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Policies for the future

Bee researcher Paulo Nogueira-Neto was one of the leading environmental policy makers in Brazil

Paulo Nogueira-Neto at his home in São Paulo (2004): the biologist was instrumental in the creation of protected areas in Brazil

Eduardo Cesar

Biologist Paulo Nogueira-Neto created 26 reserves, ecological stations, and other protected areas in Brazil during his lifetime. A tenured professor and one of the founders of the Ecology Department at the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Biosciences (IB-USP), from 1974 to 1986 he served as the first director of the Special Department for the Environment (SEMA), an agency now superseded by the Ministry of the Environment. He also served as a member of the United Nations Commission on Ecology, and is widely regarded as the father of environmental policy in Brazil. Nogueira-Neto died of multiple organ failure on February 25 in his hometown of São Paulo, at the age of 96.

His interest in environmental issues was kindled by what he saw through the window of an airplane. Biologist Vera Imperatriz Fonseca, of the Vale Institute of Technology, relates that between 1937 and 1943 Nogueira-Neto often traveled to Argentina to visit his exiled father, federal deputy Paulo Nogueira Filho. From the air, he observed with concern how the Paraná pine forest canopy, which then covered an area of 100,000 square kilometers in the state of São Paulo and other states in the South, became increasingly scarred by logging for the furniture industry. He was then a young student at the Largo de São Francisco School of Law, where he graduated in 1945, later earning a degree in natural history from USP, in 1959.

In 1972 Vera Fonseca was hired as a professor at IB-USP’s Department of Zoology, and in 1974 replaced Nogueira-Neto when he was invited to head the recently created SEMA, within the Ministry of Homeland Affairs. She recounts how Nogueira-Neto’s interest in environmental preservation began with his passion for bees, a research interest they both shared and in which he became a leading expert. In 1963, he defended his doctoral thesis on the architecture of stingless bee hives.

“He took an interest in bees while still in law school, during a visit to a farm owned by his father-in-law, with whose daughter, Lúcia Ribeiro do Valle—who died in 1995—he had three children. On the farm he first observed jataí [Tetragonisca angustula] bee hives,” says Fonseca. “He became fascinated by these creatures, but soon realized that very little was known about them and how to preserve them. This led to an interest not only in beekeeping, but in the broader environment.” At that point, Fonseca explains, his concern for nature and its biodiversity acquired a broader meaning, encompassing all the life forms of which it is comprised.

Nogueira-Neto’s fears over the destruction of forests proved not to be unfounded: today only 2% of the Paraná pine forests he saw from above in the 1930s and 1940s have survived. The biologist devoted much of his life to preventing the Amazon and other Brazilian biomes from suffering a similar fate.

“Clearing forests was a source of pride, a sign of progress. Brazil’s capital, Brasília, was built in the 1950s in an area then covered by Cerrado (wooded savanna) vegetation,” explains biologist Marcos Buckeridge, director of IB-USP. “The government’s ethos at the time was that human progress was so important a value that no consideration of other living things or other elements of the environment was needed.”

It was with this logic that Nogueira-Neto had to contend. “He created or participated in the creation of several government agencies responsible for environmental protection, and attended international conventions on issues related to climate change, bioenergy, and other environmental issues in the 1980s.” It is important to bear in mind, Buckeridge notes, that his efforts were largely undertaken during the military regime (1964–1985). “This did not prevent him from being one of the architects of the Brazilian government’s approach to dealing with environmental issues,” he says.

Physicist José Goldemberg—who was Secretary for the Environment in 1992, the year the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, or Earth Summit, was held in Rio de Janeiro—shares Buckeridge’s admiration. “Under the military regime, Nogueira-Neto exhibited the skill and courage to introduce environmental regulations in Brazil that were modern for their time,” says Goldemberg. “Those regulations were the precursors of Brazil’s entire body of environmental legislation, an extraordinary feat. They left an invaluable legacy, alongside the protected areas that Nogueira-Neto played a key role in establishing in the Amazon.” His efforts were instrumental in the creation of reserves and ecological stations to protect about 3.2 million hectares of native vegetation.

Nogueira-Neto and Goldemberg were fellow professors at USP from the 1970s, and began a collaboration in the early 1980s when Nogueira-Neto became a member of the World Commission on Environment and Development, or the Brundtland Commission. Under the chairmanship of the then Prime Minister of Norway, Gro Harlem Brundtland, the 23 members of the commission—of which Nogueira-Neto was the only Brazilian and one of two Latin Americans—visited a different country every three months to hold public hearings to discuss issues at the interface between the economy and the environment. “Our Common Future”, also known as the Brundtland Report, laid the groundwork for the 1992 Earth Summit.

In the 1980s, Nogueira-Neto supported the UN’s adoption of the concept of sustainable development. He confounded the National Council for the Environment (CONAMA) in 1984; he created the Association for Environmental Defense (ADEMASP)—Brazil’s first environmental protection organization—in 1954; and he served as a member or chair of government organizations such as the Forest Foundation, and nongovernment organizations such as SOS Mata Atlântica and WWF Brazil. He authored nine books about animals, the environment, and his own intellectual journey.