Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon: Innovations and Challenges in Environmental Policy
Minister Silva began by highlighting the historical context in which current Brazilian environment policy for the Amazon is rooted. She stressed that the Amazon encompasses the largest biodiversity in the world, an estimated 20% of known living species, 9% of the planet's freshwater and around 220 indigenous peoples who speak some 180 different languages. In the last decade, several important initiatives have been launched. One of these policies eliminated many fiscal incentives and credit lines that encouraged deforestation and the predatory occupation of the region. Several protected areas were also created in the Amazon and significant progress was made in the demarcation of indigenous lands. Nevertheless,
Minister Silva noted that these attempts at addressing were only a beginning. In 2003, the Brazilian people began to mobilize resources and energy to protect what Silva called the "intangible environmental GDP." Minister Silva emphasized that the recent momentum to tackle deforestation and environmental concerns has produced four key strategies by which the administration is combating environmental degradation. First, they have paid careful attention to the work of previous administrations and have continued to improve upon those projects. She mentioned that Lula, across his administration, has placed great value on the significance of social participation and control of the process. Given the size of the country, there is a dire need for everyone to get involved with critical activities such as protecting the country's environment. Second, Lula has emphasized sustainable development—not just environmental sustainable development, but also social and cultural sustainability--as an on-going focus of his government. Third, they have worked to strengthen the already good legislative system in place. Here, the Minister reminded the audience that the federal, state, and local governments need to develop equally strong and consistent legislative rules regarding the environment. Lastly, Silva stated that the Brazilian government is collaborating with international NGOs and other external organizations working on the environment, underscoring the importance of coordination across the different segments of society concerned with the valuable resources lying in the Amazon.
In the second part of her address, Minister Silva drew attention to the results that Lula's environmental policies. When the deforestation rate peaked in 2002 at 27%, increasing from 18,165 square kilometers in 2001 to 23,143 square kilometers the year after, President Lula decided that the situation needed urgent attention and not just from the Ministry of the Environment, but from the entire government. Silva recounted that Lula established an Inter-Ministerial Group, comprised of thirteen ministries and coordinated by the President's Chief of Staff. The Group is charged with preparing a Plan of Action to Prevent and Control Deforestation in the Amazon. The Plan established the following major priorities: combat impunity in environmental crimes and the taking of public lands and improve the deforestation monitoring system, land ownership regulation, land management and the incentives for sustainable economic activities.
In addition to drafting the Plan, the integrated work of the Ministry of the Environment and other ministries has also led to other meaningful joint activities such as the Sustainable Amazon Plan and the Plan for the Sustainable Development of the Area of Influence of the BR-163 Highway, a highway that bisects the southern Amazon. Furthermore, based on partnerships with most of the states in the region, the Lula administration has been able to significantly reduce the rate of growth in deforestation between 2003 and 2004, from 27% to 6%. During the seminar, the Minister shared that current estimates show that, starting in 2005, Brazil will begin to have real reductions in the deforested areas, which, according to initial projections, could be as high as 40%.
In her conclusion, Minister Silva concentrated on the big challenges that Brazil still faces in fighting deforestation and protecting the Amazon. The Ministry of the Environment's central concern right now is maintaining sustainable and effective policies. She commented that Brazil has experienced "spasmodic reductions" in deforestation and that Lula's administration would like to change this trend. His government is confronting this challenge in two primary ways: 1) by focusing its attention on emergency policies that take care of urgent matters and 2) by promoting sustainable development policies.
In order to illustrate the latter strategy of long-term development solutions, the Minister asked Dr. Muriel Saragoussi, the Amazon Coordination Secretary, to describe the recent "belt" of protected areas that was created around the core conflict areas in the Amazon. Dr. Saragoussi pointed out that this band of protected land has been set aside for the preservation of biodiversity and for sustainable use by local populations.
Minister Silva ended her prepared comments by reminding the audience of the price Brazil has paid over the years to a make a few countries wealthy and by insisting that Brazil simply cannot make similar sacrifices today for short-term benefits. The Ministry of the Environment's policies going forward will focus on the opportunities that Brazil possesses to preserve its biodiversity and protect the cherished Amazonian lands.
During the discussion that followed the Minister's speech, one participant asked about the delicate balance between cultural preservation and the protection of the environment. The Minister, speaking of extinct indigenous groups such as the Incas and the Aztecs, poignantly replied, "Today, I have a hard time with the fact that these groups are not around. We are less civilized because we cannot have a dialogue with these groups."
Mentioning the spread of agribusiness and soy production in the region, several questions alluded to the tension between pro-environmental stances and the need to grow the Brazilian economy in the Amazon region. In response, the Minister highlighted the excellent work federal and state government officials have done to turn already deforested lands into viable, productive spaces for use by the local economy. She stressed that, in these situations, we have to think in the grand scheme of things and believe in the possibility of humankind to cohabitate with nature, as it has done for centuries.