Dilma’s Choice

by Bill McKibben

Brazil has done two remarkable things in the last two decades—things that many would once have considered almost impossible.

It’s conquered its chronic inflation, and seen a very real economic boom that’s brought a better life for millions, even in places like the country’s dirt-poor northeast.  An economic program centered on average people has led to far better results than, say, America’s favor-the-rich approach. Lula’s rightly been acclaimed as a hero by many around the world.

Even more remarkably, Brazil in the same period managed to dramatically slow deforestation in the Amazon. With leadership from people like Marina Silva that again focused more on the poor than the powerful, Brazil managed to cut its carbon emissions more than any country on earth. While China poured coalsmoke into the atmosphere and the oil companies paralyzed America’s Congress, Brazil actually stepped up to its global responsibility and began the protection of the Amazon, probably the planet’s most important piece of real estate.

Now we’ll see whether Brazil’s relatively new president, Dilma Rousseff, can continue that kind of progress. At the moment, the signs are bad—dire, even. Dilma looks set to sign into law revisions to Brazil’s Forest Code that will lead to massive deforestation and the accompanying flood of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

The law would provide amnesty to those who illegally felled forest in the last decade, shrinks river protection corridors, and allows more logging generally. It coul remove as much as 79 million hectares from protection, an area larger than Germany, Austria, and Italy together.

But it would also signal that Brazil is heading down a new/old path—one where the powerful big interests (in this case giant landowners) wield the real political power. Instead of demonstrating, as the Lula government did so powerfully, that you can grow the economy while still protecting the environment, Dilma seems set to take a more American approach.

That’s why, on May 5, Brazil will be one of the places where people around the world converge to “connect the dots” about the threat of climate change to our future.

The world will gather in Rio again in June for the 20th anniversary of the earth summit. Rio +20 should be an occasion for real celebration of all that’s been accomplished, with Brazil as one of the few global examples of progress. Instead, if the new forest code goes into effect, it will be a sadder gathering, one that reminds everyone how quickly even progressive countries can succumb to business as usual.