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Brazil and the Environment

Since Brazil's colonization some five centuries ago, inhabitants have largely congregated along the country's coastline. The majority of Brazil's largest cities—Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Curitiba, Porto Alegre, Salvador, Recife—are along or very near the coast. Brazilian leaders grew so worried that its population did not "take advantage of its space" that former President Juscelino Kubitschek constructed and inaugurated in 1960 the planned capital city of Brasília in the country's center as a means to draw population inward.

Pushing Into the Interior

Take advantage of the interior they did, often to a fault. Brazilian agriculturalists, extraction industries, and infrastructure planners have long seemed to suffer from the mentality that land is extensive and cheap, and that pushing into new areas is easier than proper stewardship of the ones they already have. Deforestations has left the Atlantic Forest (Mata Atlântica) along Brazil's coast a tiny fraction of its original size, while the cerrado savanna in the country's center has lost an estimated half of its original territory. The Amazon rain forest loses thousands of square miles each year, in part because growing global demand for soy and cotton in Brazil's interior then pushes cattle farming into the Amazon.

In addition to deforestation, bitter land disputes between commercial farmers and indigenous populations have a long and deadly history in Brazil. Killings of rural activists and indigenous leaders are common and justice can be scarce. In one of the most famous and chilling cases, the American nun and environmental activist Dorothy Stang was assassinated on her way to a meeting in the Amazon state of Pará. Another front for conflict has been the Brazilian government's push to build dozens of hydroelectric dams across the Amazon, which it says is necessary to satisfy urban Brazilians' growing demand for electricity.

Move Toward Sustainability

Despite the conflicts, the good news is that the tide is turning. Deforestation peaked in 2004, at more than 10,000 square miles per year, and has since dramatically declined to less than a third of that total.

A new seriousness about environmental causes was reflected by the political ascendency of Marina Silva. Born to an impoverished family in the Amazonian state of Acre, and illiterate until her teenage years, Silva later moved to the state's capital city and became an environmental activist alongside Chico Mendes, a famous rubber tapper and trade union leader who was assassinated in 1988. A former senator from the state of Acre and the environmental minister under former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, she left his cabinet in protest over lack of commitment to environmental issues, and had a surprisingly strong performance as a third-party candidate in Brazil's 2010 elections. With rumors of another presidential run, she remains a force to be reckoned with, especially as a greater number of Brazilians embrace what was once seen as a fringe cause.

Sustainability has become a mainstream value over the past two decades, especially since Brazil hosted the 1992 United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, then resurrected it 20 years later at the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development. A more telling gauge of popular public opinion were the protests that erupted across Brazil in 2012 to fight against proposed changes in the national forestry code, which would have retroactively "amnestied" years of deforestation.

Such protests highlight how Brazil's civil society has learned to use the tools of accountability and manifestations. Social media has fueled the environmental movement by bringing urbanite organizers in Brazil's coastal cities in line with activists across Brazil's interior.

The Rise of Ecotourism

As a visitor, you will be able to appreciate the fruits of Brazil's sustainability efforts. Take note when you explore a park to see if it is a protected forest. Look at the map of Rio de Janeiro to understand just how large the Tijuca and Pedra Branca national parks are—all the more impressive in a city pressed for space, with real estate prices spiraling and green space coveted.

Many experts claim that Brazil still has few options for true ecotourism that involves education, study, and appreciation of local cultures and the environment. While ecotourism became a priority following the 1992 Earth Summit, the practice has taken some time to get off the ground in Brazil.

During the 1990s, economic turmoil and inconsistent government actions hampered the national industry. In addition, the high price of access to Brazil's Amazon region made it an expensive market in comparison with other destinations. A plane ticket from Rio or São Paulo to Manaus is often as expensive as one to Europe or Miami, and overland access to the Amazon is shaky, at best, with the Transamazônica highway, meant to cross the country's north and northeast, still largely unpaved.

What Brazil has built up in the meantime is nature-based tourism, which includes responsible and respectful tourism that often lacks an educational component. The Instituto EcoBrasil is a superb resource for planning an eco-friendly trip to Brazil. On their informative, bilingual website (www.ecobrasil.org.br), you can browse a database of "Responsible Companies" and tour operators for the area that you hope to visit.

Overall, there are numerous options available for tourists who want to explore the country's vast natural wonders in an environmentally responsible manner. All visitors should simply keep in mind a phrase that rain forest activist Dorothy Stang often wore emblazoned on her shirt: "The death of the forest is the end of our lives." Brazil's forests are a verdant treasure to be enjoyed, open to those willing to tread lightly.

Updated: 09-2013

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