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Ecology

Between man and nature

Dilemma between preservation and development has been constant throughout Brazilian history

ALBERTO CÉSAR ARAÚJO / Agência EstadoSlashing and burning: a problem since colonial timesALBERTO CÉSAR ARAÚJO / Agência Estado

The new Forestry Code project, approved in August by the special commission of the House of Representatives, is likely to be voted on in Congress after the elections. It is being criticized by scientists and environmentalists, for whom its passing will have a serious impact on biodiversity and ecosystems, because of the significant reductions in permanent preservation areas (PPA) and the amnesty it proposes for any deforestation carried out before 2008. The latest environmental controversy has ancient roots: the dilemma between nature preservation and economic development has been the theme of discussions in the country since colonial times. A little later came the difficulty of forming a partnership between state and society for a balanced solution. “In Brazil there is a historical pattern: generally, concerns about the environment have resulted from the action of groups of scientists, intellectuals and civil servants who, through their involvement with the Executive, have sought to influence the decisions of those in government in favor of valuing nature,” says historian José Luiz de Andrade Franco, from the University of Brasilia, author of “Proteção à natureza and identidade nacional no Brasil” [Protecting Nature and National Identity in Brazil] (FIOCRUZ). “Because of this, the progress of policies to protect nature have always depended more on links with governments and only secondarily on the reverberations that people concerned about environmental issues cause in society,” is his assessment.

That was how it was with the original Forestry Code, passed in 1934 by Getúlio Vargas, the result of the articulations of a group of researchers from the National Museum of Rio de Janeiro (MNRJ), who, using their influence within the circles of power, argued for the intervention of a strong state to guarantee the balance between progress and natural heritage by means of laws. The legislation for protecting forest areas that placed limits on property rights in the name of conservation was revised in 1965 during the military dictatorship. Now, for the first time the code will be revised in a democratic society and one that is open to debate with public opinion. Will we reap greater rewards than in the past? “The protectors of nature in the years between 1920-1940, who created the legislation, favored a strong state, but had proposals for social and environmental transformation that were fairly renovationist. The conservationists in the years from 1960 to 1980 were not at the forefront of the political questioning of the military regime, but had concerns about nature that were still very far from the political agenda of the left,” Franco remembers. “Today, environmentalists most concerned with social issues adopt a rather anthropocentric stance, often leaving the most urgent issues of biodiversity hidden in the shadows.” According to the researcher, society and state in Brazil are still hegemonically developmentary. “The success of environmentalism in the medium and long term lies in its capacity to reverse this disposition to promote economic growth at any cost.” For the researcher, it is not surprising that these protectors of nature in the past have been almost forgotten in the strong current of development that has prevailed in the country from the 1940’s onwards. “What is surprising, is that they have been forgotten by Brazilian ‘scientific’ and ‘social’ environmentalists, who as from the 1980’s, have emerged as important players in science, activism, the media and social movements.”

Franco calls them protectors of “the second generation of conservationists,” Brazilian intellectuals who, between 1920 and 1940, called on the Executive to maintain a direct link between nature and society, because, they said, protecting nature was a way of constructing our nationality. Most of them were scientists from the MNRJ: Alberto José Sampaio (1881-1946), Armando Magalhães Correa (1889-1944), Cândido de Mello Leitão (1886-1948) and Carlos Frederico Hoehne (1882-1959). As a characteristic of Brazilian environmental history, the trend of these intellectual circles was to join the state to demand from the authorities that private economic agents behave more rationally. “Their conviction was that it was their responsibility to build national identity and organize State institutions,” observes Franco. A series of environmental codes decreed by the Vargas government, coupled with the creation of the first national parks, indicates the relative success they have achieved. “They believed that the authoritarian intervention of Vargas would resolve conflicts and unfair competition. From this, they thought, a new man could be a link to nature and to other men,” is the analysis of historian, Regina Horta Duarte, of the Federal University of Minas Gerais, author of the article “Pássaros e cientistas no Brasil” [Birds and scientists in Brazil]. To put their theories into practice they created public societies for protecting nature: Society of Friends of the Trees, Society of Friends of the National Museum, Society of Friends of Brazilian Flora, and others.

The most ambitious initiative of these organizations was the First Brazilian Conference for Nature Protection, held in 1934 with the support of the Vargas regime, which had just created the Forestry Code, the Hunting and Fishing Code and the Law on Scientific Expeditions. The 1934 Constitution also included an article on the role of the federal and state governments in the protection of areas of “natural beauty.” The cycle of talks was opened with the reading of “Nature,” by German poet Goethe. “This was evidence of the importance given by participants to the esthetic perception of the natural world. According to this view, nature should be admired, cared for and transformed into a garden,” says Franco. “This romantic influence, however, never ruled out the possibility of the economic use of nature and the need to renew depleted sources was always remembered. Besides being a ‘garden’, the natural world was perceived as an industry. Hence the various proposals to create ‘tree nurseries’, which were simultaneously both gardens and areas for timber production on a large scale.” The conference organizers were updated on the action of nature protectors in other countries. They got to know in depth the American experience and the debate between the preservationists of John Muir, who defended the esthetic contemplation of nature, and the conservationists led by Guifford Pinchot, who believed in the rational exploitation of natural resources. The two views won space in the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), which resulted in the growth of Yosemite Park, the creation of various reserves and a further five new national parks.

The most ambitious initiative of these organizations was the First Brazilian Conference for Nature Protection, held in 1934 with the support of the Vargas regime, which had just created the Forestry Code, the Hunting and Fishing Code and the Law on Scientific Expeditions. The 1934 Constitution also included an article on the role of the federal and state governments in the protection of areas of “natural beauty.” The cycle of talks was opened with the reading of “Nature,” by German poet Goethe. “This was evidence of the importance given by participants to the esthetic perception of the natural world. According to this view, nature should be admired, cared for and transformed into a garden,” says Franco. “This romantic influence, however, never ruled out the possibility of the economic use of nature and the need to renew depleted sources was always remembered. Besides being a ‘garden’, the natural world was perceived as an industry. Hence the various proposals to create ‘tree nurseries’, which were simultaneously both gardens and areas for timber production on a large scale.” The conference organizers were updated on the action of nature protectors in other countries. They got to know in depth the American experience and the debate between the preservationists of John Muir, who defended the esthetic contemplation of nature, and the conservationists led by Guifford Pinchot, who believed in the rational exploitation of natural resources. The two views won space in the presidency of Theodore Roosevelt (1901-1909), which resulted in the growth of Yosemite Park, the creation of various reserves and a further five new national parks.

Agência EstadoDevastation: the price of backwardness and not of progressAgência Estado

However, what divided Americans was consensus in Brazil and there was no ingenuity in the group, despite the combination that turned romanticism into science and nationalism. “At that time, the concepts of protection, conservation and preservation were interchangeable. For scientists, nature should be protected, both as a set of productive resources to be rationally exploited by future generations, as well as biological diversity, the object of science and esthetic contemplation.” Utilitarian arguments coexisted in harmony with esthetic arguments, and it was all part of a larger project of the union between nature and nationality. “The metaphors they used to represent Brazilian society converged with images from the political ideas of Vargas,” notes Franco. “This way of protecting nature was in keeping with the project of the Vargas corporatist state and this convergence helped raise the institutional status acquired by a number of proposals relating to environmental protection and the public and private control of natural resources,” is the researcher’s analysis. “Before the 1930 revolution, political decentralization strengthened the control of regional elite classes, which encouraged the extreme exploitation of natural resources. The destruction of forests was aggravated by the railroads that, in the definition of Euclides da Cunha, were the ‘makers of deserts'” observes historian José Augusto Pádua, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and author of “Um Sopro de Destruição: pensamento politico e crítica ambiental no Brasil escravista” [A Breath of destruction: political thought and environmental critique in Brazil at the time of slavery] published by Zahar.

In 1915, jurist and philosopher Alberto Torres (1865-1917) warned of the situation: “All Brazilians are foreigners in their own land, which they have not learned to exploit without destroying it.” “He was the first Brazilian to use the term conservation as employed in the USA, including it in his proposal for a new Constitution. His ideas would go on to influence the scientists of the MNRJ,” observes Franco. Despite the prestige of intellectuals such as Torres, concrete political actions were void. “Even with the support of President Epitácio Pessoa, who confessed his discomfort at the fact that Brazil was the only country with large forests that had no Forestry Code, the legislation continued deficient,” Padua recalls. It is possible, then, to imagine the impact of the action of the protectors of nature when, just a few years after the code and a few months before the new Constitution of 1937, which increased natural wealth to the category of public heritage, the creation of the Itatiaia National Park was decreed. By 1939 the new-state dictatorship would create a further two parks: the Serra dos Orgãos in Rio and Iguaçu in Paraná.

“But in the following years government action for preservation would show its clear limits, with negligible budgets for forestry agencies, insufficient supervision and the absence of an effective participation by civil society. The foundation of national parks did not favor ecosystems with great biodiversity, but areas close to urban centers such as Itatiaia or the Serra dos Orgãos, or strategic areas, such as Iguaçu,” notes Regina Horta. “Heritage preservation was really important in the Vargas government’s projects. But, beyond their cultural and political symbolism, nature outside the parks was mainly seen as a source of exploitable wealth for economic development and industrializing projects secured the commitment of the New State.”

“The ideology of growth at any cost always detracted from the importance of environmental themes. Only today do we have a potentially new situation, in which the union between a powerful state and a more dynamic public sphere can create a true policy of sustainable nature management,” notes Pádua. According to the researcher, environmental problems have continued ever since the colonial times, such as fires, deforestation and soil and water degradation, but at the same time, there has been a lot of reflection on these issues since the eighteenth century. It only has to be remembered that in 1876 the abolitionist leader and engineer, André Rebouças, had already called for the creation of national parks, because “?the current generation can make no better donation to future generations than to reserve intact, free from iron and fire, the beautiful islands of the Araguaia and Paraná Rivers.” For Rebouças, the reason for the neglect of nature was slavery, an hypothesis also defended by abolitionist Joaquim Nabuco, for whom the rational economic use of Brazilian nature was necessary. “They tried to establish a causal relationship between slavery and predatory practices. The combination between the abundance of cheap captive labor and an open frontier for the occupation of new land stimulated an extensive and careless action in rural production, based on the advance of slashing and burning, leaving the land degraded and abandoned,” explains Pádua. For these intellectuals, environmental devastation was not the “price of progress,” but the “price of backwardness,” the result of the persistence of rudimentary practices for exploiting the land.

In this they were both heirs of the Enlightenment environmental concern of José Bonifácio, a physiocrat from the University of Coimbra, the first institution, even in the eighteenth century, to turn out intellectuals who refuted the careless exploitation of the natural resources of the colony. “Destroying virgin forests, in which nature offered with a prodigious hand the most precious wood in the world, and without reason, as has been practiced in Brazil, is insufferable extravagance, a horrendous crime and a big insult. What defense will we produce in the Court of Reason when our grandchildren accuse us of such guilty facts,” wrote the future Patriarch of Independence in 1819. “What needs to be remembered is the richness of the intellectual debate about ecological issues in the country, and there were times, such as in the nineteenth century, when it was one of the most intense in the world, despite the poor results. Furthermore, this ‘makes relative’ the role of the USA and Europe in the genesis of modern environmental concern,” explains Padua. An analysis of environmental history transforms the contribution of the intellectuals of the nineteenth and mid-twentieth century into something surprisingly current. “They were not environmentalists in the modern sense, but they included the themes of the destruction of the natural world in the debate on the future of the country as a whole, relating them to structural features of society, such as slavery, for example. Laying aside the differences in context, this is what we need today: to make the environmental dimension central in the debate on the future of Brazil and of humanity.”

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