Tag Archives: marina silva

The Forest Code: Campaign Contributions of Agri-Business Pit Legislators Against Public Opinion

8 Dec

The Código Forestal or Forest Code now being debated in Congress will determine the future of Brazil’s forests, including the world’s last great rainforest, the Amazon. In order to make good on a 1965 forest code that was rarely if ever enforced, President Dilma Rousseff introduced strong legislation in 2010. Legislators in the Lower House then weakened the bill substantially, and after being approved with minor alterations in the Senate, it is now heading back to the Lower House for congressional sanction.


The bill “constitutes one of the worst regressions for environmental legislation in Brazil,” according to Marina Silva, the rebellious Minister of the Environment under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the third place candidate in the last presidential election. The Forest Code’s policy example illustrates how representational democracy is not translating citizen interests into law, a universal problem that travels far beyond Brazil.

What Brazilians Want Done

One the country’s leading pollsters surveyed[1] 1,268 citizens across Brazil about the Forest Code in early 2010. They found high public approval for harsh measures against illegal forestry, as reflected by the bill President Rousseff sent to Congress in early 2010. An overwhelming 98 percent of respondents supported the President’s measures and rejected a proposed amendment in the Lower House to grant amnesty for offending de-foresters. It is estimated that amnesty for those who de-forested between 1998 and 2009 will disclaim 8 billion Reales, according to Greenpeace – a huge loss for tax payers.

What Legislators Do

Yet despite overwhelming public opinion in favor of stricter environmental measures, a huge loss in tax revenue, and the principle of accountability – making lawbreakers pay for their actions – legislators chose to favor the interests of big agro-business. No wonder – the Folha de São Paulo recently reported that agro-interests spent over R$15 million (nearly US$ 9 million) to stuff the party coffers of 50 representatives deliberating on the bill. Donating companies spent 42 percent more on lobbying in the past two years than they contributed to candidates during the entire 2006 presidential election. The largest donor was the cellulose industry (paper), which donated R$4.7 million. Influential governors, such as Bahia’s Jacques Wagner (PT), received R$4 million.

A Weaker Forest Code

In addition to the blanket amnesty for de-foresters, the bill as it now stands has substantially weakened the original presidential proposal. Whereas de-forested river banks had to be re-planted 30 meters back from the edge of ‘peak’ water levels, the new bill stipulates 15 meters from ‘average’ river heights. To comply with the legal forest reserve quotas – 80% forested in Amazon, 35% in the Amazon highlands, and 20% in the rest of the country – land owners may now use 50% ‘exotic’ trees for re-plantation, which opens up the possibility of mono-culture fruit orchards.

Given the way that representatives take action contrary to the expressed public interest, i.e. that business interests trump public interests, news that de-forestation in the Amazon has ‘slowed’ this year by more than 10 percent gives us little reason to be hopeful for the future of Brazil’s forests. Brazil needs to adopt and enforce mechanisms to ensure greater accountability – such as lobbying regulation – if true representational democracy is to take hold and do what is right for the country and the planet.

Check out an interesting video on issues surrounding deforestation in the Amazon (part III of IV).

[1]   See, “Jungle Politics,” Brazil in Focus, June 13, 2011. Available at: http://brazilinfocus.com/samba/green-zone/237-jungle-politics.html

Brazil’s Congress: Paying for Consensus

29 Jun

Brazilians have a saying, that every corruption scandal “ends in pizza.” The malfeasant and the enforcer settle things by sharing a meal and leaving behind what brought them together in the first place. Unlike other Latin American elites, the Brazilian elite peculiarly tend towards consensus as opposed to hot-headed conflict. Rather than incriminate each other, they let each other off. Rather than fight, they separate.

The Brazilian Congress: Consensus or Collusion?

Parties Galore

There is no place that reflects this behavior more powerfully than the Brazilian National Legislature. No one has ever been legally sanctioned for an ethics violation in the Brazilian Congress, despite legislators’ infamous shenanigans. Call this facet of political inaction, “impunity through consensus.”

The cost of making laws in Brazil provides yet another example. More than 85 percent of all legislation passed by Congress originates in the Executive Branch, but legislators think themselves important enough that they raised their salaries a hefty 62 percent on one of the last days of the 2010 legislature. That means that legislators in Latin America’s most expensive parliament (on a per capita basis) and in its most unequal country, now bring home approximately US$170,000 per year (R$26.7K/month), when a person earning the minimum wage earns less than US$3500 annually (R$545/month).

Assigning Blame for Blackmail?

When there are 23 parties to point the finger at, it’s kind of difficult to assign blame. What’s more, nine out of ten parties don’t have a chance of winning a presidential election, so they’re willing to take a hit to their reputations once in a while. Hence Brazil’s Congress understandably gets away with things that simply would not fly in other democracies.

Today, the government’s majority coalition in the Chamber of Deputies blackmailed the President it nominally supports. Legislators threatened to bring Congress to a standstill if  the President does not disburse the remainder of the 2009 budget, what they refer to here as “the rest to pay” (“restos a pagar”). Because of the slow pace of contracting, previous years’ budgets leave residuals. This year it’s almost US$3 billion dollars, or $4.6 billion Reales. These funds are typically used to buy political support through pork-barrel spending, but Rousseff declared she would end the disbursement of contracts on June 30th. Party leaders, however, warn that this course of action will be met by a general strike: the President’s urgent legislation will simply not be voted on. This legislation includes the infamous decree, 527/11, which aims to expedite building and infrastructure contracts for the 2012 World Cup and 2016 Olympics (at the cost of transparency).

Demanding pork in return for not stonewalling the President’s priorities pays homage to traditions of consensus-making: most every legislator in the governing coalition is holding strong to the threat of blackmail. At least they have not threatened to vote against the President’s priorities.

Avoiding Internal Conflicts: Start a New Party

The inertial pull toward consensus is so strong that instead of having parties rife with infighting, you have breakaways– new parties, which eventually cooperate with the parties they left, forming voting blocks. There are now 23 parties in the Chamber of Deputies and counting. The illustration presented includes a few salient voting blocks.

The newest breakaway party is the PDB, which split from the DEM following its involvement in a vote-buying racket in the Federal District. Now Marina Silva may start her own party, reports the Globo. Silva is the Green Party (PV) candidate who garnered more than 20 million votes in the 2010 presidential election, placing a solid third. The presidential candidate and her allies object to the way the party is run: the Greens’ 12-year president, José Luiz Penna, controls appointments and chooses candidates undemocratically, without  primaries. Perhaps more importantly, Silva objects to the alliances the PV has been forced to make in order to exercise any political clout.

Consensus at a Cost

Unsavory alliances are the price to be paid for a party system that privileges consensus over other priorities, such as accountability and responsiveness. The largest party in the Chamber of Deputies has 17 percent of the vote (the PT), forcing the President’s party to make deals with multiple others. Loyalty tends to be skin-deep. Political scientists have blamed the pork-based consensus-building process of the Brazilian Congress for bloated budgets and slow policy-making. The perks of a system built on consensus may also explain why legislators have resisted accountability measures, such a freedom of information law. Senators have preferred to cloak Brazil in secrecy than than reveal past and present abuses. They defend the  peace, the reigning consensus– but at a great, great cost.