Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff was re-elected last Sunday in what turned out to be the narrowest election in the country’s history. The incumbent won 51.64 percent of the popular vote, beating center-right candidate Aecio Neves of the PSDB and continuing the PT’s (Worker’s Party) 12 year run in highest office. Despite the victory, the current administration has been criticized by a large contingency of environmentalists and economists for adopting a short-sighted approach to economic development, often overlooking major environmental concerns for the sake of large scale infrastructure projects.
Brazil is a key player in the global environmental debate because it holds 12 percent of the world’s fresh water and about a third of its remaining rainforests. It was also able to grow exponentially during the first decade of the 21st century in a somewhat sustainable manner. The same could not be said for last four years. Rousseff did not present any concrete environmental policy proposals during this year’s campaign, and that signals warning signs when assessing what the environmental legacy of her second term will be.
The president’s abrasive relationship with environmentalists dates back to her predecessor’s administration. She served as the last president’s chief minister — a sort of equivalent to prime minister and the second highest position in Brazilian politics. Her tenure in the position marked a period when most major infrastructure projects were approved and their licensing processes fast-tracked. As a result, Rousseff fostered a hostile relationship with environmental interests during her tenure as chief minister. Her lack of regard for environmental concerns grew to such an extent that Marina Silva, who headed the Ministry of Environment at the time, resigned in protest. Silva, a former environmental activist from the Amazon, ran against Rousseff in this year’s election. At one point predicted to win it all, she placed an underwhelming third and threw her support behind Aecio Neves in the run-off.
It was with this antagonistic dynamic with environmentalists that Rousseff launched her presidential campaign in 2010, but she adopted a conciliatory tone. On the campaign trail Rousseff frequently underscored a commitment to sustainable development and a “zero tolerance” policy for deforestation, in a somewhat successful attempt to woo young voters and the environmentally-minded. Since taking office, however, she has largely followed a policy of development at all costs, green-lighting controversial infrastructure projects of high environmental cost, de-emphasizing renewables like wind and solar in favor of dirtier forms of energy, and overseeing the first increases in Amazon deforestation since 2006. Shortly after taking office the new government authorized construction for the highly-controversial Belo Monte dam, a project which had existed on paper since the 1980s. The dam will be the third-largest in the world and is currently under construction in the heart of the Amazon basin. At the same time Rousseff issued a reform that expedited the environmental licensing process for large scale construction projects around the country.
The Belo Monte dam will flood 1,500 square kilometers of rainforest, an area larger than the city of New York, and displace 40,000 indigenous people. Although technically clean energy, there is much dispute over the dam’s economic, social, and environmental viability. Its construction will have a significant carbon footprint, but the dam itself will only run at 40 percent capacity for much of the year. The bulk of power produced by the dam will be sold at subsidized rates to energy-intensive industries like aluminum smelting. The funneling of energy to industries in the region is likely to foster their growth, and therefore further deforestation. The project has been mired in legal disputes since its inception, with independent and public institutions having issued numerous conflicting reports on the environmental and social impacts of the dam. A ruling by the Brazilian high court this April identified major irregularities in the project’s latest environmental impact assessment report, threatening to halt construction for the sixth time in four years.
Rousseff is coupling her strategy of hydropower expansion in the Amazon with a heavier reliance on fossil fuels. Brazil’s ten-year energy plan funnels 70 percent of its budget to fossil fuels (much of it for offshore drilling), and only 9.2 percent of it for renewables, with environmentally questionable hydro composing the bulk of the renewable budget.
Projects like Belo Monte are typical of Rousseff’s development strategy. Many other large scale infrastructure projects of high environmental impact and dubious utility are in the works, such as the diversion of the Sao Francisco River and the building of an East-West railway that will cut through stretches of the seriously threatened Atlantic Coast forest.
In 2012 Rousseff signed into law a review of Brazil’s forest code, the chief law governing conservation and forest management in the country. The review was being pushed by agribusiness interests in congress for years and the president had promised to oppose it when running for office in 2010. She vetoed a few of the law’s most offending clauses, but most of it was left intact. The new code does away with many significant forest protection measures and exempts those guilty of illegal land clearance from fines or the obligation to re-forest. When the new code became law in 2012, Greenpeace issued a scathing response that was echoed by environmentalists the world over: “This is the latest blow for the Amazon from a government that is systematically dismantling Brazil’s environmental protection measures,” the statement read.
At the time, ten former environment ministers came together in an open letter to the president to voice their opposition to the new law. The following year, Amazon deforestation increased for the first time since 2006. August and September of this year saw a 190 percent spike in deforestation when compared to the same period last year. Furthermore, Rousseff recently refused to join 30 countries, including the United States, in signing a pledge to end deforestation that was presented at the U.N. Climate Summit in September. The trend of decline in Amazon deforestation that was observed for most of the 21st century is being reversed. The “zero tolerance” commitment Rousseff made in 2010 seems to have been forgotten. Environmentalists and Green Party officials — some of whom had supported Rousseff during her conciliatory run for office in 2010 — unanimously supported her opponent in this year’s election. Any credibility Rousseff might have had on the subject of sustainable development has been lost. “In terms of the environment, this has been the worst administration in Brazilian history,” Mario Mantovani, a leading environmental lobbyist in the Brazilian Congress told the newspaper Folha de São Paulo. There are no signs that the second half of Rousseff’s administration will be much better.