Brazil: tropical rainforests, the Amazon, vast savannahs. The association between Latin America´s largest country and Nature at its most vital and exuberant is almost automatic for people around the world – the vast majority of whom will never visit the place that Charles Darwin described as a “chaos of delight”. This same collective appreciation of the global importance of Brazil’s ecosystems has also brought the country both infamy and praise.

From the 1980s until the early 2000s, Brazil´s environmental record was stained by reports of rampant deforestation and the seemingly relentless clearance of the Amazon – along with other, less well known but equally diverse ecosystems – for agriculture. But then the tide began to turn. Brazil started to construct what has become the largest network of protected areas, including indigenous lands, in the world. Today, more than 12% of all protected areas – covering nearly 2.2 million km2 – are in Brazil.

The federal government also launched a major programme to combat deforestation in the Amazon. Thanks in large part to these initiatives, clearance of Amazonian forests decreased by 83% between its peak in 2004 and 2011 when deforestation rates started to level off.

This is rightly heralded as one of greatest environmental success stories of the 21st century. As Brazil started to emerge as one of the world´s leading economies, calls to end all deforestation in the Amazon no longer sounded so fantastical. As recently as June of this year, The Economist enthusiastically crowned Brazil the world leader in reducing environmental degradation.

End of an era?

But this could be about to change. I am part of a team of Brazilian and international researchers behind a new study published in Science that suggests Brazil´s environmental credentials are hanging in the balance. At the centre of our concerns is a proposal currently being debated in Brazil´s Congress to open up 10% of the most strictly protected areas across the country to mining. First put forward in 2012, this proposal is part of a concerted effort by some Brazilian lawmakers to create a political and legislative framework that better supports exploitation of Brazil’s mining and energy potential.

There is no denying it is a complicated question. Brazil’s ecological heritage is matched by abundant mineral resources that could fund development and poverty alleviation, as well as vast hydropower potential that could provide the entire country with access to low-carbon energy.

But the environmental damage that this proposal could generate is huge. Areas of registered interest for mining in the Amazon already include 34,117 km2 currently classified as strictly protected – including national parks, biological reserves and wildlife refuges. This is equivalent to an area the size of Switzerland.

The tip of the iceberg

The proposal now before Congress is just the latest of a series of changes that together represent an alarming weakening of political resolve and a shift towards weaker environmental standards. This shift threatens to undermine both the integrity of Brazil´s ecosystems and the credibility of its commitments to sustainable development – and there is mounting evidence that it is well underway.

Executive orders have already led to the loss of some 44,100 km2 of protected areas to industrial development since 2008. A revised national Forest Code adopted in 2012 after long and tortuous negotiations included a large-scale amnesty for landowners who had deforested illegally in the past.

A national moratorium on trading soy from newly deforested land in the Amazon that has been in place since 2006, and championed as evidence of the agricultural sector’s commitment to the environment, is due to expire at the end of this year and there are fears that no equivalent measure will replace it.

Furthermore, claims that the current draft legislation to open up protected areas for mining includes adequate environmental mitigation measures do not stand up to scrutiny. The fault lines in Brazil´s environmental record are becoming impossible to ignore.

Test for new government

Brazil´s recent elections – the tightest fought since the introduction of democracy – represent a crossroads in the country’s development path. Faltering economic growth coupled with the new government’s weak political mandate could see the continued dismantling of environmental safeguards in order to clear the way for fast-track projects to exploit Brazil´s natural resources.

But the promises of political reform that still echo in Brazil´s media since the start of President Dilma Rousseff´s second term in office could provide the opportunity for a fresh start, and the chance to reaffirm Brazil´s environmental leadership. Moreover, the environmental concern that has been growing among many Brazilians is unlikely to fade in the wake of events such as the unprecedented droughts that hit Sao Paulo this year, forcing Latin America´s largest city to appropriate water from neighbouring Rio de Janeiro.

The way forward requires, above all, a widespread recognition that Brazil’s ecosystems and the safeguards set up to protect them are prerequisites, not impediments, to development. This does not need to mean a blanket ban on mining and dam construction. But there must be more comprehensive and more transparent processes to ensure that the benefits of any new industrial development proposal are compared to the possible alternatives, and that both the direct and indirect environmental and social impacts are taken into account.

One of the hallmarks of Brazil´s protected area system is that it came out of a decade-long process of engagement with Brazilian society and the research community. Any attempt to dismantle this system deserves a no less democratic and participatory process.

The new government has a window of opportunity to silence its critics and provide the necessary investment to ensure that Brazil´s natural resources and biodiversity are sustainably managed for the prosperity and enjoyment of both current and future generations; but it is closing.

The choice is, rightly, Brazil’s, but the responsibility is shared. We all benefit from the bounty of Brazil´s agricultural production and mineral resources, and at the same time we depend on the long-term conservation of the Amazon forest to maintain a stable climate, as well as cherishing Brazil´s unique ecosystems.

If we want to keep enjoying these benefits the international community needs to commit to a long-term vision that fosters sustainable development globally and does not leave individual countries to foot the bill for conservation alone.

Source: Thomson Reuters Foundation