As I dropped my young kids off for their first days of school this year, I was reminded of my own unique back-to-school moment. In 1985, I detoured from the normal high school path to spend 12 months between my sophomore and junior years on student exchange in Brazil.
For a teenager from the small working class city of Salmon Arm in Canada, the year was profound. The exposure to the social and environmental challenges of development in an emerging economy shaped the choices I made in university and led me to a career in the sustainable development field.
The experience was made even deeper given that 1985 marked Brazil’s return to democracy after a lengthy military dictatorship. Witnessing that transition, and Brazilians’ reactions to it, pushed me to reconsider individual and societal freedoms as well as the ways countries shape themselves domestically and position themselves among other nations.
Since the 1980s, I have returned to Brazil some half-dozen times, most recently in August. My early immersion in the place and the culture bred an enduring interest in the country’s evolution, especially in regards to sustainable development. Given the universal importance of the Amazon, leadership in areas such as bio-fuels and the country’s particular scale — an emerging economy with a population in the low hundreds of millions — I’ve long viewed Brazil as one of the great global laboratories. Big enough to matter, but small enough to manage. I’ve hoped that sustainable development success in Brazil might be transferable to other places facing similar challenges.
Below the Equator
Big enough to matter, small enough to manage. Still true in the long run, I hope, but the Brazil I just visited is reeling from the horrendous below-the-belt blow represented by the Petrobras corruption scandal rippling through Brazilian business and government at the highest echelons.
Dating to 2004, the scandal affects at least 13 major infrastructure companies (all Petrobras suppliers) as well as politicians of all stripes including — maybe especially — members of President Dilma Rousseff’s party. At least $3 billion in bribes were paid before prosecutors stumbled on details that broke open the so-called Operation Car Wash case. A friend in Rio suggested the gravity of the situation results from the combination of factors at play, saying that Brazil has faced both economic and political crises before, but never to such degree at the same time.
Joe Nocera wrote in The New York Times at the end of August that Brazil simultaneously appears the most desperate member of a crumbling group ofBRICS (remarkable when you consider the current state of the Chinese stock market and the country’s pace of environmental degradation; or the threats to good governance, the rule of law and freedom of the press in Putin’s Russia) and the BRICS nation in which he remains most hopeful.
I believe Nocera’s right. Taking the long view, Brazil has made torrid progress on multiple key societal issues since I first visited in 1985. Historically plagued by tremendous economic inequality, Brazil reduced the proportion of its population living in extreme poverty by more than half in less than a decade. Immunizationhas been another great success; in Brazil, access to health care is a constitutional right, and the country is an international leader in children’s vaccination programs and HIV treatment.
On climate, with a national energy system that is relatively low carbon thanks to abundant hydropower and biofuels, Brazil’s biggest issue has been deforestation. Even after recent backsliding, the remarkable fact that Brazil cut greenhouse gas emissions 39 percent between 2005 and 2010 is an amazing example of the kind of progress possible on an issue that often feels intractable.
Change is evident in simpler terms too, such as how Brazilian cities feel and function. When I first visited Rio de Janeiro three decades ago, the city was statistically one of the most dangerous in the world. Today’s Rio is pedestrian and bike friendly, with hundreds of kilometers of dedicated bike lanes (plus beachfront roads closed to cars on weekends) teeming with people enjoying the city under their own power — many of them tourists exploring with local bike touroperators.
Similarly, while the formal process of slum pacification being undertaken before the 2016 Summer Olympics has not been without controversy, overall it seems to be working, and, while safety remains a real issue, you are now at least as likely to swap stories about preferred AirBnB locations in favelas such as Vidigalas about incidents of crime. Restaurants such as Puro are gradually introducing items such as fair trade organic coffee, signaling a new consciousness around food and health. And so on.
Brazil’s teething. But its judiciary and media seem to have developed the bite needed to hold business and government to task over an event such as “Car Wash” in a manner previously unimaginable. And, taking the long view as outlined above, it’s possible to see the steady progress the nation is making.
Brazil has had the world’s attention in recent years as host to Rio+20 and the 2014 World Cup. Now, for good and ill, the coming Olympics and the Petrobras scandal give reason to keep watching. That’s what I will do, all the while betting the positives will win out long-term, and that Brazil will present more sustainability lessons such as its successes on deforestation and immunization that will inspire action and impact globally.