May, 1980. We had enthusiastically received the information that the United Nations Programme for the Environment (UNEP) had signed an agreement with FEEMA – at the time, the environmental agency of the State of Rio de Janeiro – to help us to carry out a comprehensive study to choose which Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) methodologies would be suitable to be introduced in the institutional and legal framework of the State, consequently of the Country. The subject was new, as FEEMA also was. FEEMA had been created in 1975 by young professionals ideologically committed to the nascent environmental issue. As a pioneer, FEEMA had already implanted a Potentially Polluting Activities Licensing System (SLAP), within which the execution of an Environmental Impact Report (RIMA) was already defined as a mandatory requirement for the approval of large projects.
We were experiencing the very beginning of the Brazilian “Political Opening” under General João Figueiredo’s government. Less than a year earlier, in August 1979, the Amnesty Law was enacted. Five years would yet be necessary to the political wave called “Direct Elections, Now!” (“Diretas já!”), and eight years to the promulgation of the future Constitution, which would restore the democratic order in Brazil. That means we were still living in a closed regime, with restricted rights. At that time, decisions on the implementation of productive projects and infrastructure are used to come from the central government, top-down, without any participative mechanism. All large projects were evaluated by entrepreneurs only from two perspectives: engineering technical feasibility and economic feasibility. Private agents were in charge of manufacturing industries and real estate. Under the large umbrella of National Security, government used to undertake in the fields of infrastructure, “strategic” mining, oil and base industry.
The Environmental Studies Group (GEA) of FEEMA, headed by architect Iara Verocai, was appointed to be the leading team of that program with UNEP. Our thought was to add, in a methodologically consistent manner, the environmental vector into the engineering feasibility study. The goal would be bringing to the technical project the best environmental controls (not entailing excessive cost that could make the venture economically unfeasible), so that the operation could have its environmental impacts mitigated the best. With that, we would produce profitable projects, efficiently designed and environmentally adjusted as much as possible. The focus was on mitigating impacts by embarking the most appropriate (and feasible) technology.
Available methodologies were being developed, mainly in academic circles. Through the partnership with UNEP, we could have access to the best teachers and consultants, who presented us “ad hoc” methods (as the Experts’ Panels and Checklists), going through superposition of maps (as prescribed by the book “Design with Nature” by Ian McHarg), valuation matrices (Luna B. Leopold and the Battelle-Columbus Institute for Environmental Cost-Benefits Analysis – ECBA), and reaching to the complex “Adaptive Environmental Assessment and Management”, by the Canadian ecologist Crawford S. Holling. From the evaluation of these methods, we would come to the positioning later incorporated into all regulations: there was not “the right methodology”. Entrepreneurs should take advantage of the whole pack of appropriate and suitable methods to chose those ones that could properly assess the relevant environmental impacts of their projects. So, provisional environmental impact studies would become mandatory in the licensing process.
One fact, however, would be the spotlighted issue we face today. All methodologies had been originated in democratic countries. Thus, the so-called “socio-economic and cultural aspects” were introduced in all impact assessments. In addition to the “physical” and “biotic” aspects, also the human productions, plans and projects should be considered as a background for the impact assessment of a new venture. Various methodologies also foresaw mechanisms for public consultation of the stakeholders as important participants in the decision making. But we were still living in a dictatorship. The first environmental studies of federal projects were showing up “preciosities” in this field, such as the assertion that “the native indigenous groups will not be affected by the dam reservoir, once they are great swimmers”… Now, how it was possible to merge this frame into the Brazilian reality? To answer to this question, it was brought to the licensing process a period for public consultation of the EIA/RIMA, followed by the realization of one or more public hearings to collect the views of interested parties, before the issuance of the first of a series of three environmental permits – the Provisional License (LP).
In the context of an ideal and educated democracy, this idea seemed to be brilliant. However, in real Brazil, it has established a nefarious “business desks”, which is drowning in a Kafkaesque way, throughout legal disputes, the breath of the licensing process all around the Country, with serious effects on Brazilian competitiveness. The logic of the relationship of the project with stakeholders seems to stray away from the fair and appropriate clarification, by the entrepreneur to the community, about the impacts and risks of the new facility, as well as about the measures included in the project to mitigate the negative environmental effects and maximize the positive ones. Instead, this logic has entered in the swampy field of “compensations”. Treated as sin, profit seems to need paying a kind of “toll” to groups of stakeholders. Based on this concept, some governmental heads have made environmental licensing an opportunity on transferring their own obligations, enforcing entrepreneurs – as compensation for the environmental permit – to build streets, houses, parks, hospitals, schools, daycare centers, police stations, urban sanitation and what else one can invent in name of the infrastructure of the neighboring regions (sometimes not so nearby …), reducing margins, amplifying installation costs and delaying the return on investment. In other words, the so-called “Brazil Cost”.
We still have a long way to evolve our young democracy, especially in education. Today, this is it. However, in the shoes of one of those 1980s’ pioneers, I cannot vanish out of my mind a Spanish well-known adage: “cria cuervos y te sacarán los ojos “…