Being the fifth most populated country in the world, with around 200 million people, Brazil is a vast and highly diverse subject when it comes to social and environmental issues.
But when I asked a doctor in environmental sustainability what were today’s priorities for Brazil regarding environment protection, he provided a very interesting response:
You may ask this question, but you will get a range of different answers from anyone. Journalists will tell you about the Amazon forest being felled every day, and about the giant dam projects in the South. Everyone has a different opinion.
But what you should really look at is the dramatic change in the Brazilian society’s structure over the past 25 years: the emergence of a middle class. Brazil’s society is divided into 5 major “social” classes, from A to E, A being wealthiest. Class “C” is the one considered as middle-class. (1)
In the past 25 years, the C class exploded from 20 million to 80 million, and at the same time Brazil became democratic again and followed the North-American model of consumerism.
Now that causes a major challenge: how do you answer all the “new” needs of that middle class? Do you make “more of the same”, more TVs, cars, and wasteful lifestyle? Or do you try to address those needs in a new and different way, which is more respectful of the environment and tries to contain the explosion of the total carbon footprint of the country?
I was quite taken aback by this perspective, but the more I thought about it, and the more I asked other professors, professionals, and even students, the more it seemed to contain in itself the key to Brazil’s future.
Population growth is concentrated in the cities, both because of rural exodus, and because cities are already very populated. Traffic, waste, energy consumption, are growing very fast, and the public services barely keep up. From my own friends and acquaintances, a few have actually moved cities or neighborhoods primarily to escape from traffic jams or get closer to their work place.
More than anything, political decisions, at all levels of the country, will decide how the economy and society will evolve. Existing schemes of tax exemption for investors have been proved to cause social dumping and environmental damage. The increasing interest, and therefore scrutiny, of an international community of investors, as well as the constant auditing of international cooperation organizations, may serve as a guidance towards a more sustainable path.
The statistics on corruption, child labor, and discrimination are improving, although a lot remains to be done:
- Current president Dilma Roussef has ousted already several ministers from her own government that were proved guilty of corruption, showing a stronger hand at actually tackling the issue than her predecessor. Brazil went up two ranks from 75th in the Transparency International yearly corruption index (http://www.transparency.org/) since 2009.
- Child Labor was addressed in recent year, among other things, through the Bolsa Familia scheme: a conditional cash transfer policy implemented at national level. The poorest families receive a monthly stipend of about 12US$, and those who have children must keep them in school to benefit the program. The free meals given at school act as a further incentive for parents to send their children to school.
- In 2011 an “affirmative action” implemented by universities raised a hot national debate, culminating in a Supreme Court judgment that confirmed the right for universities to use quotas for students from minorities. That is not a solution in itself, but a demonstration that the question is being addressed after decades of ignoring it.
Crime rates have somewhat fallen in the past five years:
- On the highly exposed in the media side, the military occupation of the Rio de Janeiro favelas removed drug traffickers from those areas.
- On the less advertised side, public policies combined with corporate philanthropy and the work of NGOs have statistically decrease inequalities, by putting the distribution of economic opportunities and wealth on a more egalitarian trend.
- At a very local level, the involvement of drug traffickers with daily life and security is still quite palpable, and a sustained change in habits will take years to secure. For example, dealers ensure security of their “operating” neighborhood because they do not want anyone to call the police there.
As a perspective, the general movement up in the economy is uplifting for the Brazilians’ mood, and the upcoming Soccer world cup and Olympics are bound to bring more business investment and tourism interests in the next half-decade.
(1) households with monthly income between $450 and $745.
- United Nations’ “What’s going on? Child Labor in Brazil”
- “The world guide to CSR”, by Dr. Wayne Visser (2010)