Climate change, pollution, and economic and social inequality are becoming increasingly important issues on the global scale. World Policy Journal spoke with Izabella Teixeira, minister of the environment for Brazil from 2010-2016, about how discussions of international sustainable development have evolved in recent years. Teixeira has a background in biology and a PhD in environmental planning with a focus on the energy sector. She worked as a public servant at the Brazilian Environmental Agency in several capacities since 1984. She has represented Brazil at various international environmental meetings, including the Rio 92 conference, which marked an important shift in approaches to sustainable development.
WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: You represented Brazil in international conferences and U.N. meetings. What were some of the challenges you faced?
IZABELLA TEIXEIRA: The Brazilian minister for the environment is a strategic player for global environmental issues. Brazil is an important country for biodiversity and we have an interesting role considering the global political framework for sustainable development. When Brazil hosted the 1992 conference, we established the new global multilateral agenda based on sustainable development. Since then, the country has been playing an important role not only in public policy, but also in the politics of sustainable development. And we play in two different important tracks. First, Brazil has the most important biodiversity assets in in the world, such as the Amazon forest, the Atlantic rainforest, as well as other important biomes and water reserves. And on the other side, we play an important role considering climate change. These two issues,are strategic outcomes from the Rio 92 conference.
Then in 2012, we hosted the Rio+20 conference It was really important momentum for multilateralism and sustainable development. Brazil had to host the conference to propose a scale-up of the sustainable development agenda and new tracks and visions to put it together. It was really a big challenge for me personally—not only the national challenge that I faced as minister for the environment, but also an international one.
WPJ: What has the framework of sustainable development done to change thinking about the environment?
IT: Sometimes, considering the politics, it’s very difficult to convince stakeholders, politicians, the private sector, or society to come together with a common vision for the future. Three or four issues changed, which I think are important to address. First, in the last 30 years, really good work was done to convince the world that sustainable development is the new equation for development. I don’t know any country that can go against development. But what we are trying to show is that you can promote development and base it on new rules or new perspectives. Second, today there is full engagement from the private sector on this agenda. This is important when you compare what was accomplished during Rio 92 with 2012. It was completely different because of different consumer behavior, not only in developing societies but also in developed societies. The third important component is what’s happening with international cooperation. In the last 20 years,, we’ve seen different behavior—additional funds have been put in, not only to promote environmental conservation but also to promote the sustainable use of natural resources. In the last 15 years, developing countries and developed societies had to implement the Millennium Goals, which demanded we address the key issues related to fairer development around the world. Finally, the fourth component is that, unfortunately, environmentalists’ scenarios are sometimes very conservative. We need to learn how to live with risk, vulnerabilities, and scarcity. Sustainable development must be scaled up to take into account the globalized world and new international arrangements among countries. Consider, for example, South-South cooperation. It was completely different 20 years ago. China during Rio 92 did not hold a very strategic position in the world, but today it is a driving economic force. The world has changed, but I think that sustainable development is still a concept that can make the difference and result in fair lifestyles and greater harmony among the different societies of the world. It considers economic and social inclusion, the new approach to politics, more developing and developed countries, and how we can stress international cooperation.
WPJ: Agreements like the Millennium Development Goals and the Kyoto Protocol aren’t mandatory. Without punishments for breaking them, what is the incentive for a government to meet those goals?
IT: This is one of the key questions for multilateralists. When you have work on a multilateral agreement, you have to put all the countries together and reach a consensus agreement or a consensus deal. Can you imagine the diversity, for example, among countries like Brazil, China, and India? How you can design a framework through which everybody will be on board and agree? This is the first challenge. It is not easy sometimes and ambitions are low. The second challenge is punishment. You can have international consensus, but you cannot replace national authorities. I can give you a clear example: The last 25 years, we have been fighting against the illegal deforestation of the Amazon region. I remember when this started with pressure from international NGOs and other international societies, and in response Brazil had to change its behavior to combat illegal deforestation. Today, we are still combatting illegal deforestation—during my term, I had the five lowest rates of deforestation since monitoring began. But what is the moral? It’s not only a political value for a small group of some stakeholders anymore. The need to end the deforestation of the Amazonia region has become a value for Brazilian society. This is a different approach, because when this issue becomes a “value” for society, new political arrangements are needed to face this. So this is really a good example. I always like to say that it’s important not to pray for converted people—we need to pray for unconverted people. And we need to convince people to be on board and move in a new direction. Punishment, sanctions, and other issues should be put in practice at the national level, because at the international level, we want to be together to consider the national requirements for development.
WPJ: What are the main environmental problems that Brazil faces?
IT: Brazil is an urban country. Eighty-five percent of the Brazilian population lives in cities. And at the international level, everybody likes to discuss deforestation, without remembering that even in Amazonia, more than 20 million people live in urban areas. So we have two different blocs of problems: urban and rural. In urban areas, we still have problems of sanitation and access to quality water. Around 85 percent of urban areas have water supply, but we need to achieve 100 percent and this is still a big challenge. The second problem—also in urban areas—is the degraded areas that are a result of poor land use. There are favelas in degraded areas, so it is very important to have social inclusion to address these environmental issues.
In rural areas, I think the most important issue is how can we improve land use in rural areas, not only to avoid deforestation but also to optimize allocation of land in our country. Second, we must put together indigenous people and non-indigenous people. This is not a traditional “environment” problem, but it is a social environment problem because indigenous areas preserve important assets for biodiversity. And these issues—biodiversity conservation and water resource conservation—are key issues for Brazil, not only to face climate change, but to consider quality of life and improve land use amid urban development.
WPJ: Could you explain the new environmental monitoring system that Brazil is implementing?
IT: There are two different things. The first is that we established a national strategy to monitor all biomes in Brazil, not only Amazonia. This strategy is ongoing, and until 2020, all of Brazil’s biomes—Amazonia, Cerrado, Atlantic Forest, Caatinga, Pampa, and Pantanal—will be monitored and mapped, and the rate of deforestation will be calculated for each one. This happens monthly.
But there is a second challenge. This monitoring is at the national level and we’re using all the technology available, such as NASA technology, satellites, etc., but it’s a top-down approach. We decided to think up a bottom-up approach. As a requirement of the New Forest Codes, Brazil adopted a new tool called CAR, the Brazil Cadastro Ambiental Rural or the Rural Environmental Register. Brazil has more than 4 million rural properties and we are mapping each one. We have many private rural properties used for agriculture and private production, and we’ve established a legal requirement that each farmer fill this register with GIS information so that we know everything that’s happening on that property regarding natural resources. We know whether you have a river, the vegetation that you have, and the carbon that you produce. Why? Because in Brazil, this law established restrictions for land use in the private sector on private lands. In the United States, if you’re a farmer, you can buy land and use it to produce food. In Brazil, you can use part of the land. The other part you need to preserve—this is a legal requirement. This new tool is like a photo. It’s an ID of each rural property in Brazil, and now we know whether it’s complying with the environmental law. With all this information we can create new public policy surrounding food production and environmental protection. The punishment for those who don’t do this is losing access public and private financing after 2018. Everybody in Brazil is participating today and it’s fantastic because we can see and monitor everything.
WPJ: To what do you attribute the low illegal deforestation rates while you were minister of the environment?
IT: Why I achieved this? Because I worked hard [laughs]. I think the first reason is that the issue is political. Brazilian society doesn’t accept backsliding as an agenda, so there is political pressure to solve the problem. It’s impossible to become minister of the environment in Brazil without having the ability to tackle illegal deforestation. You’ll be out as a minister faster than you can imagine. So there is pressure from the Brazilian society and you need to solve the problem. I used three different strategies to address deforestation. The first is environmental control and environmental enforcement, but not through environmental institutions. I asked President Dilma [Rousseff] for the support to bring other institutions aboard, such as the ministry of justice, our FBI, and other federal institutions to work with us to identify not only environmental crimes but also other crimes that are linked, including drugs and illegal land use. When we put this together, we had a new framework for intelligence and security and the environmental agenda is now part of this in Brazil. The second strategy is to incorporate the best technology available to strengthen environmental enforcement, and also to share the scientific information to mobilize different stakeholders and create transparency. It succeeded because we could put pressure on the sectors, for example, whose land use contributed to illegal deforestation. We also had full engagement from Brazilian society, as well as control over livestock chains, and we established consumer controls to put pressure on the private sector not to buy meat from deforested areas. We had momentum at a time when Brazil was was fully engaged in climate change, with the New Forests Code of 2011 and CAR. I adopted a political strategy to bring everyone to the ministry of the environment. I didn’t play only for the environmentalists and I didn’t play only for my constituents. I even moved away from my constituents—it was a political decision, as I needed credibility and I decided to talk with different stakeholders and propose different agendas to bring other actors on board.
In my opinion, to end deforestation, you have to challenge it, first with transparency. We need to identify all the responsible people, all the driving forces, and also any irregularities at the state level. You also need credibility, which goes beyond transparency. We needed to deliver, we needed to mobilize people to be on board. And at least we delivered.
WPJ: To what extent is the norm of sustainability ingrained in the lives of everyday Brazilians?
IT: I think it’s getting better. Brazil is still facing important problems like poverty, education, and inequality, but the new generation is really committed to sustainability as a new requirement. We are a huge country, and what we develop in Amazonia cannot necessarily work in Rio de Janiero because the environments are completely different. We also need to have a bottom-up approach and make this agenda part of the quality of life requirements of Brazilian citizens. I think it’s very important that you can address environmental issues as part of the political requirements to reduce inequality in our country. And to do this, we should have an inclusive social approach and discuss development as an asset for our society, not as a problem.
After 32 years working in this area, my feeling is that in the next 30 years Brazil will be a more sustainable country and a leader not only in ending deforestation, but also in urban issues and considering the Sustainable Development Goals as a good way to put this into practice. If you can put environmental quality as a positive value for quality of life, then you did it. Done. Move on.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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[Interview conducted by Melody Chan]
[Photo courtesy of Senado Federal]