The green fig leaves

Observations on Brazil

A flamboyant left-wing ecologist, Carlos Minc, has replaced Marina Silva as Brazil's environment minister. "Shake in your shoes, polluters!" said Minc, announcing the creation of a National Forest Guard to enforce environmental laws, indicating a style very different from that of the dogged but discreet Silva.

But it is unlikely that Minc will be any more successful than his predecessor, an iconic figure whose resignation came after five years of fighting a losing battle against loggers, farmers and ranchers. These groups see the Amazon as a last agricultural frontier, rather than a unique ecosystem vital to their country's rainfall and to the world's climate as a whole.

Silva still had tremendous international prestige as a symbol of those Brazilians who want only sustainable development. But she had become a green fig leaf for a government more in tune with the big farm producers keen for roads, dams and ports to supply world markets hungry for cheap beef, timber, soy and, soon, sugar-cane ethanol.

President Lula da Silva governs with an alliance of parties; he cannot afford to ignore congress's powerful "ruralista" lobby, which wants to overturn laws banning official credit for environmental offenders and to allow more, not less, farming in the Amazon. Lula has made clear that environmental protection will not be an obstacle to development. He chose Minc, formerly the environment secretary for Rio de Janeiro, because of his speed in processing the environmental licences now compulsory for all new infrastructure projects.

One of the main criticisms levelled against Silva by the "development at all costs" lobby was her delay in granting licences for large projects, including two dams on the Madeira River. The federal government wants to build up to 70 new dams in the Amazon Basin by 2030 to meet growing energy demands. Many of these are in controversial areas, such as the huge Belo Monte Dam on the Xingu River. This month more than 1,000 Indians joined riverside dwellers and small farmers to protest at the dam, which they say will kill the animals and fish they rely on and profoundly affect their health.

Marina Silva had tried to protect the rainforest by creating huge conservation units, covering 24 million hectares in total. But with a lack of funds for the environment agency responsible for enforcing the laws on protection and deforestation (with jurisdiction over an area of five million square kilometres), illegal logging and land-grabbing have been hard to stop.

Minc has already picked a fight with a major soy producer, Blairo Maggi, governor of the state of Mato Grosso in the Amazon, where the latest official figures show a huge increase in burning and clearing. Maggi, a political ally of Lula's, was not amused.

Such are the formidable political forces ranged against a weak green lobby inside Brazil. Recently a group of 60 people from Mangabal, on the Tapajós River, made their first ever trip to the capital, Brasilia, to plead for protection against loggers who are ignoring century-old land titles and invading their area. But voices of riverine communities such as these are hardly ever heard. Minc will have a tough task on his hands.

This article first appeared in the 02 June 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Bobby and Barack

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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.