Involvement needed to save the World's Ecosystem
For immediate release August 10, 2000
For Friday AM Newspapers
International Involvement needed to save Brazil's, and the World's, Ecosystem
* Antarctica agreement could serve as a model
* Brasilia proves it cannot do the job on its own, international participation is crucial
* Corruption, incompetence and indifference allow Latin American giant to put global legacy and vital resources at risk, with time running out
* Major oil spill ravages Brazilian waters, Petrobras responsible for numerous ecological disasters
* Is SIVAM a viable solution?
Brazil's recent oil spill totaling more than one million gallons -- the largest of many occurring there in recent years -- should serve as a wake-up call to the international community that this aspiring great power is not capable of preserving its unique and irreplaceable ecological treasures alone.
Brazil's waters and rainforest have hardly flourished under its care, and it is evident that international involvement is critical if this unique environment is to be preserved. These resources are key and essential determinants of the world's fate, and extraordinary measures must be taken to preserve and protect them. To safeguard Brazil's waters and marine-life from further destruction, an intergovernmental body, such as the United Nations, must be called upon to monitor and regulate the operations of the state-owned petroleum firm, Petrobras, and be empowered to assign harsh punishments if infractions occur.
Protection of the Amazon rainforest would necessitate more drastic measures, including an international agreement similar to the treaty that has protected Antarctica from exploitation for over 40 years. Forty-three countries have signed the Antarctica Treaty, including Brazil, which also is one of the 26 nations with full voting rights. This global effort has kept the continent's natural wonders completely unspoiled and free from commercial development. In addition, Antarctica is a valuable center for scientific research, and studies performed there were responsible for uncovering the hole in the ozone. Since the Amazon crosses the borders of seven Latin American countries, a multi-national treaty designating the region as an International Wilderness Park is essential to preserving the ecosystem and fully utilizing its potential for scientific research.
Its throbbing rhetoric aside, the Brazilian government repeatedly has proven that it is unwilling or unable to protect the area's natural resources, and today much of the region's amazing inventory of biodiversity is in danger of extinction or annihilation. The South American giant projects a carefully nurtured image as a modern, sophisticated and investment-worthy state, but the deafening nature of its lax environmental policies and wretched performance betray a record of massive venality, brutality against local tribes as well as humble settlers and flawed stewardship. In today's Brazil everything is for sale, including its national honor.
The Amazon The suffering of the country's all-important rainforests under Brazil's guardianship is a story without end. Maintaining this huge wetland is crucial not only to protect its ecological value, but because the dense forest has attracted new enemies in the form of drug traffickers looking for a safe haven and illegal logging and gold mining operations. Brazil shares this vast ecosystem with seven other countries, but rather than sacrifice state sovereignty to a transnational protection effort, the government has steadfastly adhered to its territorial rights as the basis for its Amazonian policy, launching projects and establishing institutions for the protection and controlled development of the area, much of which have included a substantial military role. Despite these high-profile initiatives, the Amazon is disappearing at the alarming rate of an estimated 5 million acres a year, resulting in the loss of countless species of animals, unique vegetation with still unevaluated medicinal capabilities, as well as one of the planet's largest sources of oxygen.
Petrobras' Forbidding Environmental Record Symbolic of a recent history of incompetence and malfeasances in a country that features a scandal a day (the current one is thought to have involved the nation's president) was the catastrophic July 20 Barigue River spill of over one million gallons, which underscores the need for outside involvement to effectively help service Brazil's environmental affairs. While clean-up crews worked feverishly to protect the world famous Iguacu Falls downriver, the surrounding area's wildlife and vegetation fell victim to the contaminants, with thousands of oil-coated birds and fish washing up dead on the river's banks. Some of the affected species, which are unique to the Iguacu River area because of its isolation by the falls, are considered very rare. Produce, cattle and drinking water also were fouled, posing a grave health menace for nearby towns.
The state-owned petroleum company, Petrobras, was responsible for the spill and has been justly criticized for its chronically slow responses to emergency situations. In this instance, the pipeline leaked for two hours before Petrobras officials were finally able to stop the flow. An investigation of the situation found that both human and technical errors were responsible for the spill, with an oil worker forgetting to close a valve and then the emergency system failing to kick-in before the pipe broke. In addition to the accident itself, Petrobras also has been blamed for a botched cleanup. The closest refinery to the contaminated area was not sufficiently prepared with modern remediation equipment, the required technology or skilled personnel, and the machinery that eventually was brought in was meant for an ocean, not a river cleanup, causing more delay. Last year, the government ended Petrobras' monopoly over oil exploration and, as a result, the company has become more aggressive in its practices and, allegedly, more careless.
The Iguacu River incident is just one of Petrobras' long line of environmentally costly mishaps. For instance, just several days after the July 20 accident, a Petrobras pipeline near Rio de Janeiro leaked 270 gallons of a highly toxic fuel additive found to cause cancer in animals, likely poisoning the area's groundwater. Nearby towns complained of nausea and a strong chemical stench.
The oil company had a more serious spill on its hands last January when one of its underwater pumping lines leaked approximately 350,000 gallons of crude oil into Rio de Janeiro's Guanabara Bay. The resulting slick spread for 16 square miles, reaching within 12 miles of Rio's famous beaches, as well as invading the protected Mangrove swamps that cover over 3,700 acres. These habitats are vital spawning grounds for fish, birds and crustaceans and are home to various endangered species. The region barely had recovered from a previous oil slick when Petrobras' January accident occurred. This substantial spill sparked accusations that Petrobras was working without the necessary licenses and was grossly negligent when it came to completing routine system checks on the oil pipeline. Further probing established that human error allowed the leak to continue on for four hours before being detected, when it should have been discovered after no more than two.
The Environmental and Social Consequences Guanabara Bay has suffered from several other oil slicks, turning what used to be a prosperous fishing area and prime location for swimming into a polluted septic tank. In 1997, 150,000 gallons of crude poured into the bay and in 1975 Petrobras was responsible for the region's largest spill, which caused an enormous 1.6 million-gallon oil slick. A smaller diesel oil spill, produced by a tanker blowing out its tanks, just recently polluted the same body of water, dashing hopes that Guanabara Bay's ecology will be allowed to fully recover.
One substantial oil spill can cause sufficient ecological damage that could take many decades to repair, but when a body of water is repeatedly contaminated, the consequences grievously multiply. When oil evaporates off the surface of a slick, the heavier leftover crude can sink to the bottom and cling to sediments and rocks. This residue can build up and become increasingly difficult to remove. Also, oil that seeps into the bay's-bed could kill plankton, thereby disrupting the ecosystem's entire food chain. Greenpeace estimated that it would take 20 years to restore the Bay's sea-life to normal after the January spill, but if oil spills continue to be a periodic occurrence, the bay may never be returned to its original state. As well as environmental damages, there are numerous social consequences to Petrobras' losing streak. As a result of the January Guanabara Bay incident, approximately 10,000 fishermen lost their livelihood when they were told that commercial fishing in that body of water would not be possible for the next four years. Hundreds of them staged protests and brought lawsuits against the state-owned firm, prompting Petrobras to run an ad in which it confessed that, "Petrobras has no excuse, it has an obligation to recover the confidence of the Brazilian society."
Have the Punishments Produced Results? However, although the company is prepared to admit its guilt and has paid numerous fines, it does not appear to have noticeably improved its operations. For the recent Iguacu River spill, Petrobras has been fined $28 million by the state of Parana, where the spill took place, and is also facing fines of $94 million from the federal government. However, comparable fines were levied against the firm for its previous accidents and it has yet to display the motivation to improve the safety of its procedures or the efficacy of its cleanup capabilities.
Few believe that the punitive measures taken so far are likely to better the company's deplorable safety record, leaving one to wonder whether Petrobras has stopped caring and if the penalties are being factored into the cost of doing business. Indeed, some question whether it makes sense to expect fines from a state-owned company, paid into the same treasury from which it receives its funding, to produce much of an effect on government operations. Brazil's environmental minister has described the petroleum firm's actions as "absolute negligence," underlining that tighter supervision and severer punishments are required if future disasters are to be avoided.
SIVAM Currently under construction, the System for the Protection of the Amazon (SIVAM) will become fully functional by mid-2002, providing a valuable nexus of data collection on the region to environmentalists, law enforcement agencies, researchers and potential commercial investors. Using the system for Surveillance of the Amazon to collect the raw information, a complex web of radars, satellites, aircraft, and weather relays will funnel the numbers and images into Regional Surveillance Centers (CRV) located in Porto Velho, Manaus and Belém. These, in turn, will be coordinated from Brasilia.
Since almost all of the Brazilian Amazon will be covered by radar, the resulting data can provide vital physical information about the region as well as help protect and preserve the area. Using the array of technology at its disposal, SIVAM can create geographical and topographic maps revealing ecological data and information on illegal activities such as drug trafficking and bio-piracy.
The biggest problem facing the project could be the possibly innate incompatibility of the two main potential beneficiaries of SIVAM: law enforcement and the environment. While the program can only be accessed at designated terminals and with assigned security codes, such security activities, by their very nature, must be secretive and centralized, while the environmental uses of SIVAM would best be open and broad for research purposes and public dissemination. Another complication could be a failure in international cooperation in the Brasilia ecological project due to a fundamental lack of integration. Since the vast Amazon is an international treasure belonging to nations other than Brazil, cooperative interaction is necessary for the project to meet its maximum yield.
Time for the Global Community to get involved International involvement is vital if Brazil's natural wonders are to survive the century. This rapidly industrializing nation, with its proven record of haplessness when it comes to preserving its own resources, is ill-equipped to manage the conservation of the Amazon on its own. In Brazil's quest to stabilize and expand its economy while protecting its sovereignty it has demonstrated an extraordinary capacity for corruption, brutality against indigenous populations and local migrants, as well as a track record of environmental neglect. Developing countries face tough choices in the race to join the globalized world and frequently, environmental resources are seen more as tools for specious progress than treasures to be guarded. Rather than fearing territorial infringement in the Amazon, Brasilia should realize the greater good in international cooperation and commit itself to preserving this invaluable region, truly part of the world's heritage.
Julie Dasenbrock and Teresa Tenorio, Research Associates The Council on Hemispheric Affairs, founded in 1975, is an independent, non-partisan and tax-exempt research and information organization. It has been described on the floor of the Senate as being "one of the nation's most respected bodies of scholars and policy makers."