Book Review: Greening Brazil

A comprehensive history of Brazil’s environmental movement, from the Amazon to the urban jungle.

By Cori Sue Morris
Social Media Editor
October 24, 2011

Greening Brazil begins with a jarring story: the murders of Dorothy Stang and Francisco Chico Mendes, environmentalists who were killed in 2005 and 1998, respectively, for working to promote land reform and sustainability in the Amazon. Written by Kathryn Hochstetler and Margaret E. Keck, Greening Brazil frequently revisits the personal stories of Stang, Mendes, and other environmentalists as it paints a picture of environmentalism in Brazil. Beyond drawing the reader in with these anecdotes, the authors explore the government institutions that create environmental policy and their interaction with international players, local environmentalists, and citizens. The result is a thorough, multi-level analysis of environmentalism in Brazil from the 1960s to the turn of the century. The authors’ comprehensive analysis effectively portrays sustainability and environmentalism as a diverse, universal process involving multiple actors driven by different motives. Their actions affect the environment and sustainability in similarly diverse ways.

The book is broken down into five large chapters, each with incredible chronological detail on the people, policies, and processes that influence environmental institutions and movements in Brazil. The lengthy introduction and conclusion chapters effectively lay out and summarize the work’s overall purpose. At the beginning of the book, the authors provide a helpful list of acronyms and organizations used throughout to provide the reader with greater ease of reading.

The first chapter, “Building Environmental Institutions: National Environmental Politics and Policy,” provides a play-by-play of how Brazil’s government institutions related to the environment came into existence. Notable organizations, actors, and dates are described chronologically and thoroughly, including: the National Sanitation Policy (1965-1969); the Special Secretariat of the Environment (SEMA, 1972); Paulo Nogueria Neto (first SEMA secretary); the National System for the Environment (1981); the National Environmental Activities (1983); the creation of Environmental Protection areas by President Figueiredo (1981); the National Environmental Council (CONAMA, 1981); the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Natural Resources (IBAMA, 1989); and Jose Lutzenberger (SEMA Secretary, 1990).

The second chapter, “National Environmental Activism: The Changing Terms of Engagement,” details the role of non-governmental actors, most notably the environmental activists, and then describes the development of environmental movements from 1950 to the present. The authors break down Brazilian environmental activism into three waves, and expound on the first two in this chapter. The first wave occurred from the 1950s to the 1970s and was a period of developmentalist nationalism that gave birth to Brazil’s conservation organizations, research institutions, and the first state environmental institutions. The first of these organizations was the Brazilian Foundation for the Conservation of Nature (FBCN), led by Alceu Magnanini, which prioritized the use of science to persuade policy makers to protect the environment. Additionally, the National Campaign for the Defense and Development of the Amazon occurred.
The second wave, from 1974 to the late 1980s, was a period of political liberalization that led to the rise of multiple activist organizations that often engaged in direct critiques of Brazil’s authoritarian regime. During this period environmental groups for the most part remained small and local and relied primarily on volunteers. Major movements included the Gaucho Association for the Protection of the Natural Environment (AGAPAN), the anti-airport campaign, and the antinuclear protest. Additionally, chapter two describes the foundation of the Green Party, also known as Amnesty Environmentalists, in 1987, and the Green List, created by the cross-partisan Interstate Ecological Coordination for the Constituent Assembly (CIEC). Because the latter group did not want to join the Green Party, it put together a multi-party list of candidates in 1986 known as the “ecologist platform.”

The third chapter details the third wave of environmentalism, which started in the late 1980s and has continued to this day. The third wave encompasses debt crises, inflation, economic stagnation, and a host of economic issues that would stymie the environmental movement. This third wave saw an increase in professionalism within the environmental movement with the creation of environmental NGOs and the rise of socio-environmentalism, both bolstered by the transition to democracy. The murder of Chico Mendes in 1988 helped spur social environmentalism as support for Amazonian rubber workers rose. Additionally, various conferences, including the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development, the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, the Organization of Earth Summit, and the Brazilian NGO Forum are discussed. The chapter also recounts the role of Brazilians abroad and the role the international community played in environmentalism within the country.

The fourth chapter focuses on the Amazon, and describes its geography, ecology, and social history. It is slightly odd that the Amazon was the focus of fourth chapter, rather than the first, as an overview of the Amazon and the other regions that comprise Brazil’s environment seems to be a logical starting point for a discussion on environmentalism in Brazil. The chapter provides background on how various groups―including the lumber, mining, and rubber industries, farmers, indigenous peoples, and criminals―have used the Amazon and impacted the ecology of the region. In this chapter, the authors reveal that the state is largely absent in much of the Amazon, allowing small-scale criminals, drug traffickers, and illegal migrant networks to flourish. The chapter concludes with a discussion on the periods of resistance in the region.

Finally, the book turns to Brazil’s urban environment with the fifth chapter, “From Pollution Control to Sustainable Cities.” According to the authors, more than 80 percent of Brazilians live in urban environments. The chapter explores how the Brazilian government handles pollution, which is most often dealt with at the state and municipal level. As the military government took an aggressive stance on development, residents of Sao Paulo, a major metropolis, complained about air pollution. The chapter also addresses Cubatão, known as “The Valley of Death,” the most polluted city in the world. Cubatão’s history of pollution began in the 1920s with the influx of hydroelectric power. Then, in the 1950s, President GetúlioVargas placed an oil refinery in the city. In the 1970s, housing conditions in the region, along with high mercury levels and factory emissions, drew international attention to Cubatão. In 1982, the government set up a commission to tackle the pollution issue and aid the victims. Lastly, the chapter highlights environmental pollution across Brazil, emissions controls, and environmental justice and urban issues.

The authors, both political scientists, have spent decades researching and traveling to (although never living in) Brazil. The authors state that their ambitions for the work, which is largely descriptive, are to provide a nuanced view of the interactions that “shape a multi-level governance of the environment in Brazil,” but also show the significance of environmental policy within broader political and societal contexts. The authors used extensive, diversified sources to provide a well-rounded depiction of the institutions, individuals, and networks that affected environmentalism in Brazil over the last 50 years. These sources include documents from government and international organizations such as the Brazilian Association of Environmental Agencies, the Superintendency for Development of the Amazon, CONAMA, the World Bank, and others. Beyond government documents, the authors make use of a wide variety of primary sources from the 1980s and 1990s, including news articles, World Bank and Green Peace International documents, university bulletins and other materials, mostly in Brazilian Portuguese. The authors also conducted interviews with journalists, professors, environmental program directors at non-profits and NGOs, environmental officials and others. Last but not least, the authors consulted newspapers, magazines, and literally hundreds of books—as evidenced by the lengthy bibliography. The authors make a convincing, well-rounded survey of the history of environmentalism in Brazil. The wealth of information and sources make the book enjoyable for scholars and leisure readers alike.

With Greening Brazil, Keck and Hochstetler create a comprehensive overview of the creation, transformation, and transition of environmentalism in Brazil from the period of military dictatorship to democracy, including the roles of actors on the local, state, national and international levels and encompassing institutions and individuals within and outside the government. The authors spare no detail in providing the reader with an effective, well-written account of where environmentalism in Brazil came from and where it is going. Perhaps most importantly, this book adequately demonstrates that environmentalism and sustainability, in Brazil and across the globe, are complex, multi-level processes involving various actors that cannot be analyzed through one paradigm or one societal component alone.

Kathryn Hochstetler and Margaret E. Keck, Greening Brazil: Environmental Activism in State and Society, Durham: Duke University Press, 2007.

Photo courtesy of branto via Flickr.

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