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Brazil: Environmental Problems and Solutions

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The South American country of Brazil is well-known for its biodiversity and wealth of natural resources. The Amazon River and rainforest are located in Brazil, a country with more than 800,000 square miles of coastline, and a landmass so large that its borders touch all but two of its neighboring countries (Rich, 1999). The Amazon rainforest is the world’s largest tropical rainforest, and for purposes of comparison, “its size is equivalent to one-half of the entire United States” (Rich, 1999). Although the need to protect this unique and valuable environment might seems obvious, the rainforest and its river have been the victims of extensive damage due to lack of resource management, overuse of the land and its resources, and actions taken due to immediate human economic needs.

Brazil’s local environmental problems have become a world concern. These problems are so numerous that it is difficult to focus on only two. A population explosion that creates excessive amounts of waste and garbage and puts heavy demands on the environment, strip and coal mining, emissions control, and species elimination and extinction are major concerns. Two of the most serious problems facing Brazil’s environment at present, however, are the devastation of the rainforest and water pollution (Rich, 1999). These problems affect not only Brazilians, but the entire world.

History and Overview of Brazil’s Environmental Problems

Rich (1999), MSNBC’s Sao Paulo correspondent, reports that Brazil’s environmental problems are almost as old as the country itself, an observation that is confirmed by a recent work of historical fiction, Brazil Red. “As Portuguese colonists left their homeland and resettled in Brazil, they cut down vast swaths of forest to clear land and plant the crops they would need to survive in their new land” (Rich, 1999). This practice has continued over the years in various incarnations, but as a rate that is unchecked. In the documentary film “Carboneiros”, filmmakers expose the devastation inflicted on Brazil’s hardwood forests by peasants who burn down the trees in order to sell charcoal for a living. “Carboneiros” deftly portrays the dilemma that characterizes almost all of Brazil’s environmental problems; the peasants are not heartless men and women who destroy their environment thoughtlessly. Rather, they are poor people who see no other viable economic alternatives and who claim that their government does not help them to find any.

This same painful dilemma can explain the dynamic that underlies the acts of clear-cutting the Amazon rainforest. Brazil has been able to establish its economic dominance of the South American continent by exploiting its varied natural resources, including medicinals, botanicals, nuts, woods, and rubber, that are harvested in the tropical rainforest (Rich, 1999; Smallwood, 2005). The harvesting of these natural products are essential to Brazil’s economy, and even though it is obvious that production cannot be sustained at the present rate, it is difficult to do more than talk about the dangers of exploiting natural resources when no other viable economic stimulants have been identified or promoted. According to Smallwood (2005), a research associate with the Council on Hemispheric Affairs, 9,000 square miles of Brazil’s rainforest were destroyed in 2004; Rich (1999) supports this by offering a visual metaphor: “Every day, the equivalent of more than 5,000 football fields are clear cut in Brazil”.

Current Concerns and Extent of Damage

The practice of clear-cutting the Amazon has numerous consequences. First, it depletes the nation’s and the world’s biodiversity; on the Mata Atlantica coastline alone, “more than 171 animal species were in immediate danger of extinction in 1999” (Rich, 1999). The decrease in the variety and number of flora and fauna creates disruptions in the food chain, restricts our ability to conduct scientific and medical research, and is a process that is absolutely irreversible. Once extinct, a species cannot be restored to our planet.

The bare land, of course, creates other problems. Soil erosion and contamination of the water table are some effects (Rich, 1999) that have direct impacts on humans. This is particularly alarming because Brazil’s burgeoning population has spread farther and farther into previously uninhabited territories, and clean water is not available in many communities (Rich, 1999). As we all learned in earth science class, an absence of trees negatively impacts nature’s ability to recycle water effectively. Trees acts as filters and oxygenators; when they are not present, they cannot perform this vital function. The problems that humans have created then generate more problems. Rich (1999) points to the fact that the population incursion into new areas and the lack of trees has forced local authorities to construct hydroelectric dams, which have destroyed entire ecosystems, thereby creating additional environmental problems. The effects are not only local, but ripple into other countries as well. Brazil’s rainforests have been called “the lungs of the planet” (Rich, 1999). What do we do when our lungs are gone?


Environmental experts generally agree that if Brazil does not restrain its uncontrolled environmental destruction, both the country and the world will suffer devastating consequences. Most experts believe that the damage is irreversible, and it is hard to dispute this claim (Rich, 1999). They also point out that the damage will not be restricted to the physical environment, but will have indelible social impacts, including disease and criminal violence (Rich, 1999). Economic instability will also result. When a country that has been economically dependent upon its natural resources has completely stripped itself of those resources, without hope of their renewal, what alternatives does it have, and which of these alternatives are viable and can be instituted quickly?

While some damage that has already been done cannot be remedied, environmentalists do believe that Brazil’s environmental demise is not inevitable; they can still avert complete destruction. However, they note that action is needed quickly, and that such “action will need to be bold, multi-faceted, and implemented with the support and direct involvement of many different levels of society, from the individual to the government”. (Cook, 2003, pp.326). Brazil can look within its own borders for inspiration, as well as draw from some innovative initiatives in other countries that enjoy far less economic power than Brazil.

Positive Change and Potential Solutions

Brazil and the world recognize that the devastation of the rainforest and the resulting contamination of the country’s water supply are of deep and immediate concern and necessitate action. As with so many social problems, though, deciding upon and implementing solutions appears more difficult than continuing on the path of devastation. The reason is that we all live in need of addressing current economic needs, attempting–and often failing–to balance those immediate needs against our own future possibilities and sustainability. To address the problem of environmental destruction in Brazil, the Brazilian government and its people would have to offer viable economic alternatives to its citizens and its systems that currently profit from environmental destruction.

While Brazil recognizes its problems and challenges, it is justifiably resistant to pressures from external governments, including the United States. Rich (1999) describes the dynamic as one of resentment: how can the United States, which in its own history clear-cut and wasted natural resources in order to reap economic rewards, tell Brazil it needs to fix its problems? Further, what will other governments, such as the US, do to help Brazil address this massive problem?

Gabon: A Case Study

Brazil can certainly look outside its borders to other countries for inspiration. One of the most encouraging environmental improvement success stories of recent years is that of Gabon, an African nation that has declared ten percent of its land as protected natural parks (Nielsen, 2002). Gabon, which also has one of the world’s most important rainforests, has completely restricted hunting and logging activities in the 13 national parks and, as a result, has not only enjoyed substantial environmental improvements, but a significant increase in tourism, economic support packages by countries such as the US, who announced $75 million in funds to be directed toward the national parks of Gabon, and increased positive press and financial support from such organizations as National Geographic and the United Nations (Nielsen, 2002). The increase in tourism has filled the economic void that the destruction of the rainforest had created. Brazil, which already enjoys a steady flow of tourists, particularly in its urban areas of Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, might benefit from following Gabon’s environmentally sustainable and responsible model, shifting an economy based on environmental exploitation to one based on ecotourism.

One of the key factors that made the Gabon program successful, Nielsen (2002) reports is the government’s leadership. The president of Gabon took a leading role in spearheading efforts to guide his country’s economy away from environmental exploitation and towards ecotourism. If Brazil is to be successful in such a transition, government support, and not merely verbal enthusiasm, would be absolutely necessary. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs is not particularly hopeful that the current president, Lula, will guide such a shift, noting that while Lula is verbally supportive of environmental reforms, his administration has little to show in terms of concrete accomplishments in this particular area (Smallwood, 2005).

Curitiba: Green City

Brazil does not actually need to look as far away as Gabon to resolve its environmental crisis. Some local city governments in Brazil have proposed interesting innovations to restrain worsening environmental conditions. One of these towns, Curitiba, has gained international exposure and praise for its creative and thoughtful interventions. Curitiba’s mayor has been praised enthusiastically for spearheading efforts to “green” his city. On an operational level, this meant redesigning the city in such a way that pedestrians had more access than cars, public transportation was a city priority, and recycling was compulsory. The planners of the Curitiba project focused on solutions that were relatively simple and cost-effective to implement in the city of 2.2 million, and it thus makes sense that Curitiba’s program could be replicated in other areas of the country (Wheeler & Beatley, 2004). “Curitiba has since served as a model of environmental stewardship to other cities around the world” (Wheeler & Beatley, 2004, pp.204).

Santos Beach Recovery Program

Similarly, The Santos Beach Recovery Program was created to combat water pollution.

“The goal of the Santos Beach Recovery Program was to eliminate contamination of Santos beaches and rebuild the local tourist economy in two phases over a four year period. The first phase includes rerouting the contaminated water in storm water canals from the ocean and into sewage treatment plants. The second phase involves improving the water quality in storm water canals by identifying and eliminating illegal waste drains (2003, Horizons Solution).


The environmental problems that currently plague Brazil are serious and are deserving of immediate attention and intervention. It is not likely, however, that critical pressure from other countries will have any appreciable effect in preventing an escalation of the environmental problems that confront Brazil and have consequences for that country and the rest of the world. It is clear that the reason for continued environmental devastation is neither ignorance nor willful disregard for the environment, but immediate and pressing economic need in a country whose population has outstripped its economic capacities. In order to affect a viable solution to the Brazilian crisis, realistic proposals must take into consideration these very real economic needs.

The restraint of the environmental crisis in Brazil is not the responsibility of one group alone. Effective intervention strategies must involve partnerships between individual citizens, the country’s government, and non-governmental organizations. Outside advisers, such as those who have been involved in turn-around projects in countries like Gabon, might also be useful allies. These partnerships, though, cannot only exist in terms of verbalized commitment, but in terms of actual, concrete actions that will be taken to remediate the problems. Finally, it is imperative that these partnerships be formed quickly and act immediately if there is hope of preventing further devastation of Brazil’s rainforest and water table, which has consequences for the entire world.


Cook, D. (2003). Human interactions are crucial for sustainable development. Environmental Health Perspectives. Vol. 111, pp.322-328.

Horizons Solution Site. (2003). The Santos beaches recovery program. [Electronic Version]. Retrieved November 24, 2005 from


Nielsen, J. (2002, September 4). Gabon moves to preserve rainforests:

parks system sets new standard in African conservation. [Electronic Version]. Retrieved on November 17, 2005 from http://www.npr.org/programs/atc/features/2002/sept/gabon/index.html

Rich, J. (1999). Brazil’s impending crisis: a special report. [Electronic Version]. Retrieved on November 17, 2005 from http://www.msnbc.com/news/ 263403.asp?cp1=1.

Smallwood, A. (2005). Lula’s growth strategy: good for Brazil’s business, bad for its environment. The Council on Hemispheric Affairs Policy Analysis. [Electronic Version]. Retrieved on November 17, 2005 from http://www.coha.org .

Wheeler, S.M. & Beatley, T. (2004). The sustainable urban development reader. (pp.202-207). New York: Routledge.

Wikipedia.Org. (2005). Brazil. Retrieved on November 17, 2005 from
http://wikipedia.org .

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