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BRAZIL: Environmentalism Not a Top Priority for Voters

Mario Osava

RIO BRANCO, Brazil, Oct 13 2010 (IPS) - Getting voters to put a priority on policies that protect the environment is a challenge facing environmentalists and politicians in Brazil, especially in areas lacking in basic infrastructure, like the Amazon jungle.

Land cleared with the slash-and-burn technique, where rainforest used to stand.  Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Land cleared with the slash-and-burn technique, where rainforest used to stand. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

The unexpectedly strong performance of Green Party candidate Marina Silva in the Oct. 3 presidential elections could lead to a deceptively optimistic interpretation of the importance given to environmental issues by voters.

For one thing, a significant portion of the votes she garnered — she took 19 percent of the vote — came from religious voters opposed to abortion, because Silva belongs to an evangelical church, analysts say.

And Silva had disappointing results in her home state, Acre in the extreme northwest, which is where she got her start in politics — and which is a symbol of environmentalism in Brazil.

In Acre, Silva won 23 percent of the vote, barely higher than her nationwide average and far below the 42 percent she garnered in the Federal District, which includes Brasilia, the capital. Most of her voters were in large cities, and she failed to strike a chord with rural constituencies.

(In the first round, the governing Workers Party candidate Dilma Rousseff took 46.8 percent of the vote against former Sao Paulo state Governor José Serra’s 32.6 percent. The runoff will take place on Oct. 31.)

Support for Silva, a former environment minister who quit both the government and the Workers Party in 2008, was weakened in rural areas of Acre and other states because of the immediate interests of fisher communities and peasant farmers, who often feel that environmental laws run counter to their needs.

“Now we have to travel seven or eight days downriver to reach a place where we can fish,” complained Giancarlos Vieira da Silva, vice president of the fishers community in the municipality of Sena Madureira in Acre, a state that borders Bolivia and Peru.

The Purus river where they fish runs near the city, but the local fisherpeople have to cross the Arapixi Extractivist Reserve, a conservation area covering 133,000 hectares on both sides of the river, where commercial fishing is banned, to reach areas where they are allowed to fish and where fish are abundant, he explained.

Moreover, they are no longer allowed to use trawl nets. The 1.5 tons of fish they used to catch in just two days now takes 12 days of work, said Vieira da Silva, because they can only fish with casting nets, which are thrown by hand, or with even less productive techniques.

As a result, fishing expeditions sometimes have to last two or three months, in order for the fishers to make any money.

In addition, there is a four-month ban on fishing some species, from November to March. But although the families who depend on fishing for a living are only allowed to catch a few species during that time, they receive a steady income from the government in compensation.

Vieira da Silva blames all of these difficulties on the governmental Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) — unaware that the Chico Mendes Institute for the Conservation of Biodiversity has managed the country’s federal conservation areas since 2007.

“Ibama punishes us,” complained the 32-year-old Vieira da Silva, who said he was “raised as a fisherman by my mother,” who was widowed early and “is still fishing.”

On one occasion, he lost 500 kg of fish that were confiscated by inspectors after they found fish below the size limit. But he says in his defence that “we had cut their heads off, to reduce the weight of the cargo.”

Ibama is the symbol of Brazil’s environmental protection system, even for ecologists, as it creates the federal conservation areas, or “units” as they are known in Brazil.

It is “the enemy,” said Valdir Martins, president of the Sena Madureira fishing community, made up of 900 fishers and their families. When the Arapixi reserve was established in 2006, “they didn’t listen to us, even though it affected us,” he complained.

“Extractivist reserves”, or RESEX, are areas of public land where traditional communities — in the case of Arapixi, some 300 families — make a living from harvesting forestry products like natural rubber or Brazil nuts, and from small-scale farming, while preserving the forest and its biodiversity, under the principle of sustainable use of the Amazon jungle’s natural resources.

The RESEX first emerged in Acre, as the result of the activism of Chico Mendes, the internationally renowned leader of Brazil’s rubber tappers or “seringueiros” who was murdered in 1988. He was Marina Silva’s colleague and mentor.

In another municipality in Acre, Capixaba, it is peasant farmers who complain about the government’s environmental laws and restrictions. When she was environment minister, from 2003 to 2008, Silva provoked a “revolt” by hundreds of families by bringing to a halt the local production of ethanol, said Madalena de Lima, a 50-year-old farmer originally from the southern state of São Paulo.

The 400 direct jobs and 3,000 indirect jobs generated by Álcool Verde (Green Alcohol), a project for the industrialisation of the production of ethanol fuel from sugar cane launched in the 1980s, would have represented significant income for nearly 700 families settled in the area by the government’s land reform programme. “That’s why a lot of people didn’t vote for her,” Lima said.

However, it was actually the office of the public prosecutor that delayed the operations of the Álcool Verde programme, when it required, in 2007, an environmental impact study on large-scale sugar cane cultivation, with the aim of preserving archaeological sites threatened by the expansion of the crop.

But the objections were resolved, and the plant began to produce ethanol last month.

Nevertheless, the former minister called for restrictions on the expansion of sugar cane plantations in the Amazon jungle, for which she was criticised by some for trying to “stand in the way of progress.” She was also accused of opposing the construction of paved roads and bridges that are finally putting an end to Acre’s isolation.

The longing for paved roads is understandable. In Acre, dirt roads are impassable during the eight months of rains. Stories of peasant farmers who have to walk or ride horses or mules for several days to reach the nearest town are still common.

The 150 km of road connecting Sena Madureira, population 36,000, with the state capital, Rio Branco, were paved 12 years ago.

The paving of the road, highway BR-364, is now continuing westward, and is scheduled to be completed in 2011, providing a route to the Pacific ocean through northern Peru.

Acre is “the end of the line” in terms of colonisation, says Missias Lopes, who has worked in Ibama for 23 years. The state’s isolation is the reason that 88 percent of the original forest is still intact, he added.

But it is now turning into a link in the route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which will fuel development in the state.

BR-364 is driving deforestation all along the northern portion of Acre. BR-317, in the southeastern part of the state, also reaches the border with Bolivia and Peru, as part of a new land route to the Pacific.

Driving through the extensive grasslands that line these two roads, visitors get the impression that the entire state has been deforested. The sedimentary soil aggravates erosion and risks to the environment. And the use of the slash-and-burn technique to clear land for crops or livestock continues to destroy forests in Acre.

Getting farmers to look beyond their immediate needs and interests is a difficult task faced by environmentalists and government officials alike. Nor is it easy to convince fishers that seasonal bans and other restrictions preserve the future of fishing.

The problem is eradicating the idea that environmental conservation is a hurdle to development, which seems to have kept Marina Silva from taking even more votes.

Tião Viana, who was elected governor of Acre on Oct. 3, has promised to bring industrialisation to the state and to complete the paving of BR-364. His development-oriented platform distanced him from the former environment minister, according to Altino Machado, a local journalist who maintains a popular blog.

Viana and his brother Jorge, who governed Acre from 1999 to 2007, form part of the group that rose in local politics along with Marina Silva, in the Workers Party. She left the party in 2008, when she resigned as environment minister, complaining that the government of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was pushing for economic growth at the expense of the environment.

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