Within two decades, Brazil has transformed from a developing country to a leading economic power. As upcoming host of the Rio+20 Conference, Brazil stands between the need to grow and the need to protect the common good.
Soaring inflation, rising national deficits, and growing unemployment rates. Brazilian students are calling for Fernando Collor de Mello's resignation, the country's first democratically elected president. It's 1992. This is atmosphere in which Brazil organizes the first United Nations Conference on Environment and Development.
Exactly two decades later, Brazil will host the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (UNCSD), also known as Rio+20, from June 20 to 22, 2012.
The emerging Latin American nation is on the cusp of becoming a global power. Thanks to a stable political system and steady growth, Brazil now has the sixth largest economy in the world, falling one spot behind France and one spot ahead of Great Britain.
The average pro-capita income has spurted from $4,000 to $6,000. 28 million Brazilians have escaped abject poverty and 36 million have entered the middle class. Even though the UN has listed Brazil at number 84 on its Human Development Index, the international community agrees that Brazil's development is strong/stable.
But even prosperity has caused new problems. The country finds itself in the middle of a sociopolitical conflict between need for prosperity and growth on the one hand, and the necessity of preserving the environment on the other.
Volney Zanardi, Jr. of the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment sees an overlap between Brazil's current problems and the focus of the Rio+20 conference.
“We must protect our natural resources and fight deforestation in the Amazon. But at the same time, we also have to improve the quality of living for our population and to secure its access to water, health care, and energy,” Zanardi told DW.
20 years of change
In 1992, no one in Brazil had made the connection between social, economic and environmental issues.
“The debate about the environment was perceived as a rebellion against business' predatory development,” said Zanardi. He attended the first UN conference as a representative of Porto Allegre's city council.
Professor Jacques Marcovitsch, former president of the University of São Paulo and co-organizer of the UNCED in 1992, credits his country for allowing a network of businesses, universities, and civil engagement to emerge in order to solve these problems. “But still, considering the magnitude of the challenges, they didn't do enough,” he said.
According to Marcovitch, part of these challenges can be seen in the cities. “Unregulated migration [to the cities] led to less space, streets flooded with cars, and inefficient industrial production that polluted the environment.”
The other part can be seen in the fields and forests that are being cleared constantly in order to expand agricultural land and for residential areas. “Brazil is one of the most important emerging nations that has to deal with both of these problems,” said Marcovitch.
Old habits threaten new ways
More people move to cities, many live in slums. The government has made the battle against poverty a top priority
Marina Silva served as the Minister of the Environment during former President da Silva's administration. She told DW that, “People in Brazil are more interested today in social and environmental issues,” which she considers her country's greatest advancement.
Even if deforestation of the rain forest and other illegal schemes were to be fought successfully, the danger of falling back into old habits couldn't be ruled out.
While the country prepares for the event, Brazilian politicians continue to debate a controversial forest protection law “Código Florestal”.
Silva sees the irony in the two situations. “At Rio+20, Brazil will host representatives from 190 countries in order to talk about sustainability, while it's own politicians are trying to relax the laws that protect the rainforest, biodiversity, and indigenous peoples,” she said.
Bodies in the closet
Paulo Adário, the president of Greenpeace's Amazon Campaign, shares Silva's view. “As host of the Rio+20 Conference, Brazil is a good example of a country with a fast-growing economy and a public debate about environmental and social issues.”
Adário quickly pointed out bigger issues that escape public attention, such as the illegal exploitation of the Amazon forest or slave-like conditions in coal mines, in which international steel producers are involved.
“This particular Brazil has bodies in the closet. And public opinion's light doesn't extend past that door. And behind that door, people are living like they did in the Middle Ages,” said Adário.
Rio+20 with a questionable focus
“ “20 years ago, people were saying that Brazil was the land of the future. And it looks like that the future has finally begun,” said Zanardi. He added, “We know that the environment and society are inextricably linked to one another, which is why we have to protect nature.”
Marcovitch thinks this connection—which was established at the conference in 1992—is correct, however, he still criticizes Rio+20's focus. “Today, it seems like protecting the environment has taken a back seat to the goal of overcoming poverty,” he said.
Marcovitch pointed to trusted scientific findings. “One after the other, scientists provide evidence that green house gases are causing global warming. And that climate change poses a great threat to mankind.”
The world can't lose sight of this problem, he warned. “But at the Rio+20 conference, social issues will probably receive more attention than environmental concerns will. The danger is that the next generation won't have any time left to solve the problem.”
Author: Nádia Pontes/kms
Editor: Anke Rasper