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Brazil: devastating attack on environmental policy


‘The worst retreat on the environmental agenda since the end of the dictatorship’. This is how Brazilian environmental organisations have described the Dilma government’s environmental policy. Here, in an edited version of an interview with Ricardo Mendonça published on 13 April in the magazine Época, the former No 2 in Brazil’s environment ministry explains what this means. 

João Paulo Capobianco João Paulo Capobianco is a biologist and was the top civil servant in the environment ministry under Marina Silva in Lula’s government from 2003 to 2008. He resigned with Marina Silva after she complained about ‘difficulties in pushing forward the federal environmental agenda’.

This insider knowledge enables Capobianco to mount a devastating critique of the Dilma government’s handling of the Forest Code, which, say Brazil’s environmentalists, will now give an amnesty to those who deforest and seriously reduce permanently protected areas. The government, he says, mounted a campaign of ‘disinformation’ to disguise its real policy. Capobianco argues that the Forest Code in the form in which it will be submitted for presidential approval, sends ‘a totally wrong signal, the worst the government could have sent to society’.

Perhaps on this all is not lost with respect. Since this interview appeared, it is being reported in Brazil that the environment minister, Izabella Teixeira, has called in the bill because of concern about one of the points Capobianco mentioned, the method of calculating permanently protected areas.

Capobianco is equally criticial on other issues. With its attitude that the environment is a ‘secondary’ issue, and the series of damaging hydro-electric schemes, such as Belo Monte, it is promoting, he says, the Brazil government is contributing to making the Rio+20 conference ‘an endless stream of good intentions that just produces blah-blah-blah. The agenda has become general, empty of content.’ The contrast with Brazil’s enthusiasm for environmental issues at Rio 92 is stark, he adds.

João Paulo Capobianco: ‘The government is pre-historic on the question of the environment’
by Ricardo Mendonça, EPOCA   13/04/2012

ÉPOCA – The organisations that are active on the environment have described the first year of the Dilma government as ‘the biggest retreat on the environmental agenda since the end of the dictatorship’. Do you agree?

João Paulo Capobianco – I agree completely. The agenda that includes environment and social issues from the point of view of the minorities, such as Indians and quilombola communities [communities consisting of the descendants of runaway slaves, LAB], had been evolving since the end of the military dictatorship. It was a permanent evolution. Of course, things didn’t always go the way we’d have liked. The law on the Mata Atlântica [Atlantic Forest] took 14 years to be approved. The law on environmental crimes took 12. It was a set of advances that were always very slow, but it was an agenda that grew. In this period no legislation ever went backwards. We had delays, difficulties in implementation, but we never had a reversal. We are now. We can see this in changes to legislation either proposed by the government or resulting from its neglect. One example is this new Forest Code.

ÉPOCA – So there was never a reversal before?

Capobianco – During the period of the Collor government (1990-1992) there was an attempt. They wanted to consolidate the environmental legislation. It’s true that our environmental legislation has a very wide range of resolutions, decrees, constitutional provisions, and so on. But when it began to take shape, it became clear that what they were really trying to do was to use the opportunity to eliminate various advances. At that point all the organisations mobilised and the government withdrew the proposal.

ÉPOCA – Political analysts are calling the approval of the new Forest Code in the Congress the Dilma government’s biggest defeat in Congress so far. If the government lost, how can it be blamed for what happened, for a law passed against its wishes?

Capobianco – The Dilma government enjoys the broadest Congressional support of any Brazilian government during the democratic period. No President has ever before had such support. But, looked at objectively, the government has not activated this support on this issue. It activates its support on all the issues it is interested in. The government hasn’t acted as it should have done on the Forest Code, didn’t hear the warnings and messages of anxiety on the issue. When the government realised that there would be a political problem, it acted, but very late, when the bill had finished its revision stage. The revised proposal was put together by Deputy Aldo Rebelo, who is a deputy with a great deal of parliamentary experience, an ex-minister, a former president of the Chamber of Deputies. The government tried to block his proposal, but failed. At that point the government did lose. But it lost after endless lethargy, enormous negligence, in allowing this bill to be drafted for over a year.

ÉPOCA – You say that the government only tried to oppose the new Forest Code because it realised that there would be a political problem. What political problem?

Capobianco – In the 2010 election campaign, President Dilma Rousseff committed herself, personally, to veto any measure that implied an amnesty, encouragement to deforestation or reduction of permanently preserved areas. When it became clear that this draft Forest Code would lead to this, her people saw that it would give her trouble. And besides this, the movement against the Code grew. A very large range of opinion formers went to the President’s office to warn them that the Code had gone backwards.

ÉPOCA – But would you say that this government lethargy on the Code was deliberate?

Capobianco – Definitely. To say that the government has an anti-environmental attitude would perhaps be too strong, but one thing is clear: the present government’s sensitivity to the question of the environment is minimal. There was total negligence on the government’s part in this process, which is unacceptable because in the government you’ve got at least one ministry, at least one, Environment, that has as one of its institutional functions to accompany legislative processes and intervene in Congress on behalf of the government. It didn’t do that. The ministry was negligent, the government as a whole was negligent. And when they realised that the damage to the government’s image would be serious, they decided to do something, but chaotically, in a disorganised way. They lost.

…The Senate’s draft [which the government eventually forced through the Congress, LAB], in its structure is just the same as the Chamber’s. It’s a better bill, better organised. It’s better as a piece of legislation. But for the environment it’s the same. It maintains the amnesty for people who cut down the forest, keeps the reduction in permanently preserved areas, maintains the reduction in the legal reserve (the reserve every property is obliged to have), and encourages new deforestation.

ÉPOCA – How does it encourage it, looking at it objectively?

Capobianco – First, because of the amnesty for people who deforest. It creates a sense of impunity, obviously. Also because it reduces the calculation of permanently preserved areas. These are extremely fragile areas protected by legislation since 1934: hill-tops, ciliar forest, slopes. At the moment, to calculate the area to be preserved on a river-bank, you calculate on the basis of the greatest seasonal flood. Take a river on the Amazon plain, in the Pantanal or in the coastal Atlantic Forest, for example. If you look at the normal bed, it might be 12 metres wide, maybe 15. But ever year, when it floods, the river goes over those banks and reaches a width of maybe 100 metres. At the moment you calculate the protected area on the basis of that wider area, 100 metres. I’m not talking about a big exceptional flood, which sometimes occurs. What did they do? In the draft of the new Code they’ve stipulated that you must calculate the protected area on the basis of the normal bed. That means that the protected areas will be brutally reduced. Swamps and streams will lose; they’ll all be excluded. In the Pantanal it will be a tragedy….

ÉPOCA – What was the government’s strategy?

Capobianco – In the Senate the government’s action was quite clear. There they explained quite clearly what their vision is. That they support a code that gives an amnesty, encourages deforestation and reduces protection. When this draft was approved in the Senate, they tried to sell the idea that there had been a consensus. ‘Oh, we’ve sorted out the problems created by the Chamber of Deputies, that nonsense.’ There was a vigorous disinformation campaign. Then the details started to circulate, the organisations organised a debate and it was proved that that line wasn’t true… The government allowed the bill, when it went back to the Chamber of Deputies, to be presented by the landowner lobby deputy Paulo Piau (PMDB-MG). Who’s Paulo Piau? He moved the worst amendments at the beginning, when the bill was before the Chamber of Deputies. In my analysis, the government encouraged the bill to be given to Paulo Piau. Why? So that we could have the scene we’ve just had… The government comes in all guns blazing and forces its supporters to vote for the Senate bill and sells society the idea that it’s saved the Forest Code. That was the game. But it was exposed, and now it’s become a problem. The brutal truth is that what happened to the Code is the most elaborate example of what I’m calling the greatest setback since the dictatorship, now, under the Dilma government.

ÉPOCA – What else do the environmental organisation call a setback?

Capobianco – Complementary Law 140. It was a proposal to organise the different areas of the Federal Government to make the processes for granting licenses more efficient. In its origin it was an environmental proposal: I worked on it. What the Chamber of Deputies did, with the government’s approval, was to use this bill to reduce the role of CONAMA (National Environmental Council) and reduce the role of IBAMA [the Federal environment agency, LAB]. It became an anti-environment bill. The government also let it go through, didn’t organise its supporters to prevent it being approved. People thought, ‘Oh, the government will veto it.’ But it didn’t veto it; it ratified it. So it was clear that it didn’t oppose the bill.

ÉPOCA – The area deforested in the Amazon region in 2011 was 6,238 square kilometres. It’s the lowest figure since records began, 11% less than in 2010. Isn’t that good news?

Capobianco – Of course it is. Reducing deforestation was a political decision, taken in 2004 with an inter-ministerial plan to achieve it. Some people say that deforestation fell under the Lula government because there was a fall in commodity prices, the price of soya fell, and so on. I always say this: it’s true, the government was able to use a favourable situation to tighten policies for reducing deforestation. 23 million hectares of conservation areas were created in the Amazon in areas where deforestation was expanding; there was a process of cancelling land titles for millions of hectares, because there had been fraud on a monumental scale. For the first time there was integrated action including the army, IBAMA and the federal police, which was extremely vigorous. There was a change in the system of satellite monitoring, which had been annual, but became real-time. There was a whole set of measures. Now the fundamental basis for the government’s action was always the Forest Code. It’s the Code that allows you to impose on the owner the obligation to protect, because it used to say, ‘In forest areas in the Amazon you can only deforest 20%.’ Before it was a dead letter. The government took a decision to enforce it. Now you have inertia, and it’s very powerful. You don’t increase deforestation all at once. Nor do you reduce it all at once. The present government is the beneficiary of this process.

ÉPOCA – And what’s going to happen from now on?

Capobianco – Previously the position of the Federal Government was completely pro-conservation, enforcing the Code, control. What is the policy of the current government? Allow a new Code to be introduced, reduce protection, amnesty for people who deforested illegally, a whole series of signals in complete contradiction with what was being done from 2004 on. I would say that the tendency is for deforestation to come back. That’s the prospect. You’re changing the legislation and sending a signal to society that there will be less control, that the issue is being taken less seriously. I believe that the reduction in deforestation, which is the government’s flagship policy, is doomed. It’s doomed if the government approves this new Forest Code.

ÉPOCA – When will this show up in the figures? Can we predict?

Capobianco – As I said, the force of inertia is very strong. But last year you had some atypical months. There was an explosion of deforestation and the government was forced to get out in the field and set up operations in a tremendous rush in an attempt to stop it. It did stop it; that was important. But how are you going to stop it if the law changes? How are you going to stop it if a person who cuts down the legal reserve won’t be punished? I preserved it, my neighbour cut it down and now that’s fine. I kept the area of permanent preservation, but this guy came along, laughed in my face and deforested his area. And now the law comes along and amnesties him. And what happens to me who kept the preserved area? It’s a totally wrong signal, the worst the government could have sent to society.

ÉPOCA – Do you believe it’s possible that the President will veto the new Forest Code?

Capobianco – A partial veto is no use. There’s a trap. The law was drafted in such a way as to make partial vetoes unviable. She – Dilma – can veto some articles, some little things, but you can’t veto the structure. One example is this whole question of calculating the area of permanent protection: this is in the opening statement of the paragraph heading the whole article that defines the area of permanent protection. So if you veto that, you veto everything, any protection. The text was drafted in such a way that you can’t use the veto. So, from my point of view, there’s no possibility of a partial veto. Even if she vetoes a few articles, her veto won’t solve the structural problem.

ÉPOCA – Is this the analysis underlying the campaign that the organisations are running for a total veto?

Capobianco – Yes. You have to veto the whole thing and produce a new bill. The right thing really would be a bill that came from the executive. And not allow the landowner lobby to produce a bill and get it through Congress.

ÉPOCA – And Belo Monte, the other great polemical issue of the Dilma government?

Capobianco – Belo Monte isn’t a polemical issue. I don’t see that as a polemic. The problem of Belo Monte is that the licensing process didn’t follow the proper route. What does the process of environmental licensing absolutely have to do? It has to identify all the impacts and assess whether these can be mitigated or not. There are projects in which the impacts are so absurd that there’s no way they can be solved. Belo Monte’s that sort. But let’s suppose that in the case of Belo Monte they could be solved. What happened? The process didn’t identify all the impacts properly, the communities affected weren’t given a proper hearing, as the law requires, and the mitigating measures were not properly planned and implemented. So you have a process dominated by a political decision to approve and build this project at all costs. The whole matter of environmental licensing was treated as a burden necessary only because the law insists on it. It wasn’t treated as an opportunity genuinely to assess all the problems and reach an agreement on the project with the affected populations. But Belo Monte was forced through, and now we’re seeing the problems.

ÉPOCA – If the problem is in the way the process is carried out, wouldn’t it be easier to do everything properly, if only to avoid the damage done by all these conflicts? In your opinion, why does the government act like this?

Capobianco – My interpretation is as follows. There’s a view in the current government that the environment is a secondary issue, something minor, not worth a lot of effort. If you have this outlook, this idea that environmental issues are secondary, any discussion becomes a business issue…and someone will say, ‘This process of approval is crazy, it takes years.’ Yes. It’s like that. You have projects in other comparable countries that take ten years to get approved. It’s a process in which you really have to get to the root of the problem. You have to solve the problem. It’s no use thinking that that it’s all about delaying the project. It’s about you solving the problem. Except that to do that you have to be committed and to regard these problems as real. Look, going back to the question of things going backwards: the government issued a set of decrees to regulate environmental approvals. One of them specifies so many kilometres to define whether or not the community is affected by the project. So it says, ‘Communities up to X km away are affected and have to be given a hearing.’ But the community that’s X+1 km away won’t get a hearing.

ÉPOCA – But there has to be an objective criterion, doesn’t there?

Capobianco – Of course, but what should the criterion be? Previously the communities that could be shown to be affected by environmental studies, expert opinions, were given a hearing. The experts said, ‘Look, this community will be affected by problem A, B or C,’ irrespective of whether it was one kilometre or 20 kilometres away. Another incredible example: when you have an approval process, various bodies have to give an opinion. If it affects indigenous land, FUNAI has to give its opinion; if it affects an archaeological site, Iphan has to give its opinion; if it affects a conservation area, the Instituto Chico Mendes has to give its opinion. Of course the agencies take their time to give an opinion – and IBAMA has to give an opinion on everything, so it takes time. It’s a problem. Why is the agency taking so long to give an opinion? Is it dragging its feet? Is it against the project? But it could be that the agency hasn’t got the resources and can’t provide an opinion. What did the government do? It set a time limit and said: if the agency doesn’t give its opinion within that time limit, that means it automatically approves the proposal. It’s ridiculous. You’ve created approval by default. It doesn’t matter if there was a problem about consulting the community – some are isolated, extremely difficult to get to – or that it was physically impossible to get to the site. Brazil isn’t like Switzerland, where you get in your car and drive a while and get to any community you want. We’re talking about the Amazon region, that’s where the big projects are. To consult an indigenous community, very often you have to use a plane, a boat, then a jeep – these are difficulties inherent in working in a continental country like ours.

ÉPOCA – But there is to be some time limit, surely? You can’t leave things in the air, with no time limit?

Capobianco – But there is a time limit. The law lays down a time limit, of course. What the government did was to say, if it’s not met, it’s all over and the project’s approved. What should the government do? When there’s a problem of delay, they should contact the agency and ask questions: ‘Why has there been a delay? What happened? What’s the reason for not replying within the time limit?’ If the agency doesn’t have a good reason, then take the necessary action, replace the director. But you can’t say, ‘If you didn’t meet the deadline, so much the worse for you.’ If you do that, what is the government prioritising? It’s not prioritising the content, but the timetable. What timetable? The project timetable. The question is: is the government prioritising the quality of the project or is it prioritising the project promoter’s agenda? Under the Dilma government, the decision is obviously to prioritise the project promoter’s agenda. It does so to the detriment of the environmental issues, of the indigenous populations and traditional communities.

ÉPOCA – President Dilma has said that people against hydro-electric projects in the Amazon are living in a ‘fantasy’.

Capobianco – It’s fantasy to live in a world where you think that only hydro-electric projects will solve the energy problem. If she had said that wind power will never be able to meet the increasing demand, we would all agree. The truth is that none of them, wind, solar, hydro, nuclear or thermal, will meet the demand on their own. No country believes that any more. All of them, starting with China, which is the most emblematic, to the United States and the whole of Europe, are investing heavily in multiple sources. It’s about all the sources acting in synergy. In wind, Brazil has huge potential. If it used all of it, it would have more than all the energy than Brazil generates today. So the great fantasy is hers, thinking that she will convince the leaders who will be here for Rio+20 that this thesis of emphasising only hydro-electric power is viable. Does she think that anyone will believe in that? Everyone has already abandoned that idea.

ÉPOCA – And how has the Ministry of the Environment behaved?

Capobianco – To my surprise, this is the first time that we’ve seen an operation to dismantle legislation, to weaken the environmental agencies, without the minister protesting against it. It’s the first time since the time of Paulo Nogueira Neto, while we still had the military government. We’ve had various episodes in the past when the minister of the environment took the initiative, issued statements and threatened to resign. They used to provide what people call internal opposition within the government. What is the role of the environment minister within the government? It’s to provide an internal critique, which ends up benefiting the government.

ÉPOCA – But did you get this information from inside the government? Does Minister Izabella Teixeira make these criticisms and get defeated, or doesn’t she make them? You are saying she doesn’t.

Capobianco – She makes statements in the press defending these measures. She defends the Senate’s Forest Code, says it’s excellent, that it will promote the biggest programme of forest regeneration in the world. I don’t know where she got that from. Her position isn’t that of someone in opposition. She’s giving institutional support to these things….

ÉPOCA – What can we expect from Brazil at Rio+20

Capobianco – This is another good example of the Brazilian government’s change of attitude. At Rio 92 I was a member, I took part in all the organising meetings, all the discussion on the agenda, all the inter-ministerial meetings. I also took part in Rio+5 and Rio+10. What I would say is this: it’s surprising how Rio+20 is becoming the anti, the anti, the anti. Rio 92 was different. It’s the UN that coordinates everything, but the host country has an enormous importance in this type of event. Its receptivity, the way it engages with the agenda, is decisive for making the atmosphere favourable to progress. In the same way, you can’t hold a conference on human rights in a country that doesn’t respect human rights. Why can’t you? Well, what sort of atmosphere would there be for discussion? In Rio 92 Brazil acted with extreme competence, supported the conventions, supported the environmental debate, took internal initiatives, created the Yanomami territory, closed Serra do Cachimbo [a test site for nuclear missiles in the south of Pará, LAB], a series of measures. It was proactive. Brazil was on the side of the environmental agenda in the run-up to Rio 92. And it created a positive atmosphere despite the political problems of the time, the impeachment of Collor and all that. It was so positive that Rio+20 is in Brazil again. But how is Brazil preparing for Rio+20 now? First, disorganisation, lack of preparedness to have it. Second, a completely anti-environmental agenda. What relevant action has Brazil taken on environmental issues in the last few months? Third, what is Brazil doing about the conference agenda?

ÉPOCA – What is it doing?

Capobianco – Get the interview with the coordinator of Rio+20 and have a read. He says: ‘You’re wrong. The question of the environment is not environment in the strict sense; you have to have the economic and social dimensions.’ That’s true, but do you really think that the bolsa familia (family education grants) is Brazil’s great example for the world in this area? It is the great social example, of course, but from the environmental point of view the connection is very weak. The education grants should come into the debate, of course, but is that Brazil’s main contribution? I don’t think so.

ÉPOCA – What should be the main issue?

Capobianco – The central issue of Rio+20 is the environmental crisis. We’re clear about the risks, we have precise indicators, but there’s a problem about carrying out the agenda of the big climate agreements. Won’t Rio+20 discuss that? Won’t it evaluate that? Brazil’s role should be to insist on this, on this type of agenda, an international agenda that addresses the problems. We need to do some real thinking that produces results. The risk is that Rio+20 will be an endless stream of good intentions that just produces blah-blah-blah. The agenda has become general, empty of content. Brazil has incredible attributes, incredible natural riches. But what is the government doing? What is it doing about ethanol, for example, to defend it? To promote it? Where is the investment in renewable energy? Brazil is building Belo Monte, building dams on the river Madeira, on the Tapajós. It is building a hydro-electric scheme on indigenous land with an approval secured by default. It’s unbelievable.

ÉPOCA – Wind turbines are multiplying at a very fast rate.

Capobianco – In spite of the government. Wind power is increasing in Brazil in spite of the government. There’s no financial support for wind power. The fact that it’s growing is a surprise for the government. The government has been surprised by the interest from investors. The government’s vision is hydro-electric and thermo-electric. It’s crazy. And nuclear. A view in a totally different direction. Rio+20 is happening at a time when the whole world has difficulties in implementing the agenda; Brazil is not a special case.

But in Brazil there aren’t just difficulties; things are going backwards. And Brazil will host Rio+20 in an extremely negative atmosphere, with a very bad reputation and a very weak agenda. There’s a risk that Rio+20 will be neutered, which would be bad for the country.

ÉPOCA – What country today has a strong environmental agenda?

Capobianco – Many. The countries of the European Union have, despite the euro crisis and all the difficulties. China has. It is making investments in the so-called green economy and in technological zones at a ridiculous rate. China today has the largest reforestation programme in the world, and the world’s largest wind power programme and investment in solar power.

ÉPOCA – And it has the world’s most polluted rivers, one of the highest emission levels in the world, coal, the most polluted air in the world…

Capobianco – Yes, of course it has. But the question is this: how do you achieve the conversion? You do it by finding solutions. How do you solve the problem of energy production? First, by efficiency, reducing consumption. Then, through renewable energies. If you don’t have heavy investment in renewables, you’ll never get out of the vicious circle. If you take the value of investment in research and development in Brazil over the next few years, you’ll find that investment in petroleum derivatives is the vast majority. It’s going in the wrong direction.

ÉPOCA – So Brazil is the bad guy on environmental issues?

Capobianco – It’s not that. Brazil isn’t the bad guy. The bad guys on the climate convention are China and the United States, not Brazil. The problem is how you look to the future. This is what’s striking in Brazil today. Brazil started from a growing, cumulative and important agenda in the environmental field. Brazil made an option to commit to emission reduction targets. It was the first developing country to do that, it created a positive political impact. And what have we got now? We’ve got a reverse tendency. And this reverse will cost Brazil dear. The cost will come because the country will delay its adaptation and its preparation for when this debate becomes more heated. There will be a cost because Brazil will find difficulty in securing support for its proposals from the international community. There will be a cost because Brazil will find difficulty in maintaining the political leadership it gained. There will be a cost because Brazil will no longer benefit from the economic opportunities of the so-called green economy.

ÉPOCA – In your opinion, what should Brazil be doing?

Capobianco – Brazil should be taking advantage of its potential for ethanol, for example, to encourage the reduction of carbon emissions. But today if motorists see that the price of alcohol at the pump is bad value, they won’t use it. And the environmental benefit of alcohol? It’s a clean process, you have various advantages for the green economy. But the government doesn’t have a campaign to show these benefits. In fact, the opposite happens: the government artificially holds down the price of petrol, in a populist attitude, to the detriment of one of its great assets in the so-called green economy. It’s a pre-1992 outlook. It’s no good people having better incomes, higher wages, purchasing power, if the environment is completely degraded and there’s no quality of life. The government’s view is that you have to increase consumption. Consumption for consumption’s sake. Think about it: the government’s flagship programme is Accelerating Growth (PAC). It’s not a programme for Accelerating Development. So the government is prehistoric on the question of the environment. And by being prehistoric it ends up, by omission or action, allowing the most backward elements in Brazil to push forward their agenda. It’s more a 1970s economic miracle government than one for the third millennium.




The interview was translated from Portuguese by LAB

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