NASA satellite photo of deforestation in the state of Rondônia, western Brazil. Photo: NASA
NASA satellite photo of deforestation in the state of Rondônia, western Brazil. Photo: NASA

In Brazil, where both the free market and state programs have simultaneously expanded in recent years, it is especially important to involve both private and public sectors in tackling environmental problems.

Yet, as is the case in many countries, business interests often conflict with environmental protection.

Indigenous rights issues and the existence of huge semi-public industrial corporations further complicate the issue. For instance, when partially state-owned companies pursue projects on publicly owned indigenous lands, it is the job of the state to protect those lands — and the people who live on them — from illegal exploitation and destruction.

It is also the job of the state, albeit perhaps separate branches, to responsibly run and regulate semi-public corporations like fossil fuel giant Petrobras or mining corporation Vale. 

Will nationalization protect the Amazon?

Under a bill currently being considered by Brazil’s National Congress, the Amazon would be officially designated a national resource under state control. Such legislation would enshrine policies of environmental protection and economic regulation regarding the world’s largest rainforest.

While the bill sounds like a good measure to protect the Amazon as well as provide windfalls to the state, some activists are critical, pointing out its nationalistic nature of governing the so-called “lungs of the Earth,” as well as the troubling lack of input from the indigenous communities that live in the rainforest.

Maira Irigaray, Brazil coordinator for Amazon Watch, told the Independent:

“This proposed bill ignores the international commitments made by Brazil to guarantee the rights to participation of indigenous populations in the decision-making process related to the exploitation of the natural resources on the areas they traditionally occupy. In this sense, this bill is another attempt at diminishing these rights, and reinforcing the predatory exploitation model in Brazil.”

Moreover, if economic growth continues to be Brazil’s main priority, the proposed bill may be little more than a useful bureaucratic tool to bypass any effective and meaningful protection of the Amazon in favor of state-facilitated big business. The bill was proposed by one Sergio Zveiter, a Federal Deputy from Rio de Janeiro and member of the nominally centrist, pro-business PSDB party.

Can the beef industry be the Amazon’s unlikely hero?

Amazon activists have long placed much of the blame for deforestation at the feet of the soy and cattle industries, yet a new study points to some meaningful successes due to market-driven so-called “zero deforestation agreements.”

The study, conducted by scientists at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the National Wildlife Federation and the IMAZON Amazon Institute of People and the Environment, suggests that in the state of Pará, years of pressure from activist groups have actually resulted in reform of the Amazon’s ranchers and the slaughterhouses that buy from them.

Ranchers participating in zero-deforestation agreements were incentivized to register their properties in Brazil’s rural environmental registry, while those that didn’t were often actively blocked by slaughterhouses.

While far from ideal, the market-driven private system of zero-deforestation agreements is useful in rural parts of the Amazon that are notoriously difficult for state entities to regulate and police.

Policing the Amazon

Brazil’s Federal Police have recently been ordered to serve 313 warrants aimed at those suspected of illegal gold and gemstone mining on indigenous land, mainly in the Yanomamireserve. The operation involves investigating miners, jewelers, business leaders, pilots and public servants.

While the exploitation of indigenous land is not illegal in Brazil, it does require state permission, as all such lands are state-owned. Illegal mining is not only environmentally damaging, it deprives the state of any windfalls that would be gained if the mining were sanctioned.