Like most countries through world history, Brazil is modernizing though the intensive mining of its natural resources. The United States did this. Russia/USSR did this. Australia, Canada, etc. Britain and France did so through mining the resources of their Asian and African colonies. China is doing it today. When developing world leaders criticize developed world environmentalists for fighting to protect forests and wildlife, they have a point because the United States did indeed do this very thing. And it’s highly unlikely that a local or national plebiscite is going to promote preservation over jobs, particularly in poor countries. This is complicated of course by the murkiness of what is democratic; many places in 2011 with large tracts of forest or desert that remain relatively undisturbed are also the homes of remnant indigenous populations that see their state’s modernizing tactics as a direct attack upon their lifestyle and independence.
There are also different models of developing resources. It’s one thing to make rational decisions as a nation over which resources to develop for particular reasons. Then there is what Brazil is doing. In general, the last decade has been great for Brazil. The Lula years were go-go for Brazil, with a rising tide reducing poverty and leading to increased respect internationally. But Lula was never very good on protecting Brazilian forests and his successor, Dilma Rousseff, is even worse. With her support, the Brazilian senate passed a new forest code that expands logging the Amazonian forests by a vote of 58-8. It’s unlikely anything will stop this bill. Even under the old forest code, government will to stop violations and poaching was nil and environmental activists were routinely murdered. And for what? 62% of deforested land in Brazil is used for cattle ranching. We are cutting down forests in order to ship cheap beef to McDonald’s. This is also the primary reason for deforestation in Central America–this very cheap beef allows fast food chains to keep prices down.
Brazil does have a right to modernize and it is somewhat hypocritical for American environmentalists like me to tell them to knock it off. But I can live with being a hypocrite on this issue. If Brazil was developing a modern timber industry with sustainable practices for instance, that might be intelligent. But cutting down forests the earth desperately needs in order to throw some cows out there is crazy stupid and doesn’t really modernize the nation. It enriches a few cattle barons.