Brazilian President Announces Plans to Protect Rain Forests

President José Sarney of Brazil made a televised address to announce his government’s commitment to protect the Brazilian rain forests, thereby ensuring the release of loans for development projects.

Summary of Event

On October 12, 1988, José Sarney, the president of Brazil, announced that his government would take more serious measures to ensure the preservation of the Amazonian and Atlantic rain forests. His speech was meant to calm the fears of those who believed that Brazilian development projects were severely endangering the global environment. Concern over deforestation had escalated to the point that the World Bank World Bank in 1988 threatened to withhold funds already earmarked for Brazil. Rain forests
Brazil;rain forests
Amazon rain forests
[kw]Brazilian President Announces Plans to Protect Rain Forests (Oct. 12, 1988)
[kw]President Announces Plans to Protect Rain Forests, Brazilian (Oct. 12, 1988)
[kw]Rain Forests, Brazilian President Announces Plans to Protect (Oct. 12, 1988)
[kw]Forests, Brazilian President Announces Plans to Protect Rain (Oct. 12, 1988)
Rain forests
Brazil;rain forests
Amazon rain forests
[g]South America;Oct. 12, 1988: Brazilian President Announces Plans to Protect Rain Forests[06930]
[g]Brazil;Oct. 12, 1988: Brazilian President Announces Plans to Protect Rain Forests[06930]
[c]Government and politics;Oct. 12, 1988: Brazilian President Announces Plans to Protect Rain Forests[06930]
[c]Environmental issues;Oct. 12, 1988: Brazilian President Announces Plans to Protect Rain Forests[06930]
Sarney, José
Mendes, Chico
Collor de Mello, Fernando

Economic development in Brazil had for years been associated with expanding opportunity by opening up the country’s vast interior. Specific measures were taken toward this end when President Juscelino Kubitschek Kubitschek, Juscelino announced in 1957 the transfer of the nation’s capital from the city of Rio de Janeiro, located on the southeastern coast, to the newly planned city of Brasília, to be built on Brazil’s central plateau, six hundred miles from the more heavily populated seaboard. In April, 1960, after three years of frenzied construction, the city of Brasília was inaugurated, and the Brazilian capital was transferred inland.

To draw population to the new capital city, Brazil had to build highways linking Brasília to the coast. The first major road project joined Brasília to the northern port city of Belém at the mouth of the Amazon River. This was a stunning accomplishment, cutting as it did through more than one thousand miles of tropical rain forest.

President Kubitschek, in his efforts to promote fifty years of economic development during his five years in office, had also committed state support to an incipient automobile industry. This decision, which he believed would thrust Brazil into the leading ranks of twentieth century industrial powers, meant that highways, not railroads, were to become the major avenues of transportation throughout the vast country.

In 1964, four years after President Kubitschek left office, a military coup ended civilian rule in Brazil and marked the beginning of a twenty-one-year period when generals occupied the presidency. Military technocrats who favored rapid economic development were able to take the sometimes unpopular measures necessary to promote industrial growth. To encourage foreign investment in Brazil, the state curtailed working-class protest. From 1968 to 1973, the Brazilian economy grew at an impressive average of 10 percent each year. Development was so dramatic that this period came to be called the time of Brazil’s “economic miracle.” Although the numbers indicated that the nation was doing well, many Brazilians languished in poverty.

The early 1970’s witnessed a return of cyclical drought to the Brazilian northeast. Visiting that region in 1973 and observing the subhuman living conditions of his fellow citizens, President Emílio Garrastazu Médici Médici, Emílio Garrastazu vowed to help. Many northeasterners fled drought by moving to the south, especially to the industrial areas around the cities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. There, those who could not find jobs swelled the urban slums, exacerbating pressure on already precarious social services. The Médici government, aware of this problem, tied the hopes of future development to the Amazon region. If drought refugees from the northeast could be relocated to sparsely populated Amazonia instead of to the already teeming cities of the south, overcrowding could be curbed. Furthermore, and probably just as important, the Brazilian military realized that settlement of the Amazon opened up the possibility of exploiting the productive capacity of that largely untapped region, providing opportunities for continued economic growth.

For the Amazon region to be attractive to settlers, it had to become more accessible to the trucks and buses that carried Brazilians from one part of the country to another. Massive road-building efforts thus began in the Amazon region. The Trans-Amazon Highway Trans-Amazon Highway[Transamazon Highway] cut through the northern region, and other roads were begun that would link the midwest to the north and northwest of Brazil. Because these dirt roads quickly turned to mud and became impassable in the rainy season, plans to pave the new highways were drawn up and submitted to international banks for funding. In the early 1980’s, funds were made available, particularly from the World Bank and the International Development Bank, and paving began. Paved roads, along with other government incentives, attracted a mass exodus from both the northeast and the far south into the newly accessible areas of Amazonia.

A scene along the Amazon River as it flows through the Brazilian rain forest.

(Cesar Paes Barreto)

With the advent of a new population, unforeseen problems soon emerged. The most serious problem had to do with the surprisingly poor quality of the land for agricultural production. Settlers had moved into the region hoping to become owners of plots of land that would produce enough for their own subsistence and even a surplus for sale. The soil that had nurtured the enormous trees of the forest, however, proved startlingly susceptible to erosion. Soil erosion;rain forests When the trees were felled, much of the thin and dangerously exposed layer of topsoil washed away in the tropical rains. What remained supported only puny crops, and only for a few seasons. Disenchanted settlers, finding that their land became less and less productive, often sold what they could and moved farther inland to new plots of land, where the same process began.

The new roads, however, made the land appealing to cattle ranchers, who bought much of it from the farmer-settlers, expecting to use it only as pasture for their animals. The land produced such low-quality grass, however, that large tracts were needed to support even a few cows. That meant that more and more trees had to be cut down to accommodate herds, making more and more land susceptible to erosion. The state nevertheless supported the move to cattle ranching in the region because cattle pastured in the Amazon helped supply relatively inexpensive beef to industrial workers in Brazil’s large cities.

The damage that deforestation was causing to the global environment intensified as a result of the process that farmers and cattle ranchers used to clear the land. Brazilian settlers first cut down the trees and then burned them. The carbon dioxide released by the burning had serious effects on the earth’s ozone layer, contributing, some scientists believed, to the greenhouse effect and to global warming. Global warming
Deforestation;rain forests
Climate change

The movement of settlers into Amazonia also displaced longtime residents of the area. For more than one hundred years, rubber tappers had earned a modest living by extracting latex from the rubber trees that grew naturally in the forest. The destruction of these trees and the increased value of the land on which they had once stood threatened many tappers with the end of their source of livelihood. Indigenous groups, whose ancestors had lived in the forest long before the arrival of Europeans in the sixteenth century, were also threatened with annihilation through disease and displacement.

In the 1980’s, environmentalists from Europe and North America joined with the rubber tappers and representatives of Indian groups to publicize the disaster that the destruction of the Amazon rain forest might precipitate. Organized protests began, aimed primarily at the banks that were financing the destructive changes. As a result, development plans began to be reconsidered.

At the same time, Brazilian authorities continued to argue that much of the hope for their country’s future lay in populating and exploiting the Amazon. When oil crises in the 1970’s brought the Brazilian miracle to a grinding halt, urban problems escalated. The Mexican moratorium on its foreign debt in 1982 resulted in the freezing of new loans for most Latin American countries, including Brazil, further stunting economic growth. In addition, the international recession of the early 1980’s had lowered demand for Brazilian exports, resulting in a severe economic depression in the region. To relieve the problems of the large urban centers and to spur economic development, the Brazilian government believed expansion into the Amazon must continue.

By 1988, however, the nature of the environmental crisis and pressure from those concerned about its ultimate implications had caused banks to rethink their commitments to road building in Brazil. In fact, most banks now insisted that Brazilian projects carefully consider the environmental consequences of development and indicate ways to minimize the devastation brought on by progress. On October 12, 1988, the Brazilian president assured the world that his government would take greater care to minimize the destruction of the rain forests.


By 1988, it was clear that awareness of environmental issues had increased both in Brazil and abroad. The alliance of environmentalists and groups such as rubber tappers and indigenous inhabitants directly affected by the destruction of the rain forests proved a powerful force in influencing international aid decisions. President Sarney’s speech demonstrated his government’s awareness of the importance of promoting sustainable economic development.

The international pressure placed on Brazil either to comply with stricter environmental standards or to face the loss of loans also promoted negative responses among some national leaders. The question of national sovereignty was raised by those concerned that outsiders wished to dictate the kind of development Brazil would pursue. The military in particular became increasingly concerned that foreign interest in protecting the Amazon rain forest might serve as cover for those who wanted to erode Brazil’s control over its northern and western borders. High-ranking military officials made it clear that they would not accept foreign intervention in internal affairs, especially when such intervention had to do with sparsely populated border regions.

Fernando Collor de Mello, the civilian president who succeeded José Sarney in 1990, however, seemed to take to heart the importance of environmental concerns. The first president directly elected by the Brazilian citizenry since 1960, this young, dynamic leader seemed to personify the hopes of many who had been excluded from the realm of politics during the military years. He made international headlines by appointing José Lutzenberger, Lutzenberger, José an outspoken Brazilian environmentalist, as the country’s first minister of environment and assuring him full support.

With the backing of the Collor government, Brazil indeed implemented measures to curb damage to the Amazon rain forest. Extractive reserves were created, ensuring that the land worked by rubber tappers would be protected from appropriation by farmers or cattle ranchers. Collor formalized the demarcation of lands belonging to the Yanomami Indians, allowing them access to a large territory along Brazil’s northern border. In addition, stricter patrolling of the region helped curb the burnings, which actually declined by the 1990’s after years of unparalleled growth in the late 1980’s.

The momentum of environmental concern seemed to grow stronger when it was announced that the Earth Summit, Earth Summit (1992) a United Nations-sponsored gathering of representatives from 172 countries, would take place in Rio de Janeiro in June, 1992. Collor welcomed the exposure that this conference to discuss the environment and development provided for Brazilian efforts to promote environmentally sustainable development.

Although environmental issues gained unusual prominence during the first years of the Collor administration, political problems quickly pushed environmental issues back from immediate public attention in Brazil. When evidence of corruption in the Collor ranks emerged in 1992, protests by a furiously disenchanted Brazilian public eventually resulted in the president’s impeachment and removal from office. The remainder of Collor’s term, served by his vice president, was also plagued by evidence of corruption in the Brazilian congress and inept administration on the part of the executive branch. As economic difficulties continued to haunt the nation, political and economic issues became the focus of Brazilians’ attention. Concerns about the survival of the rain forests did not disappear, but the energy needed to ensure positive movement away from destruction appeared to be diverted. Rain forests
Brazil;rain forests
Amazon rain forests

Further Reading

  • Collinson, Helen, ed. Green Guerrillas: Environmental Conflicts and Initiatives in Latin America and the Caribbean. Buffalo, N.Y.: Black Rose Books, 1997. Collection of essays focuses on the individuals and groups working to defend the environment, including preserving the rain forests, in Latin America and the Caribbean.
  • Cowell, Adrian. The Decade of Destruction: The Crusade to Save the Amazon Rain Forest. New York: Henry Holt, 1990. Provides rare, on-the-spot observations of what was happening in the rain forest during the 1980’s, when the author was filming a documentary on the transformation of the region brought about by the paving of the highway linking Cuiabá to Porto Velho.
  • Hecht, Susanna, and Alexander Cockburn. The Fate of the Forest: Developers, Destroyers, and Defenders of the Amazon. New York: Verso, 1989. Good history of the area written from the viewpoint of concerned environmentalists. Includes a thorough bibliography.
  • Onis, Juan de. The Green Cathedral: Sustainable Development of Amazonia. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992. Argues that environmentalism and economic development need not be incompatible. Claims that peoples and governments are learning from their mistakes and that there is hope for the Amazon even as the region develops.
  • Place, Susan E., ed. Tropical Rainforests: Latin American Nature and Society in Transition. Rev. ed. Wilmington, Del.: Scholarly Resources, 2001. Collection of essays on Latin America’s rain forests includes a wide variety of works, from travel narratives to scientific articles and anthropological studies. Includes discussion of the complexities of tropical deforestation.
  • Rich, Bruce. “Multilateral Development Banks and Tropical Deforestation.” In Lessons of the Rainforest, edited by Suzanne Head and Robert Heinzman. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1990. Description of the role development banks played in the process of deforestation by an author critical of those banks.
  • Shoumatoff, Alex. The World Is Burning: Murder in the Rain Forest. Boston: Little, Brown, 1990. Presents the story of rubber-tapper activist Chico Mendes and his assassination in 1988. Provides an excellent analysis of how local political concerns became connected with international environmental interests.

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