Brazilian politicians run on jobs-vs.-environment platforms--and triumph

October 22, 1990|By Michael Kepp | Michael Kepp,Special to The Sun

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil -- For most Brazilian environmental activists, Gilberto Mestrinho is a bad dream.

Mr. Mestrinho ran for the governorship of the largest state in the Amazon on the most virulent anti-ecology campaign in recent memory here -- and won.

On the stump, Mr. Mestrinho, a right-wing populist, put down those he called "save-the-Amazon alarmists," telling crowds that "men are already capable of living almost a year on other planets without trees and without an environment whatsoever."

He also campaigned for the cutting down of Amazon trees before termites and bacteria kill them and for the hunting of the now-protected Amazon alligator for shoe leather.

And he promised to jail federal environmental inspectors who, in enforcing ecological laws, compromise the livelihood of Amazonians.

"The center of ecology is man himself, and I will be the governor of men and not of forests and animals," Mr. Mestrinho told campaign audiences. They resoundingly answered back Oct. 3, giving the two-time past governor of Amazonas state 57 percent of the vote and his third term in office.

Mr. Mestrinho, 62, with a trademark red shirt falling over a sagging paunch, a thin mustache and black hair slicked back with brilliantine, looks as eccentric as he sounds. Marcio Souza, who satirized him in a best-selling novel, said Mr. Mestrinho reminded him of "a 1950s B-movie leading man, a Latin Brian Donlevy."

And though Mr. Mestrinho may be Brazil's most picturesque regional politician, he is hardly an anomaly.

Pro-development conservatives won gubernatorial races in three of nine Amazonian states and are favorites to win runoffs in at least four of six others.

In the northern territory of Roraima, Romero Juca vigorously defends the right of miners to remain on Yanomami Indian land, even though miner-spread diseases have decimated the tribe. And in Amazonas state, when Senator-elect Amazonino Mendes was governor, he gained national notoriety for distributing several thousand chain saws to settlers to speed up development.

Patronage is behind the electoral successes of most of these conservative politicians. They have formed fraternal bonds with businessmen while, at the same time, forming paternalistic ones with the poverty-stricken.

Critics charge that during his two past terms as governor (1959-1963 and 1983-1987), Mr. Mestrinho won over the poor by passing out notebooks and pencils instead of building schools and by distributing free medicine instead of upgrading hospitals. And political opponents charged that color TV sets were raffled off at his campaign rallies.

These politicians' pro-development platforms also appeal to the Amazon poor, besieged by inflation and growing unemployment.

Walter de Goes, a Brasilia-based political scientist, said that "Mestrinho's message that economic well-being comes before ecologic well-being appeals to the poverty-ridden masses in the Amazon who have been convinced that thinking ecologically will compromise their survival."

Mr. Mestrinho defends that message by saying that "we have to rationally develop the Amazon. It's the only way to end widespread poverty in the region. There are 10 million people in the Amazon, and they can't simply die of hunger for the forest's sake.

"Only when we improve man's economic condition will man be capable of then preserving the environment."

Political observers said that Mr. Mestrinho's environmental record matches his rhetoric. As governor of Amazonas, he backed urbanization projects in the capital, Manaus, which they charge stripped the city of its shade trees and polluted its waterways.

An Amazon historian, Jose Ribamar Freire, charged that Mr. Mestrinho's danger lies in his environmental ignorance.

"Mestrinho is completely ignorant of the forest and doesn't understand the meaning of the word ecosystem," said Mr. Ribamar Freire. "He thinks a tree is something savage, primitive and distanced from man and that, because a highway is modern, it is closer to man."

And most ecologists disagree with Mr. Mestrinho's hollow-tree hypothesis.

Mr. Mestrinho contends that because the Amazon rain forest is so old, so dense and so damp, parasites proliferate, "penetrating the trees and eating their insides out."

"Most of the trees in the Amazon are hollow," said Mr. Mestrinho, "so Amazon trees need to be rationally cut down before the bacteria and termites destroy them."

Herbert Schubart, head of the ecology department of the Manaus-based National Institute of Amazon Research, said that the Amazon has a balanced mix of old, hollowed-out trees, sturdy mature ones and saplings, and that "if you start felling large numbers of Amazon trees before they begin rotting, you threaten that equilibrium."

Mr. Mestrinho writes off those who deride his hollow-tree theory, saying that "people laughed at Galileo, too."

And he accuses many ecologists of becoming the unwitting dupes of international mining companies, which also clamor about Amazon devastation, but only out of self-interest.

"Two decades ago, after it was discovered that the Amazon was full of valuable natural resources, especially mineral wealth, the international mining companies began to worry that, if the Amazon were developed, more mineral ores would flood the international market, causing stocks to increase and prices to fall," he said. "So they began criticizing the destruction of the Amazon out of commercial self-interest. The save-the-Amazon ecologists have played right into their hands."

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