In terms of natural riches, Brazil might be the wealthiest country in the world.
While the millions of favela dwellers, workers struggling to make ends meet and those suffering from São Paulo’s water shortage may find little comfort in trite statements of “wealth in biodiversity,” there is plenty of wealth in the country, both natural and monetary.
The problem, however, is in its distribution. Despite strides made through the Bolsa Família (Family Allowance) program towards income equality, economic growth has still favored the rich. Brazil’s wealthy pay far less in taxes (percentage-wise) than low earners, and education and infrastructure in poor communities trail those of the rich. Furthermore, even with recent agrarian reforms, family farms are not able to compete with corporate megafarms, which control and own a disproportionate amount of agricultural land.
Since 2000, Latin America as a whole has been bucking the conventional wisdom that industrialization and growth increase greenhouse gas emissions, though this may be a misleading figure. Only part of the drop in emissions comes from improved energy efficiency, while much of it is due to slowing deforestation. However, the forests are still shrinking, and nowhere is this more concerning than in Brazil, which saw a 290 percent rise in Amazon deforestation in September alone. With a growing middle class and increasing energy needs, it seems inevitable that emissions from motor vehicles, energy production, shipping and manufacturing will keep going up.
Sugar cane and hydropower
While Brazil’s energy sector is expanding and diversifying, none of the sources are without environmental and human rights-related problems — not even the “green” ones. The Belo Monte dam project in the state of Pará is set to add to the country’s impressive hydroelectric power array (in 2010, Brazil got 78.8 percent of its electricity from hydropower) but is marred by its displacement of thousands of local inhabitants and the destruction of thousands of kilometers of Amazon rainforest.
Brazil is also home to an advanced and long-established biofuel sector. All gasoline sold in the country is required to be at least 18 percent ethanol (the percentage fluctuates year-to-year based on a variety of factors). Sugarcane ethanol is of great advantage in terms of emissions and air pollution, though large-scale farming can significantly degrade soil, use large amounts of water and pollute the environment with chemical fertilizers. Sugarcane production is also vulnerable to unfavorable weather patterns as a result of climate change.
In addition to these two complicated — but still renewable — resources, Brazil has a growing fossil fuel economy, including significant offshore oil reserves and small wind and solar sectors. The country sources about 4 percent of its electricity from nuclear power.
While Brazil’s social policies have lifted many out of poverty, the current government (like previous ones) has been marred by corruption, policies that support environmental degradation and a far-too-cozy relationship with big business that prevent it from adequately pursuing any real systematic policies that would achieve social and economic equality on the one hand, and sustainable or “green” growth on the other. Some ingredients are there, but too much power still lies with rich business interests, making progressive social policies look like little more than populism, and environmental initiatives too much like greenwashing.
The real social justice and environmental movement in Brazil may be the MST (Landless Workers’ Movement), whose goals include social justice and environmental sustainability. They have strength in numbers, but without money and land, they have been largely left on the political sidelines.