Protecting Nature in Federal Systems: States, Private Interests, and Conservation Units in Brazil
My doctoral dissertation addresses the decentralization of policy making. Much existing literature argues that decentralization is more efficient because local policy makers are more responsive to local demands than are national policy makers. However, I find that centralization often provides greater environmental policy effectiveness. While both national and subnational tiers of government must weigh economic growth against environmental goals, I argue that the balance of these conflicting goals is different for subnational than for national governments. Through an empirical analysis of the location, type, and degree of implementation of federal and state conservation units (unidades de conservação, or UC) in Brazil, I argue that political incentives to establish more or less strict types of conservation units differ across levels of government due to the character and political influence of local economic interests.
Two key variables explain variation in conservation unit types: the tier of government – national or subnational – enacting a conservation unit, and the type of industry present where a conservation unit is proposed, as well as the importance of that industry in the economy of the state. National governments have a geographically broader mandate, and so are less vulnerable to capture by local economic interests that oppose environmental policy than are subnational governments. Further, subnational governments are more dependent on local economic interests for revenue and income generation. As a result, subnational environmental protection is often weaker than national environmental protection, because subnational governments accommodate the interests of powerful local economic actors. Nevertheless, the stringency of environmental policy and outcomes vary across subnational jurisdictions, depending on the type of industry present in an area and the industry’s importance in the jurisdiction. Areas characterized by industries that require complete land conversion in order to produce – including urban development, ranching, and modern agriculture – pose considerable challenges to conservation efforts. In contrast, areas characterized by industries that do not require complete land conversion – including timber and mining firms, as well as small-scale “traditional” extractivism (e.g. rubber tapping, fruit gathering), are more amenable to compromises between environment and development.
I make this argument on the basis of an analysis of federal and state UC creation and implementation across all of Brazil’s 26 states and Federal District of Brasília (Chapter 2), and then in three Brazilian states located in two regions of the country: Pará (Chapter 3) and Amazonas (Chapter 4), in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil’s north; and Minas Gerais (Chapter 5), which straddles the arid Cerrado savannah and the Atlantic forest, in Brazil’s southeast. Brazil is a particularly good country in which to compare federal and state environmental policy because the two tiers of government have common authority to establish and manage UCs, and operate under the same federal law. I chose these three states to maximize variation in region, state-federal relationships, and presence of industries that do or do not require complete land conversion.
My findings are based on 15 months of field research in Brazil, and build on data from over 90 interviews with key informants, large-N datasets of UC creation and management, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) spatial data to analyze UC proximity to or overlap with population centers and different types of economic activities. GIS and large-N data sets facilitate broad comparisons across Brazil’s 312 federal and 600 state UCs, while key informant interviews provide historical background on national and state politics, as well as individual UCs. The conclusions I draw hold implications for debates about the advantages and disadvantages of decentralization for environmental policy effectiveness, as well as the challenges that federal democracies face in defining and implementing environmental policy goals across multiple tiers of government.