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.