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Letter from São Paulo 1


For the government it was highly embarrassing: after all, this is the country that’s going to host not only the World Cup in 2014 but also the Olympic Games in 2016. The Energy Minister immediately blamed the weather, claiming that lightning had hit transmission lines, causing a short circuit. But researchers at INPE, the state research station, which monitors the weather, denied this possibility. And if it really was a bolt of lightning, that would be real cause for concern, because apparently Brazil has more lightning strikes than anywhere else in the world.

Altogether the government has tied itself in knots by trying to blame the weather for a problem that seems to have been caused by the lack of investment in more modern technology, which would have prevented the domino effect. The fact is that it puts all its eggs in one basket – the basket of hydroeletric power – and practically ignores alternative sources like solar, wind and wave, which are abundant in Brazil.

Possibly it was this embarrassment about the giant power failure that led the government to announce, after weeks of denial, that it would be putting a proposal with targets on the table in Copenhagen, for the Cop 15 conference. The target Brazil has set itself is a reduction of up to 39% in CO2 emissions by 2020. This includes a fall of 80% in Amazon deforestation. Deforestation this year is already down by 20% over last year, but this is probably due to the lower demand for beef and soya caused by the economic recession, so it could be a temporary drop.

But at the same time as it’s taking an ambitious proposal to Copenhagen, the government is giving a different signal to the powerful farmers’ lobby in Congress, who want to soften up the Forest Code, so they can cut down more, not fewer trees. No wonder they are also known as the electric saw lobby, and their proposal has been dubbed “Zero Forest”. These farmers should be paying hefty fines for cutting their forest reserves. Instead President Lula has given them an 18 month amnesty. By then, if they have their way in Congress they will have changed the Forest Code and reduced the area they need to leave as forest. Still, not all farmers agree with their backward -ooking colleagues. A group of 35 large-scale farmers has spoken out against changing the Forest Code.

The Brazilian delegation to Copenhagen will be led by Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s first minister. Not because she believes in sustainable development, but because she’s Lula’s candidate to succeed him in next years’ elections. No, Dilma is an enthusiastic pro-developer, who wants more roads and more hydroeletrics in the Amazon. But there will be a thorn in Dilma’s side at Copenhagen – another woman who also plans to run for the presidency next year, standing for Brazil’s Green Party. Marina Silva is Lula’s ex-Environment Minister, and she’s become more and more critical of the government’s position on climate change. It’s difficult to say yet whether she will be able to turn the Greens into a more effective party and energise the green movement. Brazil’s electoral laws favour the larger parties, so she will get very little free TV time, which is what counts. But there’s no doubt that climate change is moving on to the political agenda. The governor of Sao Paulo, Jose Serra, who’s expected to be the candidate for the main opposition party, the Tucanos, or PSDB, says he’s going to plant 150,000 trees and cut the state’s emissions by 20%.

There is an area where the numbers continue to go up, not down: police violence. In Rio, future host to the Olympic Games, the numbers are staggering. Between 1998 and September this year, over 10,000 people were shot dead by the police alone. By the police! Allegedly they were shot while resisting arrest or in gun battles. Most of these deaths took place in the city’s favelas or shantytowns controlled by drug gangs. This terrible war goes largely unreported until something dramatic happens, like the police helicopter shot down in flames, with three policemen killed, a couple of weeks ago. In the days that followed over 40 people were killed, some of them definitely innocent, like the mother carrying her baby who was hit by a stray bullet.

The media was full of anguished debates about the the power of the drug gangs and the police response. The knee jerk reaction is to buy more helicopters, and yet more powerful arms to meet the drug gangs’ own ever more powerful weaponry. But the real question is, how have successive governments allowed entire areas of Rio, where 100s of 1000s of ordinary people who are not drug dealers live, to become a no man’s land, ruled by drug lords? And in the run up to the World Cup and the Olympic Games, will the solution of the authorities be simply more repression, more helicopters, tanks on the streets, or will they make a serious attempt to give favela dwellers back their rights as citizens and clamp down on the drug gangs? If holding the Olympic Games means bringing an end to Rio’s virtual civil war, then they will certainly be worthwhile, and Brazil will have earned its new international prestige.

by Jan Rocha*


List to an audio recording of Jan’s experiences:



*Jan Rocha is a free-lance journalist who have lived in Sao Paulo for over 30 years. Among others, she has worked for the BBC and The Guardian.

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