Brazil's Sustainability Challenges and Opportunities

Picture taken during sunset in Carauari, a town on the banks of the Jurua river in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, some 540
Picture taken during sunset in Carauari, a town on the banks of the Jurua river in the Brazilian state of Amazonas, some 540 km from the state capital Manaus, on August 21, 2015. AFP PHOTO / NELSON ALMEIDA (Photo credit should read NELSON ALMEIDA/AFP/Getty Images)

Brazil's current economic crisis combined with a bad governance system is much like a Rio Carnival followed by a terrible hangover.

Brazil's markets are in turmoil. The leftist government of President Dilma Rousseff is embroiled in a number of corruption scandals. Crime is high, with most people living behind barbed wire fences, and, according to the vocal majority of the international community, Brazil has failed to halt the Amazon's deforestation. In order to tackle these issues, Brazil, like many other countries, is realizing that sustainability is not only about the environment but also, and just as importantly, about developing sound political, social, financial, and economic institutions.

On August 21, leading Latin American think tank and higher educational institution Fundação Getulio Vargas (FGV) organized a three-day conference in Rio and Balem, the gateway to the Amazon, on sustainability challenges and opportunities. Scholars, government officials and practitioners from Brazil gathered alongside leading US universities--including Columbia University's Earth Institute, City University of New York, and Arizona State University--came together to discuss the changes in public policy, management, financing, and higher education that need to be made to address global sustainability challenges. As most speakers noted, unless we find a way to stem the rise in global warming, there is a strong likelihood the planet will not have the resources to sustain a global population of 9 billion by 2050. This requires not only innovations that allow us to do more with less--use fewer resources, produce less waste--but just as importantly to develop governance systems rooted in the rule of law and introduce trainings and educational programs that change behaviors. As to the latter, NGOs and academic institutions like FGV are taking the lead. According to FGV's provost Antonio Freitas his institution has introduced sustainability courses for its students--in particular those studying business, public administration and management. But is this enough for Brazil?

According to Freitias, no, it's not enough. While traveling down the Amazon River, Freitas and his colleague Istvan Kazsner discussed how "dirty money" from regional illegal drug trade is fueling corruption and crime in Brazil. As a possible remedy, Freitas proposed the government downsize its army and expand its coast guard to properly patrol the Amazon River. "We don't have enough people to properly patrol the vast and expansive river," he said. "Drug runners from neighboring Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia are taking advantage of this."

The illegal drug market has created a parallel state. Most Brazilians point to the favelas, Brazil's shantytowns, where the formal state has little if any power. Furthermore, police officers and senior government officials are threatened or bribed by drug lords to look the other way--fueling a system where elected officials see their positions as a personal opportunity rather than a public responsibility.

Despite the government neglect of the Amazon region and the international communities cries, President of the Agriculture and Livestock Federation of Para Dr. Carlos Xavier claims that Brazilians are taking care of the Amazon. "With little if any government assistance, Brazilians are doing a good job protecting the Amazon region," Xavier said. "The international media is wrong when it says we are destroying the Amazon." According to Xavier, only 18 percent of the Amazon region has been destroyed by deforestation.

Similarly, IDEAL, co-organizer of the sustainability conference and FGV's educational partner in Belem, highlighted that 70 percent of the Amazon's trees are still standing since the Portuguese first arrived in Brazil in 1500. Xavier pointed to Indonesia's dismal deforestation record. Unfortunately, when it comes to sustainability the "sin of equal moralizer" argument leaves no winners. According to the United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), an estimated 18 million acres (7.3 million hectares) of forest, which is roughly the size of the country of Panama, are lost globally each year.

The world and the citizens of Brazil may be divided over which issue is a priority--halting the deforestation of the Amazon or stamping out crime and corruption nationally. As is often the case with most sustainability challenges, however, these two issues are actually intertwined; the vast natural resource of the Amazon is used to support a parallel criminal state. Good governance can help solve both challenges. Meaning Brazil, its neighbors and international community need to launch a frontal assault on the drug cartels and put an end to the use of the Amazon River as a drug trafficking route.

The citizens and their civil society leaders, media outlets, businesses and academic institutions need to take a more active role in demanding greater transparency and accountability from their elected officials. Only bold steps by the Brazilians and the international community will ensure the livelihood of future generation in Brazil and across the globe. To do so Brazil must realize that it cannot enter the twenty-first century with industrial might in one hand and a third-world governing system in the other.