Spotlight on Brazil


The Society for Conservation Biology's annual meeting in Brasilia this July and a special section on Brazil in this issue shine a spotlight on this nation of such central significance to biodiversity conservation and the field of conservation biology. Nowhere is the conservation story more dramatic than in Brazil, and arguably nowhere are the conservation needs more critical. So it is fitting at this juncture to look back at some of the history of Brazilian conservation and understand the implications for the country's potential conservation role, both regionally and globally.

About 25 years ago, when asked why the World Wildlife Fund-U.S. was doing so much in Brazil, I gave a rather flip reply: “There is a short answer and a long answer, but the short answer is Brazil is half of South America.” In a time before formal definition of biodiversity hotspots or megadiversity countries, indeed just as the term biological diversity came into being, it was nonetheless more than obvious that Brazil had a great concentration of the diversity of life on Earth. As Darwin put it, Brazil is “one great wild untidy luxuriant hothouse made by nature for herself.”

Clearly this in itself more than justifies a concentration of conservation effort, but there was and is the additional issue of the tremendous leadership potential of this sprawling and exuberant nation. The ensuing years have seen significant progress in conservation leadership, as Brazil has developed some of the strongest conservation science capability in the world and major conservation advances have progressed amidst powerful and horrific forces of destruction. Among other things, Brazilian conservation leaders contributed the concept of a new kind of protected area with the establishment of extractive reserves after the assassination of the leader of the rubber tappers, Chico Mendes, in 1988.

These leaders have also taken a major international role, fielding some of the most sophisticated negotiators at international meetings. It is revealing and interesting that Ambassador Marcos Azambuja, who presented the Brazilian view at Stockholm in 1972—namely that Brazil welcomed pollution so as to gain development—20 years later led the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, where Brazilians played a significant role as champions of the environment. It was Ambassador Paulo Tarso Flecha da Lima, head of the Brazilian Foreign Service in the late 1980s, who recognized that the foreign ministry needed a formal division to deal with such issues. He also pushed for Brazil to host the Earth Summit, which changed Brazil's international image and made a profound and lasting impression about the importance of the environment within the country. Brazil was instrumental in the Kyoto Protocol with its innovative Clean Development Mechanism that allows at least limited forms of carbon trading between industrialized and industrializing nations.

None of that would have been possible without the leadership of a stalwart few who worked on conservation and environment problems before they came more to center stage. Primary among them was zoologist Paulo Nogueira-Neto, who started as Brazil's first secretary for the environment with a staff of about three and presided over the development of some of the most modern environmental legislation in the world and about 3.2 million ha of protected areas beyond the national parks. In office 12 years, he was acknowledged by Jose Goldemberg (another of the great leaders and then rector of the University of Sao Paulo) as the person who was criticized when in office for being insufficiently aggressive but recognized soon after as having been very aggressive indeed.

Paulo Nogueira-Neto is active to this day, as is his younger colleague Maria Teresa Jorge Padua, an active proponent of national parks. Other pioneers include primatologist Adelmar Faria Coimbra Filho, Jose Candido de Melo Carvalho at the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, and Admiral Ibsen de Gusmao Camara who played a major role in the nongovernmental organization world of Brazil. There are many others who deserve mention—such as geneticist Warwick Kerr—but they are done justice elsewhere in this issue.

More important than this fascinating and short but vibrant history is where Brazil will go from here, both nationally and internationally. The situation in Brazil is no different than that in any country: the seeds are there for either success or failure and there is no easy path.

Brazil's ecosystems are globally important. The Atlantic Forest, the Pantanal (South America's greatest wetland), the Cerrado, and coastal and marine areas all have their own unique characteristics and sets of conservation challenges. Freshwater biodiversity has been particularly neglected.

Amazonian deforestation remains chronically high despite many efforts (which undoubtedly make some positive difference). New threats such as the advance of soybean agriculture are making inroads not just by conversion of forest to agricultural land but also because associated infrastructure can have impacts beyond the facilitation of commodity shipment. China has already made clear its willingness to fund any infrastructure that facilitates delivery of commodities of interest. More disturbing are signs of increasing “system vulnerability,” especially in the sense of fire vulnerability even in non El Niño years.

At the same time there has been considerable progress. With fulfillment of commitments under the Amazon Region Protected Area program, more than 40% of the Brazilian Amazon will be under some form of protection, without counting the extent to which other lands conform to the regulation requiring that 80% remain in forest. There are now elected officials in some of the Amazon states who are committed to sustainable development, but in some states (Pará in particular), violence remains endemic around a nexus of vested interests, the landless, and the environment. Real creativity needs to be brought to bear on these situations.

Nationally, the real issue is whether conservation concerns can move beyond the ken of the Ministry of the Environment and state environmental agencies and become imbedded in the rest of national and state government. The debate around the infrastructure program originally called Avanca Brasil is in the end about whether the planning arm of the government will willingly embrace environmental concerns and lead the country in sustainable development efforts, rather than designating protected areas simply as “nice” add-ons at the end. This is a central effort of the current minister of the environment, Marina Silva.

The question of what role Brazil is willing to take beyond its borders, namely regionally, is one of major consequence for biodiversity. Brazil has already played a constructive role vis-à-vis Paraguay and Bolivia in averting ill-conceived aquatic modifications in the Pantanal. Brazil initiated the Treaty on Amazon Cooperation in the 1970s, largely, it would seem, as a defensive measure. Under the leadership of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Brazil's role has metamorphosed into one of constructive leadership in sustainable development within the Amazon pact. With the treaty secretariat now permanently based in Brasilia under the leadership of Secretary-General Rosalia Arteaga (former vice president of Ecuador), there is tremendous potential for good if everyone concerned about the future of the Amazon pulls together to support and sustain such an effort.

That will require thoughtful balancing of economic and other imperatives, and no greater challenge exists than the continental-scale plan of integration and infrastructure, IIRSA. This mix of continental links in transportation, energy, and commerce—born of understandable imperatives for integration and economic opportunity—does not so far appear to consider environmental and social impacts. Environmental and social concerns and the entire project itself need to be examined in terms of total potential impacts rather than analyzed piece by piece, as has been the normal modus operandi to this point.

The IIRSA only highlights the need to think beyond individual protected areas and recognize the importance of conserving and managing ecosystems. This is particularly true of the Amazon as a whole, which has a hydrologic cycle that is dependent on the forest. Daily, as deforestation progresses, the system edges closer to the threshold of an irreversible drying trend. The Pantanal—a gigantic sponge absorbing water in the rainy season and releasing it slowly in the dry season—also needs to be managed as a system

As I write this, a tragic reprise of the history of Chico Mendes is playing. The great tensions between landowners, the landless, and environmental concerns has led to the assassination of 74-year-old nun Dorothy Stang. The struggle has now gained a new human face. Previously relaxed logging rules have been restored, creation of new protected areas has become a high priority, and 2000 troops have been sent to the site of the violence in the state of Pará. One wonders if this will be a race to the finish between the forces of destruction and the forces of conservation.

The Society for Conservation Biology meets in Brasilia at a critical moment in Brazil's history and that of the global environment. These are pivotal times for the future of Brazil and its extraordinary biodiversity. Brazil is poised to make a difference larger than any other South American nation in the future of the Amazon Treaty and to change the scale of conservation work throughout the entire South American continent. It has as many doers and thinkers as can be found anywhere, and they are acting in a monumental conservation drama. Brazil can make a profound and positive contribution to the world's environment, and it is up to the rest of us to support transformation of that potential into reality.