Brazil: Sustained Attention to Sustainable Development?

By Evan Berry*

Photo Credit: Rodrigo Soldon / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Photo Credit: Rodrigo Soldon / Flickr / Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Media coverage of the approaching World Cup in Brazil has touched on the country’s contemporary ecological challenges, but they have glossed over their underlying causes.  Because of Brazil’s association with international sustainability accords, large international events – such as the “Rio+20” sustainable development conference two years ago and the 2016 Olympics – provide vehicles for global news media to focus on Brazil’s performance on environmental issues.  Among this flurry of journalistic coverage, two distinct narratives emerge.  In one, journalists look at sustainability with reference to economic modernization, suggesting that environmental problems are the outcomes of policy failures and ineffective governance.  Commentary in this vein calls for greater technocratic competency and a commitment to the development pathways of the global north.  In the other narrative, sustainability is set in the context of social justice and economic inequality.

These views lead to different responses.  The international bodies overseeing the upcoming sporting events – such as FIFA and the International Olympic Committee – demand that the Brazilian government do more to clean up beaches, improve transportation infrastructures, and purchase carbon offsets to compensate for the impact of new construction.  These prescriptions ignore, however, that environmentalism in the developed northern economies emerged from a distinctly middle- and upper-class preoccupation with aesthetically pleasing environments, such as wilderness, scenic landscapes, and exotic game.  Frustration with the pollution in southeastern Brazil’s Guanabara Bay, for instance, echoes the North American desire for well-managed spaces for outdoor recreation.  So too does the narrow focus on the plight of Brazilian armadillos, the vulnerable species chosen as the World Cup mascot.  This emphasis corresponds with a narrative that many Brazilian leaders would want to put forward – that the natural splendor of Rio de Janeiro in particular, and Brazil in general, can be secured by the kind of straightforward cleanup efforts that attended economic prosperity.  However, Brazil’s ecological woes cannot be solved by garbage scows, and endangered armadillos and the lack of clean recreational spaces are hardly Brazil’s most pressing obstacles to environmental sustainability.  Guanabara Bay is fetid because so many Cariocas, or Rio residents, lack access to basic sanitation.  Armadillos are threatened by deforestation that is as much a byproduct of global economic demand.

As elsewhere, environmental problems in Brazil are caused by myriad social, economic, and political factors.  Ameliorating the most visible impacts of these factors – protecting a charming creature or purifying noxious waters – addresses only symptoms.  International attention to sustainability issues in Brazil should be more mindful of social justice.  Brazil’s current political unrest centers on deeply shared public concerns about injustice, and addressing the problems giving rise to contemporary social movements will offer an important corrective to mainstream public discourse about sustainability.  International attention to the negative environmental impact of international sporting events, and accompanying investments in infrastructure, risks overlooking the unjust structural processes that complicate solutions to environmental problems.  Rather, the global popularity of sport provides an opportunity to deepen and expand international discourse about the human dimensions of ecology.

 *Evan Berry is an Assistant Professor in American University’s Department of Philosophy and Religion.

The Politics of the Brazilian World Cup

By Luciano Melo

Embed from Getty Images

The 2014 World Cup, scheduled to begin in just 66 days, at this point poses greater risks for President Dilma and her administration than it does benefits.  When the Brazilian government presented its preliminary budget for the event in 2007 – around US$14 billion, or an estimated billion dollars for each 70,000-seat stadium – President Lula was perhaps the most popular president Brazil had ever had.  Despite the mensalão vote-buying scandal several years earlier, Lula was a “man of the people” with a strong personal magnetism.  Brazilians were seeing themselves as an emerging power with a dynamic economy.  Dilma, Lula’s chief of staff, was anointed his successor; she easily won the 2010 election; the Workers Party’s continuity in office seemed assured for the foreseeable future; and the World Cup would be a crowning jewel.

The scenario today looks far grimmer for Dilma.  Her support in the polls dropped from 43 to 36 percent just last month, underscoring her lack of charisma, and the largest Brazilian companies – Petrobras and Eletrobras – have lost half of their market value under her administration.  Cost overruns on World Cup projects have tripled and now exceed the annual budgets for both health and education ($35.6 and $28.8 billion, respectively).  Massive protests last year raised doubts about Dilma’s governance.  The armed forces are being deployed to maintain order in urban slums.  Brazil is now ranked 72nd in the Corruption Perception Index 2013 (a decline from 2012), and press reports indicate that nobody believes that World Cup construction companies have been chosen through a transparent process.  Economic analysts deem budget cuts and taxes increases inevitable – and austerity is in the cards no matter who wins the October 2014 elections.

World Cups and Olympic games are important for governments seeking to boost their image before international and domestic audiences.  If the Olympics in London 2012 aimed to sell England as a beacon of innovation, and the winter games in Sochi marketed Putin’s Russia as a powerful and modern state, the World Cup was Brazil’s opportunity to project itself internationally as a global player with a vibrant economy.  It was to show that high levels of violence and corruption are part of the old days.  Mismanagement and other problems so far suggest those objectives are beyond reach.  Domestically, if Brazil fails to win the cup, we will again see thousands (if not millions) of people protesting in the streets, and Dilma’s prospects of securing a second term will be complicated.  Should Brazil win, however, a soccer-induced surge of national pride may assist her re-election despite public concerns about the cost of the tournament and other economic woes.  But the reprieve probably would be short-lived.  The military move into the favelas is an ad-hoc measure, since organized crime has spread to surrounding urban areas and is likely to reemerge as strong as ever once the events are over.  The middle class and the private sector will continue to pressure the government to fix woefully inadequate public services and improve the business climate – even more challenging with austerity budgets.  The national soccer team could help Dilma win a second term, but the celebration is destined to have a short life.