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Brazil i s the largest country in South America, covering an area of 8.5 million square kilometers and with a population of approximately 170 million people, according to the 2000 census. Brazil encompasses several distinct biomes, notably some 4 million square kilometers of the Amazon basin, as well as the Atlantic forest (which once covered some 1.4 million square kilometers) and the Pantanal, the world’s largest interior wetland (110,000 square kilometers).
Human occupation in what is now Brazil appears to have begun at least 11,500 years ago, based on pottery shards found in the Amazon. Estimates of the indigenous population of Brazil upon European contact in 1500 have ranged widely, and recent estimates have been higher, up to 5 million. The higher estimates are based on growing evidence of greater pre-Columbian environmental alterations than previously recognized.
The Portuguese discovery of Brazil led to colonization efforts beginning in the 16th century. This led to a series of boom-bust economic cycles, each featuring a specific natural resource exported to Europe by the colonizers. The first product was Brazil-wood, used for dye; this went into decline by 1600. Sugar plantations had emerged along the Atlantic coast by then, and this stimulated forest clearing and conflicts and enslavement of indigenous peoples. In the late 19th century, coffee became the preeminent export product.
Consequently, railways spread across Sao Paulo and other states of southern Brazil, enabling expansion of the agricultural frontier. This facilitated forest clearing in the Brazilian interior, which provided fuelwood for coastal Brazilian industry in the early 20th century. Interior colonization and incipient industrialization thus greatly reduced Brazil’s indigenous population, as well as the Atlantic forest.
After World War II, new medical technologies facilitated population growth by reducing mortality, prompting rural-urban migration and the expansion of an industrial workforce. Brazil’s urban populations, especially in its largest cities, grew rapidly. This proceeded via unplanned construction of new housing in the peripheries of many towns, resulting in considerable pollution via untreated disposal of raw human waste as well as accumulation or burning of garbage. A notable exception to this pattern is the city of Curitiba, which beginning in the 1960s planned its urban expansion via zoning measures and waste management.
Brazil’s military took control of the government in 1964 and embarked on policies of “authoritarian capitalism” that paired repression of labor unions with incentives for industrial development and frontier expansion into the Amazon. Brazil’s economic growth accelerated in the late 1960s, called The Brazilian Miracle, but industrial pollution also rapidly increased. The industrial town of Cubatao subsequently became infamous for its extremely polluted air and water, as well as its high rates of cancer and birth defects.
By the late 1970s, economic growth slowed and Brazil’s financial status worsened, eventually leading to democratic elections in the 1980s. However, growing environmental problems were overshadowed by Brazil’s economic crisis. Civilian politicians focused primarily on national development rather than environmental protection. Large projects, such as the Carajis iron mine in the Amazon and the hydroelectric dam at Iguaú Falls, were given priority.
Nonetheless, 1988 proved to be a bellwether year, as demonstrations and lobbying in the national capital of Brasilia led to recognition of environmental patrimony and indigenous rights in Brazil’s new constitution. On Christmas day that year, the rubber tapper Chico Mendes was assassinated by ranchers for defending the forest, ending a year of record deforestation and burning in the Amazon, which placed the deforestation issue before the international community. Brazil’s government responded with the “Our Nature” program and voiced concerns about foreign intervention in the Amazon as a threat to Brazil’s national sovereignty.
By the early 1990s, environmental issues gained more attention. Brazilian environmental organizations had proliferated, including SOS Atlantic Forest, and Brazil created a new Ministry of the Environment. In response to land conflicts in the Amazon, Brazil also instituted the concept of “extractive reserves,” where communities earn livelihoods via sustainable use of forest products, rather than clearing forest for agriculture.
In 1992, Brazil hosted the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro. This conference led to drafting of international conventions on climate, biodiversity, and numerous other environmental issues of global concern. This in turn led to formulation of “Agenda 21,” Brazil’s response to the conventions drafted at “Rio-92.” Brazil has since signed and ratified nearly all of these conventions, including the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change.
Consequently, Brazilian environmental law progressed considerably during the 1990s. However, implementation of many of those laws has been inadequate, largely due to their complexity and the lack of resources allocated to the Ministry of Environment. Deforestation in both the Amazon and Atlantic forests has continued, accelerating somewhat since 2000. Air pollution in metropolitan Sao Paulo also worsened, leading to restrictions on the use of automobiles to certain days of the week. While Brazil has been less dependent than many countries on fossil fuels, its network of hydroelectric dams has generated environmental problems and public protest, and prompted Brazil to develop fossil fuel energy sources. Biodiversity is high but not adequately documented in Brazil, prompting the expansion of a system of national parks, forests, and biological and indigenous reserves. However, they require more resources for enforcement of conservation regulations, for there remains considerable trade in illegal wildlife and timber from Brazil.
Brazil’s environmental record in the new millennium is mixed. Basic sanitation in urban areas, including waste disposal and water treatment, have both improved. Large Brazilian companies are increasingly adopting international standards of conduct and environmental quality, due in part to international demand for corporate accountability. But tensions between Ministries over questions of development and the environment have led the government to favor continued expansion of soybeans and other agricultural exports into the Amazon and other fragile environments, in order to help Brazil pay its national debt via economic growth.
- Clovis de Vasconcelo De Cavalcanti, , Environment, Sustainable Development and Public Policies: Building Sustainability in Brazil (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2000);
- Uma Lele, Syed Arif Husain, Virgilio Viana, Adalberto Verissimo, and Stephen Vosti, Brazil: Forests in the Balance: Challenges of Conservation with Development (World Bank Publications, 2000);
- Jan Rocha, Brazil in Focus: A Guide to the People, Politics and Culture (Latin America Bureau, 2000).