Security, Livelihood and the Politics of Space in Brazil

Author(s): Fatima Vianna Mello
Date Published: July 22, 2006
Source: Political Environments #5, Fall 1997
Interview with Jean Pierre Leroy (FASE, Brazil)

Fatima : In the US, conservative environmental groups that have a huge influence on public opinion focus the debate on population and environment, or more precisely, on the alleged negative environmental impacts of the size and growth of the poor layers of the population in low:income countries. How do Brazilian environmental groups view this debate:

Jean Pierre : These groups in Brazil do not work much with the issue of population and environment. For example, in the Rio+5 round of discussions, held by the Brazilian Forum of NGOs and Social Movements for Environment and Development, there was no proposal for a specific report on population and environment. Also, thematic reports did not include this dimension, at least in a relevant way. However, pressure of the population on natural resources does raise some concern among some actors. Yet the issue is put forward from two angles.

First, there is the view that conservation areas should exist, but the surrounding population puts pressure on their resource base and there should be a clearer separation, relocating people to other areas. Regarding conservation systems, national parks and forests, the discussion evolved towards affirming that people should live side by side with conservation areas. Therefore, instead of discussing people's exclusion, one is thinking in terms of sharing, in forms of resource use that would accommodate : except for some exclusive areas : people's presence and action. However, Brazilian environmental groups are just now initiating this reflection. Some large environmental groups, older and conservationist, have yet to incorporate this view. Also, in part of the state sector, in the Ministry of Environment, people are still seen as the enemy, when officials want to create a reserve area.

Second, there is the MST (Landless Peasants' Movement) approach which calls into question public reserves, as well as farms they consider nonproductive. For them, any uncultivated area is open to occupation. However, they do not want to destroy in order to produce; when they occupy conservation areas, they want to make a political statement. Thus the population issue in Brazil has these two angles.

Fatima : What are the highlights on the agenda of Brazilian social and environmental movements:

Jean Pierre : The agrarian reform is a priority struggle for our social movements. In this struggle the issue of population pressure on natural resources is marginal. For the social and environmental movements, the agrarian reform has an impact on development and is viewed by all as essential to the country's future. Why: There are several currents.

There is a sector that views this as a social issue, with a discourse like "poor people, we've got to look after them, some people don't know what to do, then we've got to act, give them a piece of land, give them some encouragement." However, there are also those who view the agrarian reform in a different way. They think there are profound population and development imbalances in the country. Our development is basically along the coast, with concentration of population and industry, and large urban centers on the littoral. The interior, which was being populated, started to lose people. To an extent, this was compensated by the creation of large cities.

Therefore, the current concept of agrarian reform has to do with stopping the excessive growth of large metropolises, explaining that there is no more space as no new jobs are available, city management is no longer feasible, and developing public policies is no longer possible. The idea is to stop the growth of large cities and at the same time occupy the Brazilian spaces, avoiding depopulation, but also the impoverishment of the space, of the territory, of its wealth and biodiversity.

There are those who think that depopulation is an excellent thing because it will allow us to maintain untouched areas or to preserve the country's natural heritage. This is not true. Areas not occupied by people are taken over by predatory activities or by monoculture. Thus, those areas are occupied by deeply predatory economic activities, as Brazilian modern monoculture is highly mechanized and uses a lot of chemicals.

Fatima : What I find interesting in your approach is that for the first time someone is saying that occupation of areas by people can be positive. Usually, this action is always viewed as resulting in negative impacts, without taking into account that a demographic void can lead to worse environmental results than the presence of people.

Jean Pierre : Certainly. For two reasons. First, urban and industrial development that drove these people out of the rural areas has put pressure on the coast. Today the Atlantic Forest has been reduced to 6:7% of its original size. Therefore, recovering spatial equilibrium diminishes the pressure on water, natural resources, forests, and on the quality of life.

Moreover, depopulating the countryside is undermining family agriculture. Rural areas are left to backward extensive farming and cattle raising, and logging activities, or to modern cattle raising and agriculture, particularly monocropping. There are also industrial agricultural activities such as reforesting that really are the basic cause of the countryside's impoverishment, depletion of the genetic and phytogenetic base, and great pollution. In addition, there is a potential to create a huge social problem. From this point of view, the agrarian reform has the potential not only to supply an escape valve for urban pressure and redress population balance, but also, if implemented in a sustainable way, to create the conditions for maintaining or exploiting our natural resources (including their dynamic preservation).

I think this is the most modern approach to the agrarian reform: an overview of the Brazilian space. However, the environmental movement does not have a tradition of reflecting on the agrarian issue, the role of agriculture, or ecological agriculture. This reflection is more likely to come from rural movements and organizations that have faced these challenges in the past 20 years. But the important point to be stressed in the Brazilian case is that the population, rather than being an element of concern, should be perceived as an ally in the struggle for the country's sustainable development.

Fatima : As I understand, conflicts may arise here and there in Brazil between the perspective of creating Indigenous Reserves and the need of squatters to occupy land, which raises the possibility of conflicts. If we go deeper into this debate I think we might find very differentiated positions among environmental and social movements.

Jean Pierre : No, I don't think so. Squatters are often pushed into land occupation by big landholders, by political interests. Wherever there is ongoing discussion among social sectors, this does not happen. An example is the Rondonia Forum in the Amazon, which pulls together several sectors (extractive farmers, small producers, native peoples' movements) -- they all defend and respect native and extractive areas, and question any settlement in areas planned for Indigenous Reserves. The understanding is possible because there is space for everything. The issue here is not population, but political strategies, political decisions of minority sectors who have appropriated the space and are forcing those majority sectors onto areas where they should not be. Thus, if we can speak of a population problem, it's artificially created by political actions manipulated by private interests.

There is a lot of talk in Brazil about social exclusion, that some sectors are being economically, socially, and politically excluded, that there is a tendency toward social apartheid. I would add to this, the tendency toward an environmental apartheid. This is obvious if one looks at the Brazilian urban issue. This apartheid is present when people are living in risky, inhospitable areas: lowlands, hillsides, swampy lands, on top of pipelines, under high:voltage transmission lines, too close to roads and railway tracks. These are tendencies related to social and environmental exclusion.

There is also exclusion in the countryside. In Rondonia in the Amazonian region, exclusion occurred along the road, where the good land is located, because of pressure by big landholders. It was an area meant for settlers, but the absence of any support, credit, or technical assistance forced many people to sell their plots. The land is now used for extensive agriculture and cattle raising, and in a few cases for more modern agriculture. This has pushed settlers onto marginal lands, including reserves. Then, they become the enemy, and people say there is population pressure. There is no such pressure but rather a development model that brings about these consequences. We cannot take the consequence for the original cause. Thus, in Brazil, it would be absurd to have the population issue as the point of reference.

Fatima : But this is the argument many North American environmentalists use regarding the Amazon -- that squatters and settlers put pressure on the reserve areas because of the number of people picking up firewood to cook and cutting down the forest to grow food. That is, this reasoning takes the result and...

Jean Pierre : Well, it's not so. First, rural areas in the Amazon are being depopulated. Today, 60% of the Amazonian people live in cities -- in cities that are growing. Second, occupation of the Amazon resulted from planned policies in the 70s, with the squatter as the instrument of big landowners : the one who cleared the forest and left the land ready for them. There are also the large projects. For example, the Carajas project was a huge factor in concentrating population, attracting large numbers of people. The Tucurui dam was a factor too. The large projects attracted those sectors but could not handle those processes, and people remained there.

In addition, the agriculture model being forced upon us came from the United States and Europe, it was not developed here. It's a model of agriculture that uses chemicals and machines, a model imposed on us. They tried to impose this model even on small settlers. It's absurd.

More recent settlers, along the Trans:Amazon Road, are aware of the limitations of this modern model; they know that Amazonian agriculture should have its own roots. Thus, there is a chance to reverse this model. These settlers are the ones who are putting forward the most advanced agroforestry proposals for the Amazon. Also, settlers in Acre, at the border with Rondonia, have developed an extremely well:adapted model of agroforestry, of fruit (and fruit pulp) production. In the Para Trans:Amazon, settlers are establishing a forest reserve in neighboring areas, breaking with the individual lot logic of each one looking after his or her own interest. They are setting up collective forest reserves. This is innovative and is coming from people who are considered destructive.

Relating this issue of occupying the Amazon, or other sensitive areas, to territorial reoccupation, it's not a matter of thinking that reoccupying land with small producers is going to solve everything : this is just one element. The other side is the creation of small towns. For us, this imbalance is a problem: huge metropolises and in many regions depopulation of small urban centers.

Suitable agriculture works like an engine providing dynamism to small towns. This calls into question not only the situation in Brazil but the prevailing model of huge industrial and agroindustrial concentration. This is the real pressure on environmental resources in Brazil. This model determines that the hinterland of the Amazon, the interior of Mato Grosso state, will be supplied by an industrial or semi:industrial product from southern Brazil, which is a transnational corporation-imposed model. On the other hand, to speak of occupying the interior is to create employment, to create jobs for processing products, that aggregate value to them. Not to mention that energy is saved and market circuits are shortened. What I'm saying is valid for extractive, agroforestry, and forestry activities.

Today, when you consider native peoples, rubber tappers, nut pickers, Amazon river bank and lake side dwellers, traditional coastal fishermen, and traditional small producers, you see them as an opportunity for conservation in Brazil... What has prevented the destruction of a good part of the Amazon forest? The simple answer is to be found in one economic activity ?rubber extraction ?which implies resource conservation. If the Amazon population did not clear the forest, it is because their economy and culture were linked to preservation. If fishing resources were preserved, it is because the river bank and lake side economy, the economy of traditional fishermen, was associated with river and lake preservation. Brazil is fortunate to have people involved in these traditional activities. They should be given the chance to develop and grow as they are an extremely positive factor in conservation. Let's see if the country takes advantage of this enormous opportunity.

The United States wants to immediately implement trade agreements in the Americas, while Brazil wishes to wait until the year 2005. The US wants us to limit subsidies, have an open:door policy, drastically reduce import tariffs, etc. I consider this a great mistake : for Brazil to accept everything and for the US to pressure every sector into acceptance.

When import tariffs for rubber and babassu oil were reduced, production of native rubber in Brazil became unfeasible and women's activity of picking the babassu nut and cracking it to extract the oil was severely undermined by Asian palm oil imports. In the short:term this may be viewed as international integration but it threatens the very survival of these people, of these traditional activities.

This immediately poses threats to the ecosystem. Because when the rubber:tappers can no longer live from extracting latex, a still prevailing activity, they will have to sell wood. How else can they survive: Women's work of cracking babassu nuts has made the best contribution to the preservation of the Amazon peripheral ecosystem which is rich in babassu palm trees. Indeed, these women have played an impressive role. Once their activity disappears, machines will level the babassu fields, destroying everything, and introducing an entirely artificial ecosystem in the region. Therefore, the population is a positive factor, and it would be good to stimulate those economic activities with subsidies, due to the key role they play in the sustainability of Brazilian ecosystems.

Another issue that is particularly complex at the moment is the job situation. Industrial jobs are falling, civil service employment (which has always been important in Brazil) is also dropping, and there is a lack of alternatives. Some might say that there are no jobs because of excessive population. However, this is happening in a context of diminishing population in Brazil, showing that there is no relation between the two.

Fatima : This is the same argument that says that "poverty in Brazil exists because of too many people." However, fertility rates have fallen 50% in the last two decades and poverty has only increased. There is no direct connection between population and poverty. I think the same happens with the job issue. It's not a mathematical equation.

Jean Pierre : I think that sustainable activities create employment because one has to start by reducing marketing circuits, one has to start from local or regional supplies, reshaping tastes. We should rapidly abandon MacDonald's hamburgers in favor of local and regional tastes. A country like Brazil, with its enormous diversity, has a great chance to feed its people. And this would easily lead to the creation of local and regional jobs.

Thus, reshaping tastes and consumption is important for the environment as it reduces transportation costs and energy and infrastructure utilization, and local economic activities are dynamized. This is also connected to biodiversity because local rice is promoted, as well as the kind of corn and vegetables produced in the region. My wife, who is from Minas Gerais state, and I consume over ten kinds of vegetables that can be found among the local vegetation. If this brush is cleared, the vegetables will also disappear. They are a very important source of food in certain regions of the countryside.

Fatima : How would you relate this debate to the issue of security: US foreign policy views population growth as a threat to security and to national interests, to the extent that it is an obstacle to the preservation of natural resources. How do you see this:

Jean Pierre : Our security is highly fragile. The environmental issue, from the angle I approached it : implementing the agrarian reform, repopulating the countryside, strengthening small towns, shortening marketing circuits, producing food, etc. : is a question of security. Instead of talking about the environment in abstract, we should talk about sustainable development founded on the country's wealth, its people, its highly diverse space. Security for us is food and nutritional security. This is basic security.

Our perspective provides the conditions for livelihood while the crowding of people in large cities has already become a huge security problem. We see that providing the conditions for people's livelihood attenuates security problems and brings about food security. This goes against the current trends of economic internationalization, as I'm talking about an endogenous development. However, we do not have to choose one over the other, but we must understand that even to become internationally integrated, it's necessary to have a viable perspective.

Fatima : This is very interesting as we are talking about security in a globalized world which is totally fragmented at the local level. They talk about international security as something built in the high spheres without security at the local level you are referring to. Local security is going to help build a safer world.

Jean Pierre : People's lives are deeply insecure in a country like Brazil. But not insecure as is understood abroad. It's unsafe simply because of the extreme income and power concentration in the country. Those people have no access to health, education, or anything else. This is total insecurity.

Fatima : Actually, the issue of security (military, strategic, etc.) has always been dominated by the elite and government, without any participation of people in defining the necessary conditions for real security. We should approach this issue of security from a democratic perspective, including all sectors in the discussion. Even more so as today security is being viewed as control, military power, struggle for hegemony. Thus this new view of security has yet to be built.

Jean Pierre : It's like saying that people just see the present day, while only the elite has the privilege of reflecting on strategies for the future. Here, the military has always had a geopolitical concern, making strategies for the future. However, governments today have to a certain extent given up on strategic reflection, on thinking about the future. These days, their horizon is the next election, some short:term project. So, there is an inversion because today society is coming to the fore, affirming that we must think about the future.

I would say that as we have a more educated and active population, people in Brazil are becoming deeply aware of all these issues. Political activity is not limited to Congress and elections. People are pointing to another direction when they say they want to eliminate exclusion, change the power concentration pattern, the income and services concentration. This can only happen if they plan for the future. One has to look ahead to change anything. To this extent, I would say that another type of security is being built today by society, when it considers how we should change, how we will democratize society, how we will be able to participate in power, how we will become economic actors. Insofar as we think in the medium: and long:term, we are reflecting on security for the future, which is entirely linked to people's living conditions.
[Translated by Jones de Freitas]