As Host to Rio+20, Brazil Faces Own Environmental Struggles

Economic Powerhouse Is Using Up Its Natural Resources Faster than Ever

As leaders from 130 countries gather in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, this week for the “Rio+20” United Nations environmental summit, the host country is grappling with its own increasingly volatile struggles between economic growth, ecosystem conservation, and human rights protection.

photo of cattle in a herd on a dirt road through a forestPhoto by Karen HoffmanCattle ranching and soybean cultivations are the two major drivers of deforestation in Brazil.

From deforestation for soy and cattle plantations to violence against forest activists, to the scores of dams being built on the country’s rushing rivers, Brazil faces debate both internally and internationally about its future. The South American nation is home to one-third of the world’s remaining rainforests, including a majority of the Amazon rainforest. Its forests host an incredible biodiversity, with more than 56,000 described species of plants, 1,700 species of birds, 695 amphibians, 578 mammals, and 651 reptiles.

Twenty years ago, at the first Earth Summit in Rio, protecting the Amazon was already on everyone’s minds. Canadian environmental activist John Hemming wrote in his book Tree of Rivers: “More heads of government attended this gathering than any previous event: It took place in the country that held the most tropical forests and rivers, and ironically it was in the 500th anniversary of Columbus. … I was at this huge, vibrant conference and experienced the resulting feeling of optimism.”

Now Brazil is on its way to becoming an economic powerhouse and its using up its natural resources faster than ever. The country grows and exports the most soy in the world (after the United States) and, in the last decade, Brazil has emerged as the largest beef exporter in the world. Both of these activities are major causes of deforestation in the Amazon. According to the Center for International Forestry Research, “between 1990 and 2001 the percentage of Europe’s processed meat imports that came from Brazil rose from 40 to 74 percent” and by 2003 “for the first time ever, the growth in Brazilian cattle production — 80 percent of which was in the Amazon — was largely export driven.”

Meanwhile, a new variety of soybean developed by Brazilian scientists that does well in rainforest climate, combined with high prices in the global market, has led to a massive expansion in soybean cultivation in the country. Brazil is close to outstripping the US as the world’s leading exporter of soybeans. While soybean farms don’t cause as much direct deforestation, they are using up much of the already cleared land and transitional forests and are a key impetus for new highways and transportation projects that are opening up the Amazon for further development.

photo of a man pointing at a body of waterPhoto by Karen HoffmanChief Jose Carlos Arara gestures to the Xingu River that his village in Altamira depends on for life.
Brazil plans to build 60 big and small dams on its many rivers and their tributaries, most infamously the $11
billion Belo Monte dam over the Xingu that would displace several Indigenous and riverine communities.

Burning down carbon-rich forests to clear land for farming, a common practice among poor, marginal farmers who are now pushing deeper into the Amazon in search of new, unclaimed land, is also adding more greenhouse gases to the atmosphere.

Many Brazilians, including President Dilma Rousseff, advocate more development and use of natural resources to power the country’s ascent. Others, however, caution that Brazil may be losing invaluable cultural and natural resources.

One major concern at this summit is the rivers in Amazonia that are being dammed for hydroelectric power. Brazil plans to build 60 big and small dams on its many rivers and their tributaries, most infamously the $11 billion Belo Monte dam near Altamira, Pará, slated to be the third largest dam in the world. Belo Monte will both flood more than 500 square kilometers, including parts of Altamira, and dry up more than 100 km of the Xingu River. The particular section of the river most affected, called the Big Bend, happens to be home to Indigenous riverine communities such as the Juruna, Arara, and Kayapó. The project would cause the disappearance of entire species of birds, reptiles, and fish, and displace tens of thousands of people. (See “In Brazil, Murder of Activists Underscores Bitter Fight over Amazon’s Resources.”)

Last week, as an ancillary event to Rio+20, environmental groups organized a “Xingu+23” event in Altamira, harkening back to the 1989 summit against the first incarnation of Belo Monte, occupying the dam site and spelling out “Pare (Stop) Belo Monte” with their bodies.

In addition to concerns about deforestation, environmentalists worry about the impact of Brazil’s aluminum and iron mining and the roads being built near the border with Peru that threaten uncontacted Indigenous tribes.

“We hoped that something might be done to check deforestation and other environmental follies before it was too late,” Hemming wrote of the 1992 summit. “Sadly, those aspirations were misplaced.” Environmentalists everywhere are closely watching what happens at Rio+20. But given from what looks to be a weak draft agreement coming from the negotiators, it will take more than hope to fix Brazil’s problems.

Karen Hoffmann is a freelance journalist covering human rights and the environment, with a focus on Latin America. Follow her on Twitter at @karhoff.

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