Latin America & Caribbean

Green issues loom for Brazil's Dilma Rousseff

A woman in a village along an Amazon tributary stands near a campaign flag for presidential candidate Dilma Rousseff on 31 October
Image caption The election campaign reached the depths of the Amazon

Dilma Rousseff, who has just been elected Brazil's first female president, did not refer much to the environment in her campaign.

Instead, the issue was brought on to the political agenda by Marina Silva, a former environment minister. Running as the Green Party candidate, she did unexpectedly well in the first round of the elections on 3 October, obtaining almost 20% of the vote.

And it was Ms Silva's strong showing that forced Dilma Rousseff into Sunday's run-off race against her main rival, Jose Serra.

While not all who voted for Marina Silva were necessarily motivated by environment concerns, the environment will inevitably figure prominently in Ms Rousseff's agenda when she takes office on 1 January.

She will face a number of tricky environmental issues, most of which her predecessor, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is coming to the end of his second, highly successful administration, managed deftly to postpone rather than to face head on.

Road link

A key issue is the Amazon basin, which contains one-third of the world's remaining rainforest and one-fifth of world's fresh water.

Image caption Pressure is set to grow on so far untouched land

Under Lula, the rate at which this forest is being felled declined from 27,423 sq km (10,588 sq miles) in 2004 to 7,088 sq km in 2009. A further reduction is expected this year.

This achievement has been welcomed at home and abroad, but Ms Rousseff will be hard pressed to keep the felling down to this level, for pressure on the forest will intensify.

Next year, with the expected completion of five bridges in the west of the Amazon basin, Brazil will have its first road outlet, through Peru, to the Pacific Ocean.

This will make it far easier for Brazilian exports to reach the Asian market.

This is important given that China has become the largest importer of Brazilian goods, with a particularly voracious demand for soya, iron ore and timber.

Anxious to take advantage of the new trade route, business groups will be keen to move into western Amazonia, an area which has as yet been relatively untouched by the destruction.

At the same time, Ms Rousseff will have to deal with a contentious piece of legislation that is slowly making its way through the Brazilian Congress.

Largely because of pressure from Brazil's powerful agri-business lobby, the bill proposes an amendment to the Forest Act. Among other concessions, this amendment would grant an amnesty to landowners for all illegal forest felling that occurred on their estates between 1965 and 2008.

At present, the Forest Act requires landowners to replant the areas before ownership over the land they claim will be officially confirmed.

The amendment has greatly alarmed environmentalists and scientists. In a letter to Science magazine in July, a group of prestigious Brazilian scientists warned that, if approved, the amendment would probably lead to the extinction of 100,000 species, "a massive loss that will invalidate any commitment to biodiversity conservation".

The letter concluded: "Brazil risks suffering its worst environmental setback in half a century, with crucial and irreversible consequences beyond its borders."

Energy needs

Another complex issue concerns infrastructure. As energy minister, Dilma Rousseff was the driving force behind PAC - the Accelerated Growth Programme. Much of PAC's $200bn (£125bn) budget funds the construction of large hydropower stations and highways in the Amazon basin.

Image caption The proposal to build a dam on the Xingu river provoked heated protests

Six power stations are planned for the Tapajos river, a large tributary of the Amazon.

Construction work has already begun on another - the 11,000-megawatt Belo Monte power station on the Xingu river, another major tributary.

Indigenous groups say that Belo Monte will lead to the flooding of 400 sq km of land and disrupt the life of many indigenous villages.

Few would question Brazil's need for energy, but many environmentalists believe that there are less damaging ways of creating energy than large hydro-electric plants.

They also argue that the energy will largely benefit big industrial projects, particularly in the mining sector, rather than local communities.

"Belo Monte represents an outdated Brazil, shackled to old energy models that benefit few but possess an enormous capacity for social and environmental destruction," said Beatriz Carvalho, assistant campaigns director for Greenpeace.

"At the heart of the discussion about Belo Monte lies the fundamental question: what model of development do we want for Brazil, today and in future decades?"

Public opinion is becoming more concerned about environmental issues.

Awareness has been raised by this year's severe drought in parts of the Amazon basin, which has led to a large increase in forest fires. Following severe flooding last year, it has heightened fears about the future of the Amazon basin.

Image caption Parts of the Amazon saw floods last year

Leading meteorologists, such as Peter Cox, Professor of Climate System Dynamics at Exeter University, and Richard Betts, head of climate impact at the UK's Met Office, have predicted that the Amazon forest will be largely covered by desert or savannah by the end of the 21st Century if global warming continues.

This would have a serious impact on rainfall in the rest of Brazil and much of South America.

In her first speech as president-elect, Dilma Rousseff vowed to continue with her predecessor's fight against poverty.

It will be no easy challenge to reconcile this with the increasingly urgent need to give priority to environmental protection, particularly in the Amazon basin.

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