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Interview of the month: Izabella Teixeira

“There is no way to think about the country’s development without thinking about the Amazon”

For Izabella Teixeira, former Minister of Environment, there is a lack of serenity in the debate regarding the Amazon

With the experience of having articulated the Paris Agreement while in the federal government, Izabella Teixeira, holder of the environmental portfolio between 2010 and 2016, does not want to look back. According to her, who has been participating in the Brazilian environmental governance system since the 1980s, Brazil needs to know where it wants to go, whether in terms of Amazonian development or a low carbon economy.

In this interview to Escolhas, Izabella says that it is essential that the country has serenity upon facing solutions for the Amazon region, for example, which is still very physically disconnected from the rest of Brazil and the world. 

Instituto Escolhas – You recently addressed the Amazon infrastructure issue at a conference. How to deal with this issue within the context of sustainable development for the entire region and looking at Brazil’s insertion in the world?

Izabella – Some important aspects should be noted in terms of the Amazon. The first thing is that the Amazon accounts for over 50% of the Brazilian territory. There is no way to think about the country’s development without thinking about the Amazon and vice-versa. We are talking about 5% of the planet’s global territory. The region also holds, according to the Census, approximately 25 million people that live in urban areas. When you take this true Amazonian continent, which is within an already continental country, such as Brazil, it is obvious that you need to have serenity to discuss whether the solutions adopted in the past are useful or should be reviewed in relation to the results that are sought. One of the most emerging matters regards connectivity of the Amazon with the rest of Brazil. Currently, approximately 80% of the food that arrives in the region is imported from other parts of Brazil. It is a region that lacks a modern river navigation system. While in some southern cities you get to Europe in eight hours, in the Amazon you can take up to ten days to reach a more secluded location, through the river. Brazil needs to understand the Amazonian dimension and the Amazonian dimension needs to understand its role in Brazil. That is not clear. We have a stereotypical view of the forest by the forest, although it is strategic, it is necessary to know what are the desires of those who live there, the so-called amazonids. I really like the expression that Bertha Becker [geographer, who died in 2013, who studied the region a lot] used, “the various Amazons”. We are talking about various Amazons. We do not have the scale of the challenge we face from the political point of view. We need to sit down to understand this and build a country vision pointing where we want to go. We will not get anywhere by ignoring the populations of the Amazon. Brazil does not know how to discuss Brazil. In the environmental area, we are very good at diagnosing problems. What we are not able to do very well is put numbers next to the solutions. If, for example, I want to carry out a bio-economy project in the Amazon, how big is the transition that I will undergo. How much will it cost, what are the markets, what is the logistics required to complete the process. No one discusses this*. Much less about what infrastructure is needed to make the Amazon economy viable. The real world needs to be discussed. As the Amazon is a continent, I can have small-scale local solutions that have been in practice for a long time but often do not connect with the real world.   

Escolhas – What analysis can be made based on your vast experience of the current debate on global climate governance? 

Izabella Teixeira – From the science standpoint, the climate issue is now more than strategic, it has a political and emergency dimension. It is an emergency that the world is living in despite of the politically weak segment of denialists. Since 99% of science already converges on the issue of climate emergency. There is a group that wants to deviate attention not only from climate emergency, but also a political emergency from an environmental and global standpoint. Countries need to be prepared to deal with climate change, both strategically, in pursuit of development, innovation and social inclusion linked to a climate mitigation agenda, and in terms of international geopolitics upon having to use the fight against climate change as a means of political expression. 

Escolhas – Is Brazil missing opportunities because of the way it is inserting itself in this international climate board?

Izabella – More than missing opportunities, Brazil is losing political role. It is one thing for you to lose opportunities or political space to be a protagonist. Another thing is to be out of the game, as Brazil is doing. The discussion is about who is in the world or not. Global agendas determine whether you are in or out of the world. From the political and geopolitical standpoint, Brazil has a global strategic importance in the matter of sustainability. We need to discuss what we will do in the future. I already know what Brazil has done in the last 40 years with its agriculture. The important thing is to know what will be delivered in the next 40 years. One has to look ahead, there is an engagement of the new generations for that. As if a return to the past secured the future. The protagonism in Brazil will occur if it is able to build a story that makes sense within a global context. We are not in a separate universe. The political discussion of the world is changing. The climate discussion clearly poses the problem. You want to discuss war, polarization between China or India, all right. But there is one thing here that you have no control over and if you don’t take care of it [the climate crisis] you will have problems. 

Escolhas – Are these challenges well mapped in your assessment? Does the private sector play its role well?

Izabella – We face a few challenges. Brazil is a country that, with its identity, can bring solutions to the global low carbon agenda. Through its own ways, it can quietly reach this level by 2050. One problem is that Brazil did not do its homework after the Paris agreement. It did not define a national strategy for implementing the commitments that were assumed. The first thing, then, is Brazil to understand which trajectories it has to follow in the so-called low carbon. What are the strategies, the economic paths that should be prioritized in terms of innovation, credits, grants and visions in general. It has to have a plan, a strategic vision. You need to know where you are going and not just where you started from. There is a disconnection between the challenges that will be imposed by the world in 10 or 20 years and what Brazil does today. We don’t have a strategy, a road map. The country uses today what was done in the past. As we do not agree on a plan we also do not know the leaders of the private sector. Obviously many play a big role in the agriculture sector, but no one equates what the responsibilities of national agriculture are over the next 40 years. We are able to talk about a country that was successful in the countryside, which imported food for 45 years and today is one of the largest producers on the planet, but we do not present what this country will deliver with environmental protection, carbon fixation and correct land use in four decades. 

Escolhas – You have been drawing attention to the issue of a loss of centrality in environmental policy decision-making. Can this be reversed?

Izabella – The creation of Ibama in the 1980s moved the federal public governance system, and then the 1988 Constitution, in its article 23, which was later regulated by law, welcomes the issue of complementarity between states and the federal government to act in defense of the environment. Moreover, is what we are currently experiencing, when federal governance is being dismantled and nothing is put in place [it is up to the federal government to coordinate the National Environmental System – SISNAMA]. Thus, the coordinating role of the federal government is in limbo. It is one thing for you to manage federal competences, it is quite another to coordinate national competences. When the control of regional environmental management is put in the hands of governors, the lack of federal coordination may be the problem. When making a compromise between countries, the Union must assume its responsibility. Even states, for example, can negotiate with everyone, be it Germany or another country interested in helping to preserve the environment. States may be operating in fundraising, but the Union is responsible for the results or failures. 

* Instituto Escolhas has launched a study entitled “A New Economy for the Amazon: Manaus Free Zone and Bioeconomy”. Check out the link