Eva Joly, MEP (Green, FR), Catherine Grèze, MEP (Green, FR), Ulrike Lunacek, MEP, Green, AT)

It’s Democracy, Dam It Brazil!

Eva Joly, MEP (Green, FR), Catherine Grèze, MEP (Green, FR), Ulrike Lunacek, MEP, Green, AT)

Amazon deforestation increased by 28% between August 2012 and July 2013. Brazil’s Environment Minister, Izabella Teixeira, said the government is trying to reverse this “crime” – much like the ruling party has tried to reverse charges against politicians and businessmen convicted in the nation’s biggest corruption trial.

Jose Dirceu, Chief of Staff to former President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, was sentenced to 10 years and 10 months. To the amazement of many commentators, Lula escaped indictment.

Current President, Dilma Rousseff’s PT party, has failed to prevent the convictions and custodial sentences now almost certain to take effect. More than 20 were convicted for a scandalous payment scheme to buy the support of opposition politicians. So, when Teixeira shouts about the “crime” of deforestation, it’s worth looking close to Brasilia for the source of the Amazon’s deforestation problem.

At the European Parliament, Thursday, the Greens hosted a special conference on Brazil’s Belo Monte mega dam project. The EP conference was a follow-up to the findings of three Green MEPs Catherine Grèze (France), Eva Joly (France) and Ulrike Lunacek (Austria). The trio visited Belo Monte in July of this year.

From its conception, Belo Monte has been a controversial mega-dam complex on the ‘big bend’ of the Xingu river; a tributary of the Amazon. Like other mega-projects, it is claimed that such large scale development will improve living conditions for local people, in line with the Brazilian government’s slogan “development starts with energy”. This hydroelectric plant on the Xingu River is projected to be the third largest power plant in the world.

The Greens asserted the testimony of experts maintaining that Belo Monte will produce a mere fraction of the projected electricity, while it risks huge social and environmental impacts, breaching the rights of the local population to access fisheries and forest. Critics argue that it will entail further construction contracts across the whole region while clearing the forest for mining.

EU citizens are tied to the complex deal through investments and shares in European companies, and funding for the project from the European Investment Bank. Yet, it’s the European Union’s concern for human rights violations which is drawing almost as much attention as the environmental risks.

While discussion of the project focused on the legality of the project in contravention of Brazilian and international laws; and its viability in social, environmental, economic and financial terms; the personal testimonies of the three MEPs included allegations of harassment and attempted intimidation.

Brazil, for all its splendid sunshine and myriad of cultures, is a nation in transition – military dictatorship ended only in 1985. So, to the passing European eye, Brazil seems a flurry of samba feathers, football, smiling beach bodies, and barbeque; often in that order on any given day.

In reality, the easy going Brazilian way of life hides a litany of legal minefields. Military rule crushed free speech, and as an independent press has slowly emerged, it has only been in the last decade that the press has been willing to tackle serious corruption. Part of the problem was the less than clandestine means by which media agencies were in bed with Brazil’s politicians. The political process remains a merry-go-round of slush funds and back-slapping dollar-drunk deals.

Brazil’s problem is not the environment, or the sudden destruction of the Amazon Basin; it’s corruption. The Economist once asked “Why is Brazil not like America?” The answer it decided; was that the United States inherited Britain’s legal system, and Brazil got Portugal’s legal code. This simple observation continues to hold true. But it’s not a situation without hope. Brazil is maturing, and quickly. Greater transparency and a more independent press, a digitally connected and alert population is compelling change. Dilma is making some of the right noises, though Congress and the Senate seem tone deaf.

The best means to ensure a victory in the fight for Belo Monte, is to concede defeat on the environment and surrender nothing in law. Brazil is a huge country, a bounty of natural resources, but it is a country in which there are fewer places to hide. Justice may not prevail for Belo Monte, but the whole dam river of indifference is swelling.

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