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