From inside Brazil

16/01/2010 / Kaj

I am back in Sweden after three weeks in Brazil, which has become a frequent travel destination for me in the past ten years. Brazil is my third home country after the UK and Sweden and a visit always gives plenty of food for thought. It is one of the most beautiful places on earth but it is easy to feel frustrated at the lack of progress brought about by non-sustainable thinking in the decision-making process. Brazil was punching above its weight in 1963 when Charles de Gaulle called it an unserious country but recent developments have given new hope that the country and its 190 million citizens could soon stand shoulder to shoulder with the world’s biggest economies, China, the US, India and Japan.

But it is a formidable challenge. Internationally, President Lula reinforced his position at the Copenhagen summit by supporting the REDD initiative, the first step to securing sources to preserve global interest in the Amazon region. 58 per cent of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture and deforestation. If it were not for deforestation, Brazil would rank only 18th in the list of world of carbon dioxide emitters. The 200 million tons of carbon dioxide released by burning rainforest each year puts Brazil among the top ten.

Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of sugar-based ethanol fuel. The Brazilian government plans to triple its annual export of ethanol from three billion to ten billion litres by 2015. However, due to the large question mark surrounding the ethanol issue, more opportunities will be linked to the second generation of biofuels, both from cellulose and biogas from waste. These are sources that Brazil could develop in a sustainable way.

Looking at other domestic areas, the challenges are even greater and are dependent on people’s participation. Also, the democracy is still young and the gap between rich and the poor will be a priority issue for years to come. As a Swede you see education, education and education as the way forward, but it is not enough.

The social agenda is far from settled. Corruption and the legal system destroy any ambitions on that front. Liberal attitudes towards drugs at the higher levels of society create a huge market for drug dealers in the favelas.

Rio de Janeiro and adjoining areas will come under scrutiny step by step on the road to the FIFA World Cup and Olympics. The combination of heavy rain and climate change means most of the favelas need to be moved away. Last year as I was passing Angra on my way to Paraty south of Rio de Janeiro I could see new favelas emerging all around the mountainside.

The ever-increasing number of favelas in the past ten years is one of the indicators of Brazil’s inability to set serious social targets. Brazil’s discourse of creating a sustainable society does not reflect in daily realities. Climate change will perhaps provide the impetus to begin clearing up in the favelas and give politicians reason to put this challenge onto to their agenda. When I left Rio last week it was announced that around 200 favelas would be removed in the next two years due to poor construction and the risk to life and land slides.

But I do not wish to focus on the challenges only. Coming back to my last blog, I wrote that one of the most important areas to fight climate change is to engage cities. This approach provides opportunities to bolster the agenda for climate and gives the Copenhagen accord a good nudge forward.

Brazil has a very interesting city, Curitiba, which could inspire other cities around the world. Curitiba has around two million inhabitants, a good sized city for me. When I first met Jaime Lerner (three times Mayor of Curitiba) I was very impressed. His view on smart sustainable planning and involving local people in the process has been a great success story. Curitiba has the highest recycling rate in the World, currently 70 per cent. In a twenty year period, car traffic fell by 30 per cent while the population tripled. Curitiba has built a large number of parks to control floods rather than use concrete canals, so many in fact that they use sheep to cut the grass as it is cheaper than lawnmowers. Curitiba’s average income per capita has gone from below the Brazilian average in the 1970s to 66 per cent above the Brazilian average.

The role of cities in the world will intensify to meet the coming economic, environmental and social challenges. Brazil is no exception.

When we look at the expansion of cities in Brazil it is clear to see the lack of planning for infrastructure, waste and social justice. Salvador is a beautiful city that is drowning in sewage. The governor spends fortunes advertising the town to tourists who have to be in the most breathtaking sites and smell the most horrific air. Sewage threatens people’s health and destroys the beautiful beaches.

As global citizens we should all get involved in finding solutions that will enhance Brazil’s position as one of the most beautiful places on earth. Support from the friends of Brazil in the shape of investment, knowledge and experience is there for the taking. It would create new market opportunities for many businesses, and, with the growth rate of 4-8 per cent as forecast by many economists, the years leading up to the FIFA World Cup and the Olympic Games could be golden years.

Based on my own experience, I have compiled a list of measures that will create market opportunities and provide solutions to the social agenda:

– Waste and water technology for cultivating and sustainable city developments as seen in Curitiba and the C40 network
– Sustainable forestry development
– The development of second generation of biofuels
– Energy distribution in cities
– Social and environmental campaigning with the focus on education along the lines of the Keep Sweden Clean Campaign
– Local government training to improve transparency and democracy, including gender equality programmes

Brazil also has a great deal to offer the international community. Commercial goods and services has the potential to keep Brazil shoulder to shoulder with leading world economies, but will not be sustainable until the social and environment agendas have been dealt with.

Stockholm, 16th January 2010

Kaj Embren


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  1. Nice review of Brazil’s challenges and opportunities.

    For more on Curitiba, see the video “Curitiba Urban Innovations” produced by my friends from Santa Cruz, CA:

    It would be interesting to see more urban innovations like that worldwide.

  2. Ricardo Freitas

    This article written by Kaj Embren touch in the main opportunities and weakness we have in Brasil as well as the environmental education effort we all -brasilians – in and out of Brasil sould work for. This last strong storm would not produce so many deaths if the society was committed to control policitians actions. The public budged should be dedicated to education ,healh and infraestructure but the corruption take most of them and also people hope. Ricardo Freitas

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