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Denise Hamu, head of WWF Brazil. Photo by Emily Whiting/WWF-UK

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Denise Hamu: Brazil 'needs to increase' beef and soya productivity

Matilda Lee

22nd February, 2011

Matilda Lee talks exclusively to the head of WWF Brazil about controversial beef and soya production, the REDD mechanism and deforestation, as well as the wider environmental challenges facing the emerging economic powerhouse

Matilda Lee: has there been a change in policy, or a prioritization of the Amazon and stopping deforestation since President Dilma Rousseff came to power?

Denise Hamu: The new government is tending to operate the same way as the Lula government. That means that the environment is a priority but not as strongly as we want. On the other hand, it's a priority for [the government] to provide licensing for new, big infrastructure works. The environment is not perceived as something that can really add onto the new Brazilian economy or new alternatives for growth in Brazil. Even though a good sign is that the Minister for the Environment Izabella Teixeira, remained. She's not from any political party, she's a technical professional. It means it doesn't involve party bargaining.

ML: When trying to stop deforestation in Brazil how do we prevent it from simply being pushed into neighbouring countries?

DH: I think it has already happened in the south in Mata Atlantica, going through the southern part of Brazil and down into Argentina. WWF has a network project with neighbouring countries in the south to save what's left of the Mata Atlantica. Of course cattle ranching and the ranchers are a big, big actor in this equation.

We have to find alternative forms for Brazil to grow. The alternatives for a green economy being discussed at the moment are sometimes too simplistic in Brazil. We have several Brazils and also many Brazilians. You have those who live by the coast who have a completely different perception and interaction with nature than those who live in the Amazon. It's a complex issue for Brazilians. Our approach at WWF is  to regionalise the issues. The deforestation mark in the southern part of Brazil has really got into the northern part. We have internal drivers that are really pushing the arc of deforestation up. Before going into other countries, we have a lot of homework to do.

ML: How can Brazil maintain its position as a leading beef and soya exporter while protecting the environment?

DH: We can increase productivity. The data we have in Brazil about the space used to raise cattle is ten times more than what you see in other, very competitive countries. Are we using the right scale to raise our animals? This doesn't mean that we are going to put them in jail, but it means we need to review our productivity parameters and how we can really get into the market without deforesting. Brazil has realised that big companies such as Walmart have been putting conditions on the import of beef and soya products to include the origin of production. This is a no turning back avenue to certified products. The movement of soya buyers in Europe are determining that we have to review our model. This is very good. This is very important to Brazilian societies and businesses - we have realised we are all inter connected. What is produced at a small to mid farm in Mato Grasso can be tracked over satellite, you can see everything - the whole process.

We are seeing growth in the number of companies that want to speak to us to make sure that they are doing what they should be doing to be accepted. That doesn't mean that everything is blue skies, but we can see a trend of this happening.

ML: There have been two recent cases of extreme drought in the Amazon  - in 2005 and 2010. Are we close to a tipping point - past the point where the Amazon will stop acting as a natural buffer to man made carbon emissions?

DH: I'm not a scientific person, but all the studies indicate that we are in another pattern. If we have arrived at a tipping point, this I cannot tell you but most respected climatologists and researchers on climate are still reluctant to take that this is a complete association with climate change. But it is very, very serious. We can not underestimate where we are. Not just in the Amazon, there was flooding in Rio de Janeiro and in the south of Brazil last year. It was incredible. We've had about five cyclones in Brazil last year. We have never, ever had cyclones in the country's history of meteorological data. Now we just need to have an earthquake- something we've never had.

ML: What does Brazil need to do to effectively police its environment?

DH: We have a legal framework in Brazil that is considered one of the best. However, first - we need to enforce the law - which is something that doesn't work very well in Brazil. Second - we cannot go backwards in what we've been doing well - such as the forest code. We have this law and we are in the process of changing it to favour a few and favour deforestation and not meeting our Copenhagen commitments. The forest code has to remain as it is.

The environment is always seen as a problem, never as an opportunity. I think that the country needs to perceive that we are the world's G1 of biodiversity. We need to use that asset - to scale up, to be an important place in the international scenario with a different development. What we see is that we are not using the potential we have - using the environment as a strong component to our economic equation.

ML: What should governments in Europe and in the US be doing to stop deforestation in Brazil?

DH: This is a market thing. There's been a growth in the number of certified forest products but I think that there must be more barriers to the circulation of products that don't have their origin proven. Not only in Brazil - I think for China and other countries, there needs to be a citizens' pact - it's the government's work as well as that of citizens.

As for the US government, it's not that simple. I see that the US government - in terms of energy - has important internal business to sort out. It is much more important to have American citizens, as potential buyers, really help us by not buying products that come from unknown sources.

Sometimes we tend to expect that governments are going to solve everything but if the society doesn't engage and doesn't realise that we are part of the problem and part of the solution - no matter how many laws, how many protocols we sign in the multilateral world - we won't change anything.

ML: How do we ensure the REDD process is not open to abuse or corruption?

DH: As we speak REDD is being built up. What we need is a strong legal framework, and for it to be enforced. In Brazil we have things that are not enforced. Projects that are done one-to-one without any publicity are unclear in terms of results and use of funds. Not only REDD projects, there is a lot of money in conservation projects that are not accountable. The further they are from communities, the more they favour lack of transparency and engagement. We need to share the challenges of how slow it is to change a reality, and also how important it is to have the involvement of local communities.

ML: Can it ever be justified for foreign companies to offset their carbon emissions by controlling Brazilian forests?

DH: I think so, but I don't believe that only this can change everything. It is not good for the company involved, and it is not good for Brazil, or for any country. I see that what we need to be working is with a basket with several alternatives - we have to be smart enough to really think what can be done. Of course, not at any cost but what can be advanced - we have to control, monitor, verify - because otherwise it's going to be very easy to buy this and then sleep very well and keep doing business as usual.

We cannot have the idyllic idea of not touching the Amazon. Here in Europe, there are many enlightened people, but they ask how come we are ‘managing' the forests - they still have this very old fashioned idea that it shouldn't be touched. In Brazil many imminent people, and people in Congress, say that we are selling the Amazon, that's why the sovereignty issue comes about. It's a challenging time.

ML: The head of WWF Malaysia said that over population is the greatest environmental problem. Do you agree?

DH: We have to really work on how to minimise population growth, but I think that there is not just one problem. I'm not saying my Malaysian colleague is not right, but it's the combination of factors which pose the most difficult challenges we have as environmentalists.

The WWF Living Planet report we do every year shows that with some countries we would need three planets to survive, whereas some African countries only consume 5 per cent of the planet. The world is so unequal. Over population may not be the biggest overall threat, but it may be depending on where you are.

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