Brazil's New President Vows to Defend the Environment

Photo: Antonio Cruz, via Exame

Yesterday was a historic day in Brazil, and the end of an era for President Lula da Silva, whose leadership over the last eight years has made Brazil one of the most rapidly developing countries in the World, as well as a nation on the leading edge of environmental policy. Taking Lula's place to become the country's first female president, trained economist and former Marxist rebel, Dilma Rousseff, has pledged to help make Brazil "on of the most developed and least unequal nations in the world." But, with developmentalism and environmentalism so often at odds, it is important to note where Brazil's Presidents stands on the intersection of these important and dynamic issues.While Brazil has been a major player in Latin America since its founding, the nation's current experiment with democratic politics has, thus far, been relatively brief. After decades of dictatorships, under which shady financial dealings and corruption perpetuated a vast social disparity and a virtually crippled economy, Brazil held its first free election in 1985 -- though remnants of the old system continued to hamper its progress.

In 2003, with the election of Lula da Silva, the nation began a profound transformation. Economic reforms began to tackle Brazil's foreign and domestic debt head-on, address the problems of poverty and social justice, put the country on a firm economic footing, and finally, strive towards a responsible environmental policy -- the latter being hailed as being among the most progressive in the world.

President Lula, a member of the Worker's Party, was the first to rise from the ranks of the working-class. The lowliness of his upbringing helped to shape his political ambitions and instilled a need for greater economic and social equality. During his tenure, some 20 million Brazilians were rescued from the grip of poverty.

With Lula's personal history contributing significantly to his vision for Brazil's future, he chose to surround himself with a Cabinet made up of equally impassioned Ministers. For his Minister of Energy, Lula appointed economist and former Marxist rebel Dilma Rousseff, who was no stranger to hardship and mistreatment. Under the military dictatorship in the 1970s, she was sentenced to two years in prison for her opposition where she reportedly endured torture at the hands of her captures.

For his Environmental Minister, Lula selected another ambitious social activist and staunch environmentalist, Marina Silva. It is from within their respective positions in the Lula administration that Dilma and Silva first came into conflict -- with the former leaning towards an industrializing agenda that appealed to development via infrastructure projects, the likes of which have drawn ire from environmentalists worldwide. In the end, Dilma's voice won out. Eventually, Silva resigned and Dilma was promoted to Chief of Staff..

As the end of his term neared, Lula rode a great wave of popularity for his measured yet progressive approach towards development. Despite generating some disappointment among the most ardent environmentalists for not making the preservation of nature his highest priority, Lula's success in declaring bold targets in the reduction of greenhouse gases and reducing the rates of deforestation in the Amazon to record lows has nevertheless put him at or near the top of the list when it comes to eco-conscious world leaders.

At the close of his time in office, and with an approval rating nearing 90 percent, Lula endorsed his long-time advisor, Dilma Rousseff for President. With that support, she quickly rose to the top of the list of candidates, promising to carry on in Lula's tradition. Throughout her campaign, Dilma's platform was based on continuing development with hardly a mention of environmental policy.

Marina Silva, as a candidate for the Green Party and the only to run on a platform of environmentalism, made a bid for the presidency, too. Throughout the race, she was largely written off as a fringe candidate, but surprisingly to many, came away with 20 percent of the vote -- forcing a run-off election and inciting the two leading candidates to address the issue with greater seriousness. With her closest ideologically-similar opponent out of the race, Dilma went on to be elected as Brazil's new president.

With her address to Brazil and the world following her inauguration, Dilma spoke glowingly her predecessor and of the nation having "crossed over to another shore" in terms of social and economic development -- a trend she plans to continue. Near the end of her speech, she offered insight into her environmental goals:

My Dear Brazilians,

I consider that Brazil has a sacred mission to show the world that it is possible for a country to grow rapidly without destroying the environment.

We are and will continue to be the world champions in clean energy, a country that will always know how to grow in a healthy and balanced fashion.

Ethanol and hydro-energy sources will be greatly encouraged, as well as alternative sources: biomass, wind and solar energy. Brazil will continue to give priority to preserving natural reserves and forests.

Our environmental policy will benefit our action in multilateral forums. But Brazil will not let its environmental action be conditioned by the success and fulfillment, by third parties, of international agreements.

Defending the environmental balance of the planet is one of our most universal national commitments.

For a nation as rich in natural wealth and resources as Brazil, this transition of power is not important merely in terms of politics or global affairs, but perhaps for something much farther-reaching -- like demonstrating to the world that social and economic progress and development needn't necessarily be in conflict with the preservation of the natural world.

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