Countries generally – though not always – enact tough(er) environmental standards during periods of economic growth. As the size of the pie (wealth, income, government budgets) grows, the logic goes, more money becomes available to fund environmental agencies, staff them, and increase their power. Conversely, economic recession should lead to belt-tightening in environmental agencies, and an overall decline in governmental interest in environmental management, as federal and state funds shrink and are re-purposed to core tasks. Governments that were willing, say, to set aside lands for protected areas during boom times become less willing to do so during recessions as their concerns turn to fostering economic recovery. In this view, environmental policy is better during periods of economic growth than during recession.
But when the country is Brazil, and the issue is Amazon rainforest conservation (generally the country’s most internationally salient environmental issue), periods of economic growth are associated with greater deforestation: Timber firms, ranchers, and soya bean farmers in the country’s vast interior clear forest to expand production. International and Brazilian civil society pressures then ramp up to save the forest, and some sort of compromise is reached that limits total deforestation. (This occurred during the 2003-10 commodity boom.) During periods of recession, in contrast, as loggers, ranchers, and farmers tighten their belts, deforestation declines. In this view, environmental outcomes are better during recessions, as the forest is less threatened.
To discuss the potential environmental consequences of Brazil’s recession, I’m going to focus on Amazon deforestation – not only because it is an internationally salient issue, but also because Amazon deforestation is responsible for over half of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions. In fact, from 2001 to 2012, Brazil emitted an annual average of 1,113 Mt CO2 (million metric tons of carbon dioxide) from tropical deforestation (read: Amazon), but only 866 Mt CO2 from all other sources combined. Next door to the Amazon, the forested savannah called the Cerrado is predicted to suffer from “high rates of deforestation… in the coming decades, due to its productive potential for agriculture and lower degree of protection.” For the foreseeable future, then, deforestation will remain a major source of greenhouse gas emissions in Brazil.
So how is Brazil doing? The numbers are not pretty, but not hopeless. Looking at annual deforestation rates measured using satellite imagery by Brazil’s Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (National Institute of Spatial Research), Brazil did well between 2004 and 2012: While 27,772 hectares of forest were cleared in 2004, only 4,571 were cleared in 2012. The trend was all negative throughout this period. This period also coincided with an increase in conservation actions: From 2003 to 2010, President Lula established 77 new protected areas, totaling 26.7 million hectares – mostly in the Amazon. He and his activist Minister of the Environment from 2003 to 2008, Marina Silva, also strengthened Brazil’s federal environmental management agencies – including creating a new, independent protected area management body, the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio). At the state level, major Amazon deforester Para massively increased its state system of protected areas, as did its neighbor, Amazonas (which went through what my contacts in Brazil called a “golden era” of environmental governance from 2003 through about 2010). Throughout, Brazil benefited from increased resources for environmental initiatives due to rising exports to a fast-growing China – the commodity boom.
But even during the boom, progress on environmental policy slowed. Marina Silva resigned her post in 2008 to protest the growing influence of big agricultural and developmentalist interests in Lula’s administration, and Lula slowed his rate of protected area creation: While he established 20.4 million hectares of new protected areas during his first administration, during his second he created a (comparatively) paltry 6.3 million hectares.
Dilma, who for the most part has presided over a country in stagnation and recession, has been even less impressive: she created in her first administration only 770,603 hectares of new protected areas, and reduced the size of several already-established areas to facilitate licensing for development projects, including new hydroelectric dams. In 2012 she signed a reform to Brazil’s 1964 Forest Code, to loosen restraints on deforestation on rural private properties. In 2013, she severely cut the budget of ICMBio – an agency that receives the equivalent of about 0.012% of Brazil’s GDP to protect 8.8% of its land.
The federal retrenchment is reflected at the state level: Amazonas, which had a golden era of environmental policy growth in the 2000s, and established new state environmental institutions during the period, cut its environmental budget by 80% in March, 2015, which resulted in the laying off of 1/3 of the Secretariat of Sustainable Development’s personnel, and the almost complete gutting of the State Center for Conservation Units – the department responsible for managing the state’s 19 million hectares of protected areas.
Given the environmental policy retrenchment since 2012, it is almost a surprise that the Amazon deforestation rate has increased as little as it has: From 2014 to 2015, it only increased by 16%, from 5,012 hectares in 2014 to 5,831 in 2015. But it has increased each year since 2012, and there is little evidence of a potential reduction in the coming years – especially as Brazil seeks to grow its way out of recession.
The recession is not the only cause of environmental policy and outcome retrenchment in Brazil: Indeed, Dilma did not have a strong environmental record prior to her election as President, and the commodity boom and aggressive environmental policy in the 2000s enhanced the size and political strength of the Congressional Rural Caucus, which represents the (generally anti-environmental) interests of large agriculture. But the longer Brazil takes to recover from recession, the more likely we are to see further retrenchment and increasing deforestation rates. In this light, the timeline of Brazil’s INDC goals makes sense: By 2025, Dilma will no longer be president, and in the meantime her successors may revise the targets downward to match Brazil’s political reality.
Responsible environmental governance, in short, is unlikely to survive prolonged economic difficulties.