- Brazil is the 9th biggest economy in the world.
- Reducing inequality and corruption should be top priority in 2020.
- Brazilian TV presenter calls for zero tolerance on deforestation.
From spiralling geopolitical tensions in the Middle East to raging forest fires in Australia, 2020 certainly started with a bang. A shortlist of some of our biggest existential threats includes accelerating climate change, staggering inequalities and the failure of nation-states to cooperate to mitigate shared global risks. With all the bad news, it is hard to see the incredible possibilities on the horizon, not least advances in health, education and the boundless potential of new technologies. A growing number of businesses including huge asset managers like BlackRock are also becoming greener. All of these challenges and opportunities are apparent in Brazil, the world’s fourth-largest democracy and its ninth biggest economy.
Brazil will play a leading role in how the next decade unfolds. A big reason for this is its immense natural resources - including over 40% of the world’s tropical forests and 20% of the planet's fresh-water supply. The Amazon is often described as the "lungs of the world" - for good reason. But the lungs are collapsing as a result of man-made fires and runaway deforestation. With more than 210 million citizens, Brazil also has an impressive stock of human resources. But it is also convulsed by breathtaking inequality and grinding poverty. Complicating matters, we are facing a crisis of political leadership and shirking our international responsibilities.
What happens next in Brazil has far-reaching consequences for global survival. The decisions adopted by Latin America's largest country - whether in relation to protecting the Amazon, reducing inequality or strengthening multilateral cooperation - will help determine whether this is the world's best century or its last one. The sheer scope of the challenges facing Brazilians can feel overwhelming. Without a transformative vision and narrative, a renewal of political leadership, and tangible improvement, people feel rudderless and afraid.
For the past 20 years, I've been taking the pulse of Brazil. I produce and present a popular television program reaching roughly 30 million Brazilians every week. Most of the time, I travel across the country listening to the inspiring and heartbreaking stories of my countrymen and women. They remind me every day why I need to contribute to building a better Brazil. So here are three challenges that I firmly believe Brazilians can turn into opportunities.
Dramatic fires and deforestation in the Amazon made global headlines in 2019. Despite the best efforts of the Brazilian authorities to conceal the problem, the Science Ministry's own satellite data showed that deforestation rates were at the highest levels in two decades. While falling out of the international news cycle, the destruction continues. If deforestation persists at current rates, irreversible die-off could convert the world’s largest tropical forests into its largest savannah. This would release up to 140 billion tons of stored carbon into the atmosphere, effectively scuppering efforts to meet the Paris Agreement targets.
A radical new paradigm is needed to ensure the sustainable stewardship of Brazil's stunning cultural and biodiversity. It must harness the Amazon's most powerful resource - the 25 million people who live there. For one, there has to be zero tolerance for deforestation and a concerted focus on improving the productivity of areas where forests have already been cut down. Roughly 90% of deforestation in the Amazon is illegal and at least two-thirds of the 80 million hectares of cleared land are under-used, degraded and abandoned. Just as important as sustainable agri-business, the expansion of eco-tourism, investment in biotechnology research and the development of fairly-traded rainforest products.
Deepening social and economic inequality within countries is fundamentally reconfiguring domestic and international politics. In some cases, governments are retreating from multilateral cooperation and reverting to reactionary nationalism and protectionism. These dynamics are apparent in Brazil, among the world’s most unequal countries. Although Brazil made important advances in reducing poverty since the 2000s, inequality remained stubbornly high. And in recent years, per capita income plunged and the gap between the rich and poor started rising, wiping out many social gains of the previous three decades. Today, the average monthly income of the wealthiest one per cent is more than 33 times the income of the poorest 50%. Inequality not only hinders economic growth, but it also fuels polarization and populism.
Brazil needs to put inequality reduction at the top of the national agenda in 2020. A combination of common-sense interventions are required: ensuring the fairer collection of taxes, reducing subsidies for the wealthy, rolling-out more equal opportunity policies, and stimulating opportunities for the most vulnerable. Most important of all is dramatically improving the quality of basic public education, especially early childhood schooling. Brazil's education system is failing poorer families. Wealth inequality is reinforcing inequality of opportunity for the next generation. To win the war on inequality, Brazil needs an inclusive growth strategy, one that is not limited to growing income and smart deregulation but also ensures that quality public services delivering security, education, health, sanitation and transportation reach all citizens, not just those who pay a premium for them.
After years of corruption and stagnation, Brazil is suffering from sharp societal divisions and simmering tensions. In 2013, well before the street protests that flared up in Bolivia, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador, Brazil experienced the largest demonstrations since the restoration of democracy in 1985. The impeachment of President Dilma in 2016, the unprecedented unpopularity of the Temer administration and the election of far-right Jair Bolsonaro in 2018 revealed the extent of dissatisfaction with the status quo. Bolsonaro was partly elected because the credibility of Brazil's political establishment was demolished by ongoing “Car Wash” investigations into government corruption. Exhausted by scandal and stagnation, Brazilians voted for change.
To tackle the big challenges of the next decade, Brazil needs to restore and renew its political leaders from the top to bottom. Accountable, responsible and representative leadership and public service are fundamental to revitalizing the social contract. This won't happen spontaneously. It requires a conscious effort to attract and invest in talent. it also demands that each and every Brazilian gets involved. In 2017, I joined Agora, one of several dynamic civic movements investing in a new generation of leaders committed to a more inclusive and sustainable Brazil. And in 2018, I co-founded RenovaBR, attracting over 4,600 submissions from people who'd never been involved in politics for training in governance and ethics. Of the 120 successful applicants, 17 were elected to federal office that year.
Brazil is a country of infinite possibility. It has achieved breathtaking gains over the last generation - bringing tens of millions of people out of poverty. But these improvements were fragile. As we’ve seen in other parts of the world, when societies and living standards start moving backwards, social protest and unrest are not far behind. This is dangerous. Irresponsible leaders can take advantage of the fear and uncertainty that result. But we can also fight back. We will start rewriting the Brazilian story in 2020, first by acknowledging our most intractable problems and then by leveraging our tremendous creativity, scientific prowess and expertise. This means stepping out of our comfort zones. Powered by civic and social entrepreneurs from across the political spectrum, we can rebuild a positive vision for the future in Brazil.