Features > When the dream becomes a nightmare

26 February 2015 | by Francis McDonagh

When the dream becomes a nightmare

It was ranked alongside Russia, India and China as an emerging global economic powerhouse but now the pillaging of Brazil’s natural resources, corruption at the highest levels and a crippling drought is threatening that status

The year in Brazil only really begins after Carnival. But as Brazilians took down the bunting and put away the carnival costumes on Ash Wednesday this year, the country’s mood was more than usually Lenten.

A drought and power cuts during the past few months of the southern hemisphere summer, together with an apparently never-ending corruption crisis surrounding the state oil company, Petrobras, point to an underlying doubt: is the Brazilian model, the economy and government, sustainable?

As south-east Brazil, the populous and productive states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais, went into summer in November, the taps ran dry. The situation was worst in the city of São Paulo, home to 20 million people and the country’s business capital. In January, which should be the rainy season, tankers trundled through the streets to supply schools and health facilities, restaurants cut their hours, and desperate politicians blamed St Peter, who in Brazilian folklore is responsible for rain. Local media provided daily measurements of the level of the city’s main reservoir, Cantareira. Through most of January it was at 5 per cent.

The water shortage has had a drastic effect on Brazil’s energy supplies, since 70 per cent of the country’s electricity comes from hydroelectric plants, and in January a power cut left 12 of Brazil’s 27 states without electricity. There are reports that electricity charges will increase by 40 per cent in 2015.

Subsequently, the São Paulo region has reported the heaviest February rain for nine years, but it exposed the precarious state of Brazil’s infrastructure, as poor communities in São Paulo found their homes flooded by the polluted waters of the River Tietê. The level of the Cantareira reservoir rose to 10 per cent in the third week of February, but experts warned that it would require heavy rain in March and April to avoid “drastic water rationing”. Over the long-term, the prospect of water shortages and power cuts is expected to deepen the slow-down in the Brazilian economy produced by falling demand from China for exports and the drop in oil prices. Finance Minister Joaquim Levy admitted to United States investors in New York on 18 February that the economy probably did not grow in 2014, and promised a tighter fiscal policy to reduce the record public-sector deficit.

Inflation, too, is showing signs of rising, while the Brazilian real is falling close to the psychological barrier of R$3 to US$1 (£0.65). Although this could help exports, it will hit popular middle-class shopping trips to the US and add to discontent with the Government among this influential segment of voters. “Miami just got further away,” one satirist commented.

Politicians talk about “the water crisis” as though it had come out of the blue, but critics point out that signs of a water shortage have been visible for some time. António Nobre, a distinguished Brazilian climatologist and member of the United Nations climate change panel (IPCC), says that there is a link between the Amazon rainforest and rainfall in São Paulo and the south-east of Brazil.

“The region is on the same latitude as the Kalahari desert. It should be desert, but it’s irrigated; it has moisture. Where does the rain come from? Amazonia exports moisture. For various months of the year, by means of ‘airborne rivers’, this region receives the water vapour that is the source of its rainfall,” said Nobre, adding that in the past 40 years “three Germanies, three Japans, have been cleared in the Amazon rainforest. That’s 184 million football pitches.”

Another forest, the Atlantic forest, that used to cover much of the eastern side of Brazil, has also now largely gone. This used to protect the rivers and streams supplying the reservoirs in São Paulo and neighbouring Minas Gerais. Urban development has been unrestricted, the ground has been made impermeable and water does not flow down to replenish the underground aquifers. Leakages in the system are estimated at 30 per cent.

Most grotesquely, São Paulo’s two rivers, the Tietê and the Pinheiros, as well as a second, huge reservoir, the Billings, have become so polluted as to be unusable for domestic purposes. The São Paulo state government is talking about cleaning up the Pinheiros and diverting water from a river on the border with the state of Rio de Janeiro, but these projects will take time.

“2015-16 is likely to be catastrophic,” warned a group of scientists, who wrote an open letter to politicians during last year’s election campaign but were ignored. The leader of the group, Professor José Galizia Tundisi, even invoked Winston Churchill. Brazilian political leaders, said Tundisi, should follow the example of Churchill in 1940 “and tell the population brutally that the crisis is very serious”.

Why is no one listening to the scientists? There is an attitude deep-rooted in Brazilian society that Brazil has unlimited resources. But it has led to a predatory attitude to those resources: cut it down, dig it up and ship it out. From redwood in the sixteenth century, gold in the eighteenth, to timber, iron ore, coffee and soya today, Brazil’s economy has been an extractive one, and thanks above all to what seemed an insatiable demand from China for minerals, soya and beef products, in recent years the economy has tilted even more in that direction.

Today it looks as though the PT or Workers’ Party, in government at national level since 2003, has inherited a variant of this attitude, perhaps from its roots in the industrial unions of Greater São Paulo or because of the funding it receives from large construction companies. Accordingly, despite Brazil’s enormous potential for alternative energy production, from solar, wind and wave power, no serious move in this direction has been suggested.

The Brazilian government has said it will scale back its expansion of its hydroelectric plants in the Amazon, which have been criticised on both environmental and social grounds, since all are in the Amazon region and displace indigenous and other riverside communities. However, this may mean a greater reliance on oil and gas, with negative consequences for global warming.

Critical economists, such as Guilherme Delgado, formerly of the Government’s economic research organisation, Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada, argue that economic grounds, as well as ecological ones, make this an opportunity to “rethink Brazil”. Unfortunately new thinking is unlikely to come from the Government of President Dilma Rousseff. She is assailed by a constant stream of plausible allegations that bribes and “commissions” from construction companies to Petrobras channelled around US$115 million (£75m) into party election funds last year, with about a third to her own party.

Particularly damaging for Rousseff is that this process goes back many years and includes a period when she had responsibility for Petrobras as “energy czar” under her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The President has lost control of Congress, which is widely described as the most right-wing for many years. The Right is also muttering about impeaching the President, but it is probably simply a tactic to destabilise her.

The Catholic Church has an honourable record of campaigning for sustainability, through its defence of family agriculture and indigenous peoples, not only in words but at the cost of the lives of priests, Religious and lay activists. This year its Lenten Campaign on Church and Society gives it the perfect platform to address corruption, which it describes as a “systemic problem” of Brazilian politics. Launching the campaign on Ash Wednesday, the Archbishop of São Paulo, Odilo Scherer, reiterated the Church’s demand for a ban on the funding of political parties by businesses.

Among São Paulo’s poor, a church-linked organisation, the Favela Residents Defence Movement, is pressing local authorities to look at ways of creating a “sustainable city” in the face of climate change, and its system of water-collection tanks and cisterns has already been adopted by two São Paulo boroughs for inclusion in new public-housing schemes. There are undoubtedly many other local initiatives across this huge country, but unless government scales this up into a vision for a sustainable Brazil, the current economic model will, sooner or later, like the reservoirs, run dry.

Francis McDonagh writes for The Tablet from Brazil.

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