The COVID-19 Distraction and Brazil’s Environmental Cliff

Amazon RainforestBrazil faces boiling social unrest. An institutional crisis breeds entropy into an already stressed social system fraught with inequality, increasing poverty and an escalating number of deaths from coronavirus. 

A few days ago, despite another daily mass body count, the country stopped to watch the footage of a 22nd April meeting with President Bolsonaro’s cabinet. The tape release was commanded by a Supreme Court judge in an inquiry into an alleged interference by Bolsonaro in the Brazilian federal policy to protect one of his sons, currently under investigation.

The footage is horrendous to the democratic sensitivities and bitter to any political or civic taste. But I would like to point out one single intervention in the meeting that speaks to the country’s entrapment into its own version of ‘fail-forward’ neoliberalism. It reveals a government fixated in dismantling any piece of State regulation and privatizing any available company owned by the State. 

Philip Mirowski has argued in his 2013 book Never Let a Serious Crisis go to waste that cognitive dissonance boosts neoliberal thought to the point that no countervailing evidence can shake its disciples’ convictions of its ultimate truth. No matter how apocalyptical a crisis may seem, there is always reason to blame government intervention for all evils plaguing the Earth. 

This is in no way new to Brazil, as we claimed elsewhere, and it has gained full throttle in Bolsonaro’s administration. In the April 22nd cabine meeting, the Environment Minister, Ricardo Salles, urged the president to seize the “distraction” of the COVID-19 crisis to push deregulation of the sector. Here is his quote during the meeting: “We need to make an effort while we are in this calm moment in terms of press coverage, because they are only talking about COVID, and push through and change all the rules and simplify norms.” 

As a Reuters piece recently warned, deforestation has hit “an 11-year high last year and has increased 55% in the first four months of the year, compared to a year ago, with environmentalists blaming Bolsonaro’s policies.”

Now, Bolsonaro calls for development of the Amazon by way of expanding extractivist activities such as gold and diamond panning, wood extraction and cattle breeding in protected areas, claiming it is necessary to lift people out of poverty.

In response to the video, the Environment Ministry claimed that de-bureaucratization and simplifying norms within the law is his priority and that “the tangle of irrational laws hinders investments, the generation of jobs and, therefore, sustainable development in Brazil.”

This is doubly alarming for two reasons that may have already become clear. First, “seizing” the healthcare crisis to push legislation that caters only to special interest groups is morally reproachable in itself.

Second, it replicates an outdated understanding of development as a short-term increase in income with blatant disregard of the costs to a broader scope of stakeholders, such as the native communities in the Amazon basin, the environment itself and the world at large.

New research has shown that “parts of the Amazon and other tropical forests are now emitting more CO2 than they absorb.” This development has not yet been incorporated into climate models and could set the Paris Agreement’s temperature goals well beyond our reach. 

The second development-related issue speaks to a regressive technological agenda locked in static comparative advantages from which the country should be striving to escape.

A new working paper by João Romero (Cedeplar-UFMG) and Camila Gramkow (ECLAC) brings new evidence that economic complexity correlates with lower greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity. Using data for 67 countries between 1976 and 2012, the results indicate that economic complexity can turn low carbon emission compatible with structural transformation.

Screenshot 2020-06-04 at 10.46.05

In an upcoming book co-authored by Paulo Gala (FGV-SP), we convey to an unspecialized readership that climbing the technological ladder is the way out of Brazil’s middle-income trap. By building more complexity into our fast deindustrializing economy, Brazil can take a leap forward into the future by becoming a learning society and fostering a new national growth strategy based on technology-led, sustainable and inclusive prosperity.

It is my understanding that the Amazon forest and the Cerrado should be viewed as an immense biolibrary. Both provide a rich menu of blueprints for various chemical components and biological agents that current technology is perfectly capable of reproducing in laboratory work without the need to alter the original ecosystem. If this is true in any way, we are tearing down entire sectors of the world’s biolibrary only to keep the agrobusiness’ flame alive. Every acre of deforestation means terabytes of foregone knowledge. It means veritably crippling humankind to deal with a looming tide of climate- and health-related crises.

The current Brazilian administration continues to see the Amazon-Cerrado complex as a static reservoir of raw materials and low-hanging fruits. Impermeable to a growing body of evidence and to the winds of change, its outdated view misses the dynamic interaction between technology and natural resources. Instead of turning away from the environmental cliff, it might just take a step forward.

André Roncaglia is a Professor in Economics at the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP) – Brazil. He tweets at @andreroncaglia.

Photo: Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest, near Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas, Brazil. By Neil Palmer/CIAT.

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