. Embrarassment, we now know, was an asset. Because those we have today do not feel embarrassed.
At the end of the 90s, environmental governance started to gain ground and many initiatives helped strengthen and gave Brazil more self-confidence. When the fight against deforestation started in 2004, then we really moved from villain to be part of the solution. But we weren’t at zero when I arrived. There was IBAMA, there was a governance system built from prior governments, a decades-long process. Now, in eight months, IBAMA and Chico Mendes Institute (in charge of conservation areas) lost their teeth. INPE (the National Space Research Institute) was discredited as if it made up satellite data to support leftist ideologies. Other secretariats were extinguished and the water resources department was moved out of the environmental ministry.
The dismantling is huge, and the loss we already suffered is irreparable and will create problems for us for decades to come. The Amazon forest is not like the Atlantic forest, which regenerates itself if left alone. In the Amazon, whatever comes back will be a different configuration. Even a thousand years from now, it will be a different type of vegetation. Isn’t it sad to think about it? The loss is irreparable.
AQ: How do you explain to a foreign audience why in a country where 90% are against deforestation, they elected a president that has these kinds of policies?
MS: The same if you asked an American: how can a country that defends freedom and liberty for all can live with a president like Trump? These are paradoxes we are facing. And it is easier to defend the environment when it’s other people’s environment. It is easy for Brazilians to criticize the U.S. for driving too many cars, burning a lot of fossil fuels. That is why my motto is, let’s lead by example. If Brazil is able to reduce forest fires, which is our main source of CO2 emissions, it will be a big contribution.
AQ: Do you worry about excesses in the environmental movement? Because the message of protection, especially in developing countries, needs to be combined with the possibility of development.
MS: That risk was real in the past. Today, most of what we see as alternatives for a new cycle of prosperity – economic and social and environmental – is coming from the social and environmental know-how under development in the planet. As our Earth is finite, we have to rethink. We need to integrate economy and ecology in the same equation. And the development model we want for Brazil is one that allows us to be, at the same time, economically prosperous, socially just, politically democratic, environmentally sustainable and culturally diverse. It is a new standard, a new ideal.
The agenda will only go forward if we are persistent. It is persistence from science, persistence from people that have already understood, entrepreneurs, government officials, academics. It is persistence from all that will make a difference.