Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Sugar slavery is still big business – even with mechanization

The most effective criticism of Brazil’s biofuels program has not been the food vs. fuels diatribe but rather the excoriation of abhorrent and retrograde conditions of sugar workers. Descriptions of workers cutting cane from dawn to dusk with little access to water and frequent exposure to dangerous crop fires has left the sugar cane ethanol industry with a major public image problem.

Monday, December 26, 2011

LotE’s new horizons

Happy holidays everyone! I’m taking advantage of the year-end slowdown to let folks know that I’ve decided to expand the focus of Lungs of the Earth beyond just Brazil. 

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Rio’s new take on carbon markets

Rio de Janeiro next year will launch a market for carbon credits with an interesting twist – it’s based primarily on forestry. Most emissions trading systems evolved from the 1980s campaign to cut pollution that was causing acid rain, and are generally focused on emissions of carbon dioxide from factories and power plants. Rio had talked about a system like this, but it didn’t make a huge amount of sense because most of Rio’s emissions come from cars and trucks and from illegal landfills.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Will Brazil’s biodiesel put food supplies at risk? Brazil hasn’t decided …

Six years after launching a push for biodiesel in efforts to repeat the sugar cane ethanol program, Brazil’s government is facing a dilemma – can it forge ahead with the effort without disrupting food supplies? 

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Brazil gets tough on the oil industry? Wish I believed it …

Brazil is taking Chevron to the wall. After spilling 3,000 barrels off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, the company is facing an $11 billion lawsuit and a criminal indictment together with driller Transocean, the suspension of its drilling rights, and calls for it to be expelled from the country. There’s nothing I like better than seeing oil companies called out for pollution – but unfortunately this one strikes me as more political theater than an actual hard line against the oil industry.
Chevron didn’t do itself any favors in this case. It took more than a week to accept responsibility for the incident, initially describing the spill as a “sheen” caused by natural geological seeps. But an American oil company will have a target painted on its back wherever it goes. The real litmus test will be how Brazil reacts to an incident like this from a local company. Or rather *the* local company – Petrobras, which produces close to 90 percent of Brazil’s crude.
This is the company with its hands on Brazil’s ultradeep water fields that over the last five years that have given the country an extra bounce in its already cocky I’m-gonna-take-over-the-world swagger. It’s the guardian angel that jumps into everything from sugar cane ethanol to power generation to carnaval school sponsorships. The government has built its entire industrial policy around creating a domestic oil services industry that will supply Petrobras with oil platforms and drilling rigs. Petrobras is Brazil’s largest company, its transnational par excellence, and the government’s golden boy.
So what happens when Petrobras spills a few thousand barrels on it of its dozens of offshore platforms? Their exploration chief says it’s totally ruled out, and that water depth has nothing to do with the likelihood of an accident. We believed the same sort of thing at the start of last year, when no one had ever heard of a blowout preventer and nobody imagined that failing to control well pressure when transitioning from exploration to production phases could result in America’s worst-ever environmental disaster. This time the problem was that Chevron misgauged the reservoir pressure where it was drilling, which popped a hole in the ocean floor a few hundred meters from the well. It’s hard to know how many other unexpected oil field accidents are lurking out there. None of them seem real up until the moment they are.
And it’s not as if Petrobras has a completely clean bill of health when it comes to safety. There have been plenty of recent issues including platform problems, union complaints, and a working dying when a diesel tanker caught fire. Not to mention this infamous incident that seems to have escaped public memory, and based on my cursory searches, did not cost Petrobras anything in the region of $11 billion. With its ambitious plans to drill at unprecedented depths to find new oil reserves and its budget already stretched thin, the company has little interest in replacing or upgrading ageing platforms at its shallower water fields that are closest to the shore.
I’ve noticed Petrobras’ larger than life presence in Brazil has left oil almost entirely off the radar screen of one of the world’s most active environmental movements. It’s the pride and joy of the new Brazil, its logo is on everything, its shares are present in probably 99 percent of Brazilian retirement portfolios. No hot-to-trot state prosecutor is going to sex themselves up by chasing after Petrobras.
I remember calling around to environmental organizations a few months back looking for some rabble-rousing agitation about a start-up company that was looking to tap into what could be huge oil reserves in the Amazon. Here they were together – environment public enemy No. 1 and the world’s most famously threatened ecosystem. And yet the response I got from Brazil’s conservationists, so used to talking about soy, cattle, mining and hydroelectric dams, was one of baffled confusion. At least two representatives of well-regarded organizations said something to the effect of “Oil, uh, when that spills it’s bad for the environment, you know?”
My guess is that will be more typical of the reaction to a major Petrobras incident than the legal firing squad being deployed against Chevron.

Monday, December 19, 2011

I'm not dead yet ...

My life got a little turned upside down in the last couple months, and eventually so will this blog. I'm planning to keep it going, but will be including more posts about things outside Brazil. I'll explain in due time. A lot's been going on that I haven't been able to blog about -- the Chevron spill being the most notable of that. I'm working on a reasoned response to this, since it's brought some real focus to the issue of the environment in Brazil's offshore oil exploration plan.

So I'm still here, gathering strength, hoping to use the Christmas holidays to keep back into the habit.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Greening the ghetto, Rio style

Majora Carter’s story of how she helped transform a South Bronx landfill into a park while raising awareness about environmental problems is one of the most inspiring of any in the green movement. Her Greening the Ghetto motto gets to the heart of one of the environmental movement’s biggest challenges – escaping the stigma that it’s an affectation of liberal yuppies and demonstrating that environmental injustice is at the core of poverty.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

My plug for When a Billion Chinese Jump

This might seem a bit out of my patch, but I have to make a plug for When a Billion Chinese Jump – simply because what happens in China has such an enormous impact on the world. The Guardian’s Asia Environment Correspondent Jonathan Watts drove to the remotest corners of China to visit coal miners, conservation biologists, hydropower projects, and nature reserves while providing unparalleled insight into what China’s rise means for the fate of human existence on the planet.

Friday, October 28, 2011

A dose of common sense about food from an agribusiness nation

The future bread-basket of the world. It’s a phrase that Brazilians say with pride, and one that big agricultural conglomerates like to repeat, particularly when faced by criticism of environmental types worried about the degradation of land or the excessive use of chemicals in food production. Factory farming and large-scale agribusiness are increasingly seen as the only ways to feed a global population approaching 7 billion.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Green construction? Try growing steel in your backyard

It’s not just for stir fry any more.

Brazil last month passed law creating incentives for the cultivation and processing of one of the world’s most overlooked green construction materials: bamboo.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Brazil's ad council targets greenwashers

The biggest winner of Brazil's Greenwashing Award (note: I just made this award up myself) over the last five years is without a doubt Petrobras -- the company was playing up its green credentials while selling diesel that had a sulfur content almost 20 times the maximum permitted in Europe. Now it's only allowed to sell that diesel in rural areas.

American medical waste becomes Brazilian clothing ... yikes ...

I didn't think this hospital waste business could get any worse. I wish I still thought that.

Monday, October 17, 2011

How dirty is clean hydro power?

I have a problem with the term clean energy: most energy as we know it isn't clean. I am a proponent of alternative energy sources such as wind and solar because I think they are considerably cleaner than fossil fuels. But true clean energy basically boils down to very few things, such as using sunlight to dry your clothes. Hydro power, for example, is often thought of as clean energy, when it might make more sense to think of it is “cleaner” energy.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

A really unfortunate twist in Brazil's recycling miracle

There was a big kerfuffle back in 2009 when a boatload of hospital waste including syringes and catheters showed up at the port of Santos, under the innocouos label of recyclable aluminum cans. The British Embassy even stepped in and apologized after the it surfaced that the cargo had been brought in by a group of limeys. Last year when an entire cargo of soiled diapers was slipped in on a ship purporting to carry something else. Yuck.

Brazil's land reform agency emerges as big deforestation offender

Today, O Globo has an interesting story describing how the government's land resettlement agency Incra has racked up a record number of fines for deforestation this year.

The Incra is charged with helping provide land to rural squatters and strengthening patchy property titles in rural areas. It has resettled thousands of families throughout Brazil in efforts to provide the rural poor with not only land but also credit, technical skills and access to markets.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Brazil's trash boom

A great O Globo story from today sums up Brazil's growing problem of trash generation and inadequate disposal.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


I'm finally going on vacation. I think it's been a good three years since I've taken a proper vacation, which is not the same as going home to visit family. I'll be back around the middle of October. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Can Brazil’s plastic bag bans give a lift to Amazon jute growers?

For decades it was the main fiber used in making shopping bags and coffee sacks – jute, also known as burlap, a plant grown in various locations along the Solimoes River. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, demand for the product collapsed with rise of plastic bags that became an unfortunate symbol of prosperity throughout the developed world. Now the clock may be turning back as cities around Brazil join a growing global trend toward plastic bag bans or taxes.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Miss Deforestation’s surprise turnaround

A high-profile winner of Greenpeace’s Golden Chainsaw Award, a woman dubbed “Miss Desmatamento,” Katia Abreu has had a surprising change of heart.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Random Rio sustainability problem

Anyone who's suffered through the swelter of a Rio summer knows the sweat-drenched feeling of wanting escape from the soul-wilting heat. Those are days when even the most ecologically conscious types will step on an air conditioned bus and breathe a sigh of relief.

Anyone who's lived through a Rio winter knows it's really nothing to compare to winters in, say, St. Paul or Moscow. But on a day when it rainy, windy, and 65 degrees out, I'm not really searching for air conditioning. And somehow on those days I still end up on those same air conditioned busses.


My sentiments exactly.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Folks, can we get over "green plastic" already? Please?

I try to avoid the usual environmentalists I-hate-plastic routine because I think it’s lame –there’s nothing wrong with using of plastic, it’s using it indiscriminately that’s the problem. The best way to “green” plastic is cutting its excessive use, using longer lasting products that aren’t constantly thrown away, and increasing our use of plastic for things like medical devices that save lives.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Taking on the environmentalist’s ultimate conundrum: why bother?

As efforts to slow climate change continue to stall, there’s a growing sentiment that it’s not worth even making the effort. I get this from a lot of people when I tell them I do silly things like recycle, use public transit, try to find reuse things that would otherwise be trash, etc. Don’t you know we’re totally screwed? The earth’s gonna heat up, New York’s gonna be six feet underwater, you think any of that stuff you do really makes a difference?

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Petrobras’ "second-generation" biofuels push: more questions than answers

One of the big advantages of Brazil’s sugar cane ethanol program is that it can generate its own energy by burning the left-overs of the cane crushing process. Most of Brazil’s ethanol mills make enough energy from burning the leftover roughage, known as bagasse, that they can power their own operations while still having enough electricity to sell power to the grid. This contrasts with US corn ethanol, which has to use copious amounts of natural gas to power its boilers (which makes one wonder how “alternative” a fuel corn ethanol really is).

Now, state oil company Petrobras wants to make ethanol not only out of the sugar cane, but also out of the bagasse itself. I have to admit, I don’t get it.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

I'm sorry, sir, this road cannot be completed. It seems we've spooted a tree frog.

I was surprised to learn last year that only 14 percent of Brazil’s roads are paved. When I heard the now-infamous story of the hylidea tree frog it started to make a lot more sense.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Can Brazil give palm oil a green makeover?

Palm oil has become a global pariah for environment and human rights activists for its link to destruction of rainforests, harm to endangered species and displacement of small farmers. Its growing use as both as a feedstock for biofuel as well as its widespread presence in cookies, sweets and cosmetics has spurred global backlash, accompanied by a more recent backlash against the backlash.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Finding success stories in Brazil’s Amazon

When environmental inspectors in 2008 shut down dozens of illegal sawmills in the Amazon municipality of Paragominas, their offices and cars were torched in short order. The notoriously violent region, rife with land-grabbing and hit-and-run shootings, had over the years earned itself the nickname “Paragobalas” because of the all the stray bullets that filled the air. Illegal timber operations provided employment for almost half the area’s residents, and its extensive illegal clear-cutting landed it on Brazil’s blacklist of 36 municipalities deemed most responsible for Amazon devastation. Farmers were equally hostile to anyone seeking to enforce environmental laws.

Three years later, Paragominas has dramatically reduced deforestation levels, created legitimate timber enterprises that harvest trees rather than cutting down native vegetation, and established partnerships with nearly 50 non-profits to create consciousness about environmental responsibility.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Giving thanks where thanks are due

I'm new to the blogging world, and there's a lot that I'm still learning -- but I've liked most of it so far. I've learned that people actually do want to read about environment and sustainability in Brazil despite the digital flood of writing that I often find overwhelming and nearly impossible to keep up with. And most notably, I've been struck at how bloggers help each other out by sending traffic to new kids on the block. To that end, I want to give a heartfelt thanks to Otto over at InkaCola News, whose overly kind reviews have gotten all sorts of folks looking at this sight. Of course I can't forget Setty, who's given me a generous amount of ink. And I've gotten a welcome hand from John over at Grown in the City. It really helps give me energy for this project when I know folks out there are willing to lend a hand. Thanks!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Greening Rio’s green coconut industry

Nothing says Rio de Janeiro like coconut juice. Cariocas are among the world’s biggest consumers of green coconut juice, which that is sold from street corners and plazas to famed beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Yes it’s true – Brazil’s wind power kicks fossil fuels’ butt

No subsidies, no kid gloves, no whining environmental activists demanding their clean energy rights. It’s big news -- Brazil’s wind power industry beat out natural gas projects last week in government power auction, offering lower prices for power than their fossil fuels based competitors.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Ride a chicken to work

Did you know that the maximum speed of a car in traffic is actually less than that of a chicken on the run? The Sao Paulo-based group Caronigentes, which basically translates as SmartRides, came to the conclusion that it might actually make more sense for people to get to work riding a hen. If you've ever been in the Sao Paulo traffic jam (I actually have, though not in as many as my coworkers that live there), you'll know why this makes sense.

Monday, August 15, 2011

Brazil gives up on land reform

Latin American governments have for fifty years tried and largely failed to carry out land reform that relieve rural poverty. Brazil, which has more land to distribute than any other Latin American nation, is no longer trying.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Mato Grosso in Mozambique?

Brazil's agribusiness may have just won the lottery. The government of Mozambique has offered a 50 year concession for Brazilian farmers to plant soy, corn and cotton in the northern part of the impoverished African nation, according to Sunday's Folha de Sao Paulo.

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Brazil's advantage in the climate debate -- no climate deniers

No questioning that climate change is really happening. No dispute of its relationship to burning fossil fuels. No Sarah Palins loving the smell of emissions. No Michael Crichton tinfoil-hat conspiracy theories about liberals inventing the whole thing. Discussing climate change is a different affair in Brazil, simply because there are no climate deniers.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Soy and cows destroy the Amazon? So do cars and washing machines …

The frontier of the deforestation on the southeastern end of Brazil’s Amazon is steadily moving north, but the usual suspects – ranchers and farmers – are nowhere to be found. The big drivers here pig iron producers – a crowd you might not think about much, but are a key part of the vehicles and electrical appliances in our lives. In a complex global economy, understanding the environmental impact of our decisions involves digging further and further back into the supply chain and asking a lot of questions that don’t come up in day-to-day conversation.

Like for starters: What the hell is pig iron? And what on God’s green earth does it have to do with trees?

Saturday, August 6, 2011

What do you mean “sustainability?”

Good question, glad you asked. It means different things to different people, here’s what it means for me.

Sustainability is about making better use of natural resources in ways that reduce our impact on the natural environment, on our societies, and on each other. It is the vision that minor changes in routine behavior can considerably increase the benefit derived from any given resource, be it petroleum, aluminum, soy beans, or paper. It is the understanding that rethinking our consumption decisions can save money, create jobs and improve the lives of people.

This involves an increased awareness about the routine things we take for granted: the food we eat and how it gets produced, the trash that’s removed from our lives and where it goes, the energy that powers the lights and televisions we turn on, the water we use for drinking and bathing.

Encouraging sustainability requires reinforcing the idea that wasteful consumption *costs money* and rejecting the idea that changing our behavior will require us to give up the things we love to do. It is not about putting nature or polar bears or spotted owls above human beings, it’s about rethinking consumption decisions so we can focus more on people.

To cite one of the most elegant descriptions I’ve heard to date, sustainability is about seeing the interconnectedness of seemingly unrelated things.  

Why I'm here

I moved to Brazil as it was becoming increasingly powerful, emerging from a long history of boom and bust cycles, and taking on a growing role in global affairs. I’m convinced many Brazilians will look back on this period as golden era of boundless opportunity the way American Baby Boomers wax nostalgic for the Post-War II boom. I see a nation that with a wide array of advantages when it comes to key sustainability issues, but at the same time one that will soon be facing many of the same environmental and social problems that the currently plague the United States.

Brazil has one of the world’s most extensive networks of renewable energy, one of the world’s highest rates of raw materials recycling, vast access to water resources, and abundant land for agriculture. It could be an ideal place to develop wind energy, which is works most efficiently when combined with the sort of hydroelectric generation that provides most of Brazil’s power. The country’s use of electricity is considerably more rational than in the United States, partly because it’s so expensive and partly because of the country’s recent experience with prolonged energy shortages.

But this picture is changing. Many of Brazil’s hydroelectric dams were put up during the 1964-1985 military dictatorship when environmental legislation was nearly non-existent, and putting up new dams is not proving nearly as easy these days. The country’s main agricultural regions, some of the world’s most productive, were created during the dictatorship by clearing forests that were once part of the Amazon – which is less palatable option for expansion now.  

The high recycling rates are to a great degree dependent on an army of poor folks that collect trash off city streets or, as so clearly explained in the documentary Wasteland, sift through landfills in search of recyclable materials. As poverty falls and the middle class expands, there will be more raw materials going into waste stream and fewer unlucky souls to sort them. Brazil’s economy is undeniably heading toward greater use of fossil fuels, and its increasingly obese population is eating itself sick much the way Americans have been doing for 20 years. The next five to ten years will be crucial in determining to what extent Brazil will learn from the mistakes of countries like the United States and to what extent it will repeat them.

I’m fascinated by the changes taking place in this country and hope this will be a chance for me to learn more about them. I admit there are a lot of things going on here that I don’t think bode well for a sustainable future. But I’m consistently impressed with the number of people and organizations doing smart things to reduce society’s impact on the environment, limit natural resource depletion and educate others about the impact of their consumption decisions. And I think there are many reasons to be positive about the country’s environmental awareness.

I hope to use this space to explore sustainability issues big and small, from broad macro concepts about energy usage to up-close examinations of local recycling and urban transport initiatives. I expect I will from time to time delve (carefully) into the controversies surrounding these issues. But mostly I hope this will be a chance to meet new people involved in sustainability in Brazil and to learn about the interesting things that Brazilians are doing.