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    New Environmental Caucus in Brazilian Congress

    By Keith R | February 22, 2007

    Topics: Biodiversity, Climate Change, Economics & the Environment, Environmental Education, Environmental Justice, Environmental Protection, Extractive Sectors, Water Issues | No Comments »

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    Marina & Sarney Filho at Front launch event in BrasiliaA Sign of the Times?

    On Valentine’s Day in Brasilia a large group of Federal Deputies, with top officials from the Environment Ministry (including Minister Marina Silva), the President of the Chamber of Deputies Arlindo Chinaglia [Workers’ Party (PT) – São Paulo (SP)], and representatives of several key environmental nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) by their side, announced the creation of a parliamentary “Environment Front” pledged to pursue a common pro-environment agenda released as a “manifesto.” At last count 256 Deputies — just two short of a majority in Congress’ lower chamber and constituting one of the largest caucuses (“parliamentary fronts”) in Congress — had signed the manifesto. The Front’s coordinator is Deputy Sarney Filho [Green Party (PV) – Maranhão (MA)], a former Environment Minister and the son of the first civilian President after Brazil’s 20-year military rule, José Sarney.

    Are you surprised at the profile the environment has in Brazil’s Congress (and perhaps wondering why something similar has not yet occurred at the US Congress)?

    You shouldn’t be, not if you know your international environment history (after all, the 1992 global summit on sustainable development is known as “The Rio Summit”) and you’ve been paying attention these past few months to The Temas Blog. Why, just in these last few weeks an ACNeilsen poll has shown high awareness among Brazilians of global climate change, Brazil’s Environment Minister was honored by the UN as an “Earth Champion” for her battles against deforestation, Carnaval parades have recycling and climate change themes, and the Brazilian government has asserted that it is doing more to combat climate change than most other developing nations.

    Thus should it be surprising that the Brazilian Congress wants to get in on the act?

    Breakdown of Political Party Affiliations of the Deputies in the Environment FrontWho Are These Guys?

    In truth, a small parliamentary “Environment Front” has existed in the Chamber of Deputies for many years, nominally headed by the maverick journalist and environmentalist Federal Deputy Fernando Gabeira (PV-Rio de Janeiro), but over the last four years had been — well, to put it diplomatically — relatively inactive and not influential.

    Judging by its new membership and leadership, the manifesto pledges, the launch event and the vocal support of some key NGOs, it appears that this Front does not intend to fade away quietly.

    Many press reports, obviously parroting a press release, continue to say that the Front was launched by both Deputies and Senators, but I have yet to find one confirmed name of a Senator in the Front, so I refuse to call it a dual-chamber caucus.

    Just over half of the Front members are re-elected Deputies, some with multiple terms and thus experienced in parliamentary maneuvers.

    The Front claims to “transcend ideologies and party affiliations.” The Front’s composition (click on table to enlarge) includes representatives of every political party of consequence in the Chamber, and most of the smaller ones as well. Only the PV has its entire Chamber “bench” represented in the Front, but President Lula’s Party (PT) has 49 of its 82 benchers (60%) in the Front. Among the bigger parties, the Democratic Movement (PMDB) only has 45% of its benchers, the Social Democrats (PSDB) 48% and the Liberal Front (Sarney Filho’s former party) only 32%.

    Perhaps more telling, though, is that most of the party leaders in the Chamber are not in the Front. Nor is the Chamber’s President, Arlindo Chinaglia, although he attended the launch ceremony. That said, Minority Leader Julio Redecker [PSDB – Rio Grande do Sul (RS)] is a member, which does add some political weight to the Front.

    Regional breakdown of the Deputies in the Environment FrontSome press reports (as Brazilian press reports often do) have dwelt on the regional breakdown of the Front, noting the dominance in the Front of the Southeast [RJ, SP, Minas Gerais (MG) and Espírito Santo (ES)] and the weak representation of the South [RS, Santa Catarina (SC), Paraná (PR)]. While I find the South’s weak showing a bit worrisome (given the environmental policy leadership RS, PR and SC have often shown in the past), the former is overplayed: the SE states constitute the heaviest population concentrations and larger Congressional delegations, so of course the SE region’s absolute numbers will be highest.

    But look at the numbers a little closer, you’ll find another worrisome statistic: of the Southeastern delegations, only SP has over half its bench represented in the Environment Front. The silver lining is that SP, the economic engine of the country and home to many Brazilian and Latin American regional headquarters for industry and commerce, is so well-represented. The important question mark, however, is why RJ and MG, also important industry, commerce and mining centers, are not better represented.

    Examine the regional spread from another lens: roughly half of the states, including most of the Center-West and much of the North,* have 50% or more of their Chamber delegations in the Front, but the other half contains the South, most of the SE, and the key NE state of Bahia (BA).

    What Do They Plan to Do?[MEDIA=2]

    The Front’s manifesto has 17 points, much of it the vague political language one usually finds in manifestos. A few points stand out, however (at least to me):

    More specifically, Sarney Filho says that the Front will first tackle climate change, focusing in passage of four particular bills, one of which would set a national CO2 emissions reduction target. As a sign that the new version of the Front is not a one-shot media event and a symbol of the central role climate change will play in its coming work, the launch ceremony included the signing of an agreement between the Chamber of Deputies and the SOS Atlantic Forest Foundation (Fundação SOS Mata Atlântica) to plant enough trees to make the Brazilian Congress the world’s first “carbon-free parliament.”

    Backgronud of the Deputies in the Environment FrontBut Can They Pull It Off?

    While the Front’s size is impressive, much will depend on how they use it.

    It almost a given that Front members will not vote as an indivisible bloc — not if their party leaders order them to split ranks or lobbying pressure from powerful constituents becomes too intense.

    The Front will have to focus first on a few select goals that they can all agree on and where legislative success is achievable in the near-term, while avoiding raising expectations too high.

    That may be difficult. Their manifesto covers a lot of ground, and the various factions may not wait patiently for work on climate change bills to pan out before pressing for focus on their favorite agenda items. Indeed, the rural producers’ faction of the Front has already indicated its desire to press for legislative action to give farmers economic incentives for conservation — so-called payment for “environmental services” rendered.

    Many NGOs also want action on their issue priorities. For example, the Socio-environmental Institute (Instituto SocioambientalISA) would like the Front to take the lead on the Forestry Code, the draft Law on Access to Genetic Resources, reforms of the Mining Law, and the proposed “ecological income tax.” For its part, Brazil’s Friends of the Earth affiliate, Amigos da Terra, wants “environmental safeguards” in the Accelerated Growth Program (Programa de Aceleração do CrescimentoPAC).

    Ultimately whether the Front is effective in getting legislation through or not will depend on (1) winning over key leaders of the Chamber’s political parties, or at least getting them to agree not to stand in the way; (2) strong pressure from public opinion, which means finding ways to keep in mind’s eye of the general public.

    Even if they do not succeed in getting their legislative agenda adopted, the Front’s creation, its high profile and the political commitment embodied in signing their manifesto, sends a clear message: environmental issues have moved to the political front burner in Brazil.

    * Amazonas (AM), Ceará (CE), Federal District (DF), Goiás (GO), Mato Grosso (MT), MA, Mato Grosso do Sul (MS), Pará (PA), Paraíba (PB), Pernambuco (PE), Piauí (PI), Roraima (RO), SP, Sergipe (SE)

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