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BRAZIL
Government pushes unsustainable growth
José Pedro Martins
2/22/2007
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Environmentalists sound alarm over fast economic expansion.

A new initiative in Brazil launched in January that puts infrastructural projects on the fast track has been applauded by some economic sectors. But these rushed plans backed by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have worried environmentalists who fear large public works projects are not factoring in limited natural resources, particularly the Amazon rainforest.

During his first term, which began in 2003, Lula launched the Zero Hunger Program, in an attempt to frame his administration around social initiatives (LP, Feb. 26, 2003). The program failed to bring the desired results, but Lula’s Family Purse program, a welfare initiative, helped win him a second term last year (LP, Nov. 15, 2006).

The Growth Acceleration Program, however, takes a different road. The program will cost US$242 billion over the next four years and will employ state companies such as the national oil company, Petrobras, and use private capital, which will each cover 43 percent of the total. Thirteen percent will come from federal government funds.

Falling behind
The initiative will focus on energy generation, basic sanitation and road construction throughout Brazil, whose economy grew an average of just 2.8 percent last year, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, far from the regional average of 5.3 percent (LP, Feb. 7, 2007).

In an effort to spur growth, the government also intends to reduce interest rates and control public deficit. The government has said that it will “unblock” the economy, a seemingly vague expression that has alarmed environmentalists.

Lula’s administration is aiming to lift obstacles to granting construction licenses for environmentally-harmful works projects, such as the construction and operation of hydroelectric and thermoelectric plans. The president has said economic growth will be a centerpiece of his second government (LP, Feb. 22, 2006).

In a Dec. 21 speech during the inauguration of a biodiesel fuel plant in the southeastern state of Mato Grosso, Lula unveiled his hefty agenda, and said he will lift the “hurdles” he says he finds among the environmentalists, the Attorney General’s Office, Afro-Brazilians, indigenous Brazilians and even the Comptroller General’s Office.

“This is not a problem of the president of the republic. This is the country’s problem,” he said.

Organizations say “no”
Fifty-one civil society organizations responded to Lula’s desire for the growth program with a proposal against it under the slogan, “Development, yes. By any means, no.”

The document was signed by some of the most important social organizations in the country, including the Brazilian Association of Nongovernmental Organizations, an umbrella group.

Lula’s December statement that Afro- and indigenous Brazilians are an obstacle for development “caused us profound indignation,” signatories wrote. The statement even roused the Indigenous Missionary Council, which is linked to the powerful National Bishop’s Conference of Brazil.

“It is unacceptable that the country’s principal authority, with this kind of affirmation, reinforces the already high level of prejudice that exists toward blacks and Indians,” the council said in a statement. “Also (it is also unacceptable) disrespecting the Attorney General’s Office, whose function is to make sure the laws of our country are obeyed.”

The growth project has worried environmentalists, who say that the country’s rich Amazon region — 17 percent of which has already been deforested, according to government figures — will be threatened when $15 billion is invested in the construction and maintenance of hydroelectric plants.

“This time, sustainable development in the Amazon was not put forth in the federal government’s growth policies,” said the organization Friends of the Earth. The project “has reinforced the priority placed on mega energy projects in the (Amazon) region, without making any headway on sustainability,” the group added.

Lula’s initiative may also include construction of waterways along roads, so that soy and other important crops can be more easily transported.
Expanding agriculture, especially soy crops, is one of the causes for the increase in deforestation in the Amazon Rain Forest.

“There are conditions to promote the construction of sustainable development in the Amazon, which unfortunately are not being considered,” said Flávio Gordon, president of the Associação Novo Encanto. The group runs a sustainable rubber plantation in the Amazon region.

But the plan has not only caused controversy among environmentalists. For many, the program fails to address social factors, such as necessary improvements in education.

“The new growth plan talks about many things, but it does not discuss education, neither better state administration, nor the reduction in tax burden which now surpasses 40 percent,” said businessman Luis Norberto Pascoal, one of Brazil’s leading education advocates.
For Pascoal, “there are many uncertainties, but what is certain is clear: if we don’t change education and other structural elements, bye-bye progress and future. This economic package will be quickly forgotten before the risks of misgoverning and political shortcomings.”


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