Brazil has been in the news as of late, with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva defending his government's environmental stewardship of the Amazon rain forest, saying the world needed to understand that the Amazon belonged to Brazilians.
Some concern is warranted, given the dramatic resignation of the environment minister a few weeks ago. An excellent article detailing the background of the situation notes that after a series of lost battles to implement the government's own stated environmental policies, Marina Silva gave up, feeling the battle was lost. Pro-development forces have won.
It is now likely that the government will move rapidly to build more highways and hydroelectric power stations within the Amazon region, making it easier for agribusiness and mining companies to move in.
This anecdote sums up this attitude:
One day, Lucio Flores, a Brazilian Terena Indian, was travelling by truck through the Amazons region alongside a local landowner. Looking at the dense tropical forest around, the landowner said, "Look at this, there is nothing here."
A little further as they left the forest to cross a soybean plantation, the landowner exclaimed: "But here there is soy!" To him, forest was nothing, soy everything.
...For [Flores], the story was a symbol of the opposed views dividing the business community and indigenous peoples. "For agro business, nature is nothing," Flores said. "For us, it is all."
Brazil's case is legally right given the international political system. It's their forest, they can raze it if they so please. But that choice threatens the globe with climate instability and environmental calamity for many years to come. Such a decision would not be a sound ethical choice.
The attitude reflected in the anecdote above is analogous to the idea of terra nullius, or 'empty land' employed in the conquest of Australia. Today the idea is seen for the ruse it is, scurrilous behaviour on the part of colonists. Rapaciously destroying the the rain forest in the name of never-ending 'economic growth' will similarly be seen by future generations as the atrocity that it is
Lula's amusement that countries who were among the world's worst polluters want to talk about preserving the rain forest points to the need for leadership on this and other environmental issues by the Global North. Brazilians can't be forced to preserve the rain forest or even use it sustainably. The richer nations must act decisively, not just talk -- lead by example.
Ultimately, it is in Brazil's interest to preserve the forest as well as the globe's. Everybody will pay for climate change in the end. If Brazil wants to be a leader in the 21st century, over-exploitation of a one-time gift from Nature for fleeting 'growth' is a poor choice. Visionary thinking is required to develop new models for living harmoniously with the environment. In some ways, beginning from a less-damaged environmental state could provide a head start for developing these methods. This is a saner path to future leadership.
Image: Mouth of the Amazon river, northern Brazil. False-color MODIS image from 26May08.