By Donella Meadows
–July 28, 1993–
Since the assassination of Chico Mendes those who govern Brazil have been trying desperately to recover their image as fit leaders for a large, dynamic, civilized, sustainably developing country. The government stopped its subsidies to destructive cattle-ranching and set aside “extractive reserves” in the Amazon. It hosted the Earth Summit. It ousted a corrupt president.
Those were welcome changes. Brazil is undeniably large and dynamic. But when it comes to being civilized, or practicing sustainable development, Brazil still has a long way to go.
Chico Mendes was a peasant leader of rubber-tappers, who make their living in the rainforests of the Amazon. Rich ranchers were cutting and burning the forest and turning it into cattle pasture. The rubber-tappers confronted them, using nonviolent measures. They petitioned, they reasoned, they did economic analyses that showed higher incomes over longer periods from the standing forest than from ranching. They stood weaponless in front of trucks and bulldozers, and they took their case to international lenders. One by one they were picked off by hired assassins. Nothing was done to apprehend the murderers. When Mendes was shot, the story hit the international headlines, and the embarrassed government jailed his killers — for a while.
That kind of non-justice still prevails. Last week Latin American newspapers ran front-page photographs of seven murdered street-children in Rio. They were shot as they slept on cardboard sheets near a cathedral. There are millions of these homeless kids in Brazilian cities, and they are a nuisance. They roam in gangs, accost tourists, beg and steal. Over 300 of them have been gunned down this year. Three military policemen were questioned about last week’s shooting and released. After a flood of critical comment, they were arrested — for awhile.
When that story came out I was in Costa Rica listening to another tale of Brazilian-style “development.” It was told by the urban equivalent of Chico Mendes, a young woman named Sonia Regina deBrito Pereira. She is a biologist and lawyer, a professor of environmental law, and until recently Municipal Superintendent for Environment for the city of Rio de Janeiro. Now she is a target for assassination.
Behind the spectacular beachfront of Rio lies a series of lagoons lined with mangroves. Until recently this swampy area was been left to nature and to low-income communities, some of which have been there for generations. Sonia deBrito works with the people in these communities to help them make a living from fish in the water and gardens on shore, while cleaning up garbage, preserving the mangroves, planting trees, and pressing the city to stop industrial pollution of the lagoons.
All was going well until the city gave a license to a real-estate developer to put 324 skyscrapers on the land. The people living there were told to move. They were offered no place to move to and no compensation. (Land titles are nonexistent in settlements like these.)
The people refused to budge. Bulldozers were brought in to smash down their houses, “in order to protect the environment,” said the city officials. Sonia deBrito helped community leaders, many of them women, take their case to court. They got an injunction to stop the bulldozers. That’s when Sonia lost her job and the assassinations began.
Family by family, the most outspoken leaders, along with their children, are being raped, tortured, and shot. Since 1989 37 people in these communities have been killed in this way, all of them visible opponents of the commercial development. None of the murders has been investigated; no perpetrators have been apprehended. The Brazilian press plays the story as one of unexplained violence in unsightly squatter communities.
Even after Chico Mendes, Brazil’s ruling class still doesn’t get it. If you have to kill people or shove them out of the way to achieve development, that’s not development. Development is more than building skyscrapers and attracting tourists; it is also guaranteeing equal rights under the law, protecting freedom of speech, administering justice, working with people to plant trees and clean up waters, educating and caring for children, and helping families find the economic security that will stop them from generating street children and squatter settlements.
Year after year Brazil shows up in international statistics as the most inequitable nation on earth. The top 10 percent of its people take in over 50 percent of its income. (By comparison, according to World Bank statistics, in Japan the top 10 percent get 23 percent, in Switzerland 22 percent, in the United States 25 percent.) Brazil’s rapid economic growth of the 1960s and 70s took place at the expense of its mines, forests, soils, waters, and people. It was growth, not development. It raised 30 million people to the middle class, a few to extreme wealth, and left 120 million in poverty.
Eventually the Brazilian economic miracle tottered. It was bound to. Even for towering skycrapers within which the rich get richer, there must be a firm foundation of healthy nature, human rights, and basic justice.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1993