Rio+20 as a Two Level Game in Brazilian (Foreign) Policy

21 Mai

By Maurício Santoro[1]

When environmental issues entered the United Nations´ agenda, with Stockholm conference (1972), Brazil lived under a military dictatorship that considered ecological themes as rich countries´ hypocrisy, supposedly afraid of fast Brazilian economic growth or interested in the exploitation of the natural resources of the Amazon. These views changed with the return of democracy and the beginning of dynamic social movements dedicated to the environment and big transformations in public policy. However, Rio+20 will be held among serious controversy in Brazil over development and sustainability.

The new environmental conscience was symbolized with the mobilization around the tragedy of Cubatão, the city in São Paulo´s industrial belt that was for many years the most polluted in the world, with severe consequences to the health of its inhabitants. The admiration achieved by the labor leader of Amazon´s rubber extractors, Chico Mendes, was also representative of the new mood, even if it was not enough to prevent his murder by powerful landowners.

Several levels of government were created organs to take care of environmental themes, and the first civilian president after 20 years of military rule offered Brazil to be the host of the UN Conference on Environment and Development. Held in Rio de Janeiro, in 1992, it was a watershed for Brazil, by the adoption of the concept of “sustainable development”, invented a few years before by the Brundtland Commission (1987).  It put together three pillars – economics, society and environment  – and it was perceived by the Brazilian government as the way of conciliate economic concerns with the new social and environmental dimensions, symbolized by the goals of Agenda 21, signed in Rio.

The Controversial Environmental Issues on the Domestic Agenda

However, environmental movements faced many obstacles in Brazilian domestic politics. A Green Party was created, but it did not gain the same influence of its European homologues. Most of the left maintained the focus on issues related to labor-capital conflicts, leaving sustainability in second place. The right remained critical to environmental themes, considering that it would reduce economic opportunities to the country´s corporations, increasing their costs and diminishing their scope of action.

In the international negotiations on climate change, Brazil adopted the principle of “common but different responsibilities”, saying that the largest cost should be on the rich countries, and that developing nations should receive transferences of clean technologies. Until the Durban conference (2011) it refused mandatory goals to fight deforestation and climate change. Brazilian positions are understandable in light of the absence of commitments by the world´s top polluters, China and United States, but they have been a cause of frustration to the country´s activists, which hope that international treaties will “lock in” public policy commitments to preserve the environment.

As Brazil became an agribusiness superpower due to the global commodities boom, the political power of this sector increased, as well as the deforestation of the Amazon and the Cerrado to cattle-ranching and soya plantations. In 2011, a new version of the Forest Code was approved, one that reduces the exigencies of environmental protection and concedes amnesty for those who had deforested in the last years. The law is not yet approved by president Dilma Rousseff, and she is expected to veto at least some articles of the text.

The amazing rising of the new middle new class – about 40 million people arose out of poverty in the last decade – is wonderful, but is putting pressure on the environment. People are buying more cars (over 1 million per year just in the city of São Paulo, the biggest of the country), consuming more energy, and releasing more carbon. Brazil is already among the top 5 polluters of the planet, mostly by the effects of deforestation.

Another meaningful case is the building of the hydroelectric power dam of Belo Monte, in the Xingu River. Several social movements and indigenous groups are opposed to the project and launched judicial processes and street demonstrations. The Interamerican Commission of Human Rights of the Organization of American States recommended to the Brazilian government the interruption of the construction of Belo Monte, but the authorities refused the request.

The Search for International Alliances

Brazilian foreign policy has ambitious goals to promote the image of the country as a rising power. Since the 1990s, this idea includes an active role in environmental debates and Brazil see itself as a honest broker between rich and poor nations, solving conflicts and framing complex deals such as the agreements of Rio 92 and the Durban conference on climate change. Nevertheless, we may argue that Brazilian environmental policy is more progressive in its foreign face than in its domestic one.

Brazilian activists are aware of that, after several major defeats. They have been very organized in the international forums and global networks, using the foreign stage to put pressure on their government and to search for allies overseas. Although Brazilian public opinion is very sensitive on issues such as the sovereign rights of the country in the Amazon, it is also concerned about Brazil´s international image, particularly in the United States and Western Europe.

The civil society summit during Rio+20 is an important occasion for the consolidation and enlargement of many of these alliances. Brazilian activists will use the meeting to criticize and denounce their government, to exchange ideas with foreign colleagues and to build new ties with global networks.

But perhaps the most crucial effect will be pedagogic. There is a new generation of Brazilian youths which is the first one to grow under democracy, and polls shows they have a huge interest in environmental issues. With reasonable economic growth, low unemployment and falling inequality, such themes have a strong appeal to teenagers and young adults. Rio+20 will be a nice opportunity for them, and they can be the base of a new cycle of grassroots activism in the country.

[1] Journalist, PhD in Political Science. Professor at the Getúlio Vargas Foundation and Candido Mendes University, Rio de Janeiro.


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