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.

The Senator from the expanding farm state of Tocantins, known for her radical confrontation with the government in favor of the agribusiness lobby, has developed a blossoming friendship with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.

Abreu is the head of the powerful National Agricultural Federation, and has been a vocal advocate for expansion of Brazil’s agricultural frontier and the continued plowing under of the threatened cerrado biome. Her aggressive posture against environmental regulations made her the main villain of the country’s environmental movement and a sworn enemy former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

Abreu has now held several personal conversations with Rousseff, defended her in public (something she would never have done for Lula) and even broke with opposition politicians to vote in favor of government-backed legislation, according to a profile of her in today’s O Globo newspaper. The new friendship also comes during intense negotiations over the new forest code, which has explicitly pitted environmentalists against the agriculture industry she represents.

The friendship between Abreu and Rousseff is probably not unlike the alliance developed between Lula and Blairo Maggi, the former governor of the giant farm state of Mato Grosso, the heart of Brazil’s bread basket, and also the head of the giant Grupo Andre Maggi soy conglomerate. That alliance cemented the dominance of agribusiness over the environment agenda, and sowed the seeds for the 2008 resignation of environment minister Marina Silva in protest that she could no longer make herself heard over the din of industry lobbying.

Brazil’s agribusiness has historically had a very visceral dislike for anything and anyone linked to the Workers’ Party. When I was there I couldn’t help but feel a deep-seated resentment of Lula, possibly because historic ties to the Landless Workers Movement or MST (though Lula had pretty much ditched them years ago as I mentioned here). Mato Grosso voted solidly against Dilma Rousseff even though the race was largely a landslide against opposition rival Jose Serra. The farmers have some obvious gripes against the administration – mostly notably the lack of infrastructure to transport grain and the appreciation of the currency which reduces the competitiveness of products abroad.

Perhaps the farming lobby has realized it would rather have it’s best-known activist advocating for the industry’s interests rather than simply confronting the government. But
I would also guess the government has again realized it needs more friends in the farm lobby than it does in environmental movement. It’ll be interesting to see what comes out of the discussions for the new forest code …

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