Friday, December 29, 2017

Brasil: Pardon Me?

Pardon Me?

The head of Brazil’s Supreme Court partially suspended Christmas pardons granted to convicted criminals by President Michel Temer, after the country’s top prosecutor argued some of them were unconstitutional and threatened the country’s long-running graft investigation.
In a break from tradition, on Dec. 21 Temer loosened the rules for granting pardons, extending them to include people convicted of corruption-related crimes, Reuters reported. The move was widely criticized by public prosecutors and on social media.
Justice Minister Torquato Jardim told Reuters that the ministry would seek to rejig the pardons to allow them to go into effect, despite the judge’s ruling.
Temer’s decree reduced the portion of their sentence that non-violent, first-time offenders must have served before being eligible for a pardon from one-quarter to one-fifth of the total sentence. And he extended the rules to include prisoners who have been sentenced to terms longer than 12 years.
In a newspaper editorial, Jardim claimed the changes were intended to allow pardons for people like the more than 70,000  jailed for theft and not the 50 or so imprisoned for corruption.Pardon Me?

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Argentina: All's Fair


All’s Fair…

It’s a tossup as to whether Argentine leaders are cleaning house or tearing it down.
Earlier this month, a judge in the troubled South American country indicted ex-President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and members of her erstwhile administration on charges of treason and called for her arrest.
The New York Times described the development as a “political earthquake.”
Kirchner said the charges were baseless. Since she is a recently elected senator, she enjoys immunity from prosecution. That includes other allegations of money laundering, the Telegraph noted.
But the judge has appealed to Congress to strip her of that protection so he can expose her role in a cover-up related to an Iranian plot in which Hezbollah blew up a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994, killing 84 and injuring hundreds.
Kirchner allegedly whitewashed Iran’s role in the bombing because she needed Tehran’s financial help to ease the impact of Argentina’s economic slump (which stemmed in part from court fights with American hedge funds after the country defaulted on its debt in 2001).
The subterfuge became a crisis in 2015 when crusading prosecutor Alberto Nisman was found dead in his apartment, a bullet in his head, on the night before he was scheduled to lay out Kirchner’s role in the scheme in testimony to lawmakers.
Kirchner’s former foreign minister, Héctor Timerman, who was among those charged with treason, defended himself in a recent op-ed in the New York Times.
The investigation into the attack was bungled, said Timerman, who suggested the judge was a political opponent of Kirchner who had purposely slowed the bombing probe in the past to protect his allies who were the real culprits. Timerman also rejected accusations that he met with Iran’s foreign minister in Syria and that he asked Interpol to drop so-called “red notices,” or international arrest warrants, on Iranian suspects.
Interpol has corroborated his claims, according to Reuters. Human Rights Watch has blasted the judge’s moves.
The case is likely to wind through the courts, possibly as elections in the coming years rejigger the political landscape and alter the power balances that appear to be driving the case.
In the meantime, current Argentine President Mauricio Macri – who defeated Kirchner’s handpicked successor in 2015 – is pushing forward with his agenda to kickstart the economy. Most recently, the BBC reported, he pushed pension reforms through Congress that will shrink benefits, and include raising the age of retirement. Feeling ripped off, people protested in the streets.
Everyone is battling for what they think is fair. Whoever wins will determine what that means.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Brasil Wavers On Environment, And Te World's Largest Wetlands Start To Wither

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MIRANDA, Brazil — Brazil’s booming soy industry and cattle ranches are threatening one of the richest wildlife havens on the planet, where packs of jaguars, caimans, marsh deer and macaws have roamed freely for eons.
The Pantanal region, the world’s largest tropical wetlands, is starting to wither. Over the last 15 years, about 8,700 square miles of the area, which straddles Brazil, Paraguay and Bolivia, have been altered, with fast-growing patches of yellow, arid land introduced into the lush biome, which covers roughly 70,000 square miles, or about the size of Syria.
This degradation of the Pantanal is seen by critics as one sign of Brazil’s weakening resolve to protect its environment.
While the Brazilian government earlier this year hailed a modest achievement in its signature environmental fight — containing the deforestation of the Amazon — it has been embarrassed by other trend lines. The country’s greenhouse gas emissions increased by 9 percent last year, compared with 2015, marking the highest output since 2008.
Fueled in large part by the conversion of forested land for farming and other commercial purposes, last year’s emissions increase has called into question Brazil’s ability to honor its international commitments to combat climate change, including those under the Paris agreement.
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Additionally, mapping data compiled by the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics released earlier this month showed the country lost 9.5 percent of its forest land between 2000 and 2014.
The expansion of agriculture into areas with few environmental regulations, or lax enforcement, has coincided with a politically turbulent period in Brazil during which a powerful coalition of federal lawmakers, representing farming interests, has had its way on a number of controversial land-use policies.
Most susceptible to their lobbying, environmentalists say, is President Michel Temer, who spent much of the past year trading favors with lawmakers in a successful bid to convince Congress to spare him from standing trial on corruption charges.
“In practice, Temer has removed Brazil from the Paris agreement, just like President Trump did, with the difference that he doesn’t have the courage to assume that position publicly,” said Marina Silva, who was Brazil’s environment minister from 2003 to 2008. During that period, the country was celebrated abroad for its aggressive efforts to curb rampant Amazon deforestation.
President Michel Temer during a press event in Pantanal. Mr. Temer is unabashed about his support for the agriculture and cattle industries. CreditLalo de Almeida for The New York Times
“There’s a firm effort to dismantle the government apparatus created over the past decades to support policies that were consistent with the reduction of greenhouse gases,” Ms. Silva said.
Mr. Temer is unabashed about his support for the agriculture and cattle industries, calling them essential engines of economic growth.
“It is often said that I, or my government, protects farmers or cattle ranchers,” he said during a recent speech at an industry event. “It’s the contrary. It’s farmers and cattle ranchers who protect the national economy and that is the clear reality. We can’t be afraid to say that.”
Brazil’s 1988 Constitution, drafted as the country emerged from a period of military dictatorship, sought to establish a blueprint for the government to “defend and preserve the environment for present and future generations.” It labeled the country’s five main biomes, including the Pantanal, “part of the national patrimony” whose conservation would be ensured by future laws.
A law regulating the sustainable use of land in those areas, however, was passed for only one of the biomes, the Atlantic Forest. That meant that landowners in places like the Pantanal had few constraints when Brazil’s commodities boom at the turn of the century suddenly made their parcels highly profitable.
Ovens for the production of charcoal at a farm in Pantanal. CreditLalo de Almeida for The New York Times
Brazil’s agricultural and livestock production has soared over the past decade, yielding a harvest of some 238 million tons in the 2016-17 harvest, about double the crop in 2005-06, according to government estimates. During that same period, farmland increased by 26 percent.
The Temer government has characterized the surge in agricultural exports, mainly to China, as an important ingredient of the country’s slow recovery from a yearslong recession.
This export-led growth has generated tempting opportunities for landowners in Pantanal, a region whose swampy terrain and sweltering temperatures had previously made it unattractive for farming. That changed as new technology made it possible to turn wetlands into soybean fields.
Last year, there were 4.8 million acres of soy fields in Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, the two states that include the Pantanal — a 77 percent increase from a decade ago.
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“Thank God we have China buying our products,” said Roberto Folley Coelho, a farm owner who makes a living raising cattle, planting rice and soy, and hosting tourists.
Mr. Coelho scoffed at the notion that his soy crops could be causing environmental damage, arguing that imposing environmental regulations in the region would do more harm than good.
“I’m afraid that curtailing private initiative could lead to more poverty here,” he said.
The threat of rigid environmental regulations remains remote in Pantanal. In 2011, a law was introduced in Congress seeking to create a framework for sustainable development in the region, but the legislation has stalled.
“What we need is to strike a balance,” said Felipe Dias, the executive director of the SOS Pantanal Institute, which advocates wetlands conservation.
But farmers, he said, often don’t focus on the long-term damage caused by their crops, which erode the soil, polluting and diverting rivers. This alters the rhythms of the wet and dry seasons in the Pantanal, permanently flooding large areas. “They don’t think about tomorrow,” he said. “As long as they’re fine now, they don’t care about what happens next.”
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At the national level, a similar focus on short-term economic gains has made sustainable development an afterthought, environmentalists argue.
In July, Mr. Temer supported a bill that came to be known as the “land grabbers” law, creating a mechanism for people who had been occupying public land in the Amazon to acquire titles. Environmentalists fought the measure, fearing it would displace indigenous communities and enable deforestation.
The next month, the president issued an executive order paving the way for mining in a protected area of the Amazon. Following an outcry at home and abroad, as well as a court injunction, the government pulled the proposal.
Those initiatives came as Mr. Temer, a deeply unpopular leader, spent enormous political capital fending off the threat of trial on corruption and obstruction of justice charges by persuading lawmakers to block them.
“Lacking popular support, the Temer government sought the backing of groups with clout in Congress, among them the agricultural bloc,” said Carlos Rittl, the executive secretary of Climate Observatory, an environmental group. “Temer leaned on that support to shield himself from investigations and sold out the environmental agenda.”
Temer administration officials defended their record on the environment, arguing that criticism was overblown. Their main achievement this year was a 16 percent reduction in Amazon deforestation, following several years of steady rise.
“Deforestation was out of control,” Environment Minister Sarney Filho told reporters recently. “We’ve addressed the situation.”
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A tourist boat on a lagoon in Pantanal. CreditLalo de Almeida for The New York Times
Another initiative the Temer government cited as part of its commitment to the environment has been met with criticism.
In October, officials announced they would offer companies that have been fined for violating environmental regulations steep discounts to settle their debts. Proceeds, the government said, would go toward conservation projects. The ministry noted that only about 5 percent of environmental fines had been collected in recent years.
“The move is short on details and doesn’t get to the heart of the problem: lax enforcement,” said Christian Poirier, the program director at Amazon Watch. “This amounts to an amnesty that reinforces a climate of impunity in Brazil.”
Mr. Sarney defended the measure as pragmatic in light of the fact that big companies can refuse to pay fines by fighting them in court for years on end. The long-term solution, he said, is to find a way to compensate owners who preserve their lands.
“Forest protection services need to be paid for,” he said.
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A jaguar with a tracking collar in the Pantanal. CreditLalo de Almeida for The New York Times
Adauto Rodrigues Oliveira, a soy farmer in Miranda, agrees. Environmentalists, he said, show little regard for the livelihood of farmers.
“They don’t care, they just say you can’t plant here,” he said. “Environmentalists want to protect the land but they don’t want to pay indemnity.”
Asked about the long-term impact of his soy fields on the surrounding wildlife, he shrugged. People in the region are less poor than they were before agriculture in the area took off.
“Soy is a good business,” he said. “It’s been very good for Pantanal.”
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Taking On Dirty Old Men: How Young Brasilians Hope To Clean-Up Politics

Taking on the dirty old menHow young Brazilians hope to clean up politics

First, they must get elected, and the old guard make this hard
WITH his reversed baseball cap and facial fuzz, the style of 29-year-old Daniel José Oliveira (pictured) is hardly typical for a Brazilian politician. Nor is his background: he was one of 11 siblings brought up in a small town by a domestic servant and an office porter. After winning a scholarship to a Catholic school, he studied economics at a fine São Paulo campus. That led to a job at J.P. Morgan, a scholarship to study at Yale University and a job offer from another American investment firm.
But in 2015, with Brazil’s economy crashing and its politics mired in scandals, he instead came home. Inspired by En Marche!, the French liberal party which propelled Emmanuel Macron to the presidency, he hopes to be elected next October as a federal deputy for São Paulo state.

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Until recently, politics was a turn-off for his generation. The average age of lower-house deputies elected in 2014 was 50, 19 years above the national mean. Brazil’s old-timers are discredited: after more than three years of the Lava Jato (car wash) corruption probe, 40% of congressmen are under investigation. Politicians are unloved. Just one voter in 20 admires them; only 3% approve of President Michel Temer.
Confidence in congress has been sagging for ages. In 2010 Tiririca (Grumpy), a professional clown, was elected to Brazil’s lower house under the slogan “It can’t get any worse.” It did. On December 6th he told his congressional colleagues he would not seek re-election in 2018. “Only eight of the 513 actually show up here,” he moaned. “I am one of those eight and I am a clown.”
Young Brazilians are fed up. “Four years ago someone like me running for congress would have made no sense,” says Mr Oliveira. But renewing Brazil’s congress will not be easy. Independent candidates are banned and parties are unwelcoming to newcomers. In some states seats stay in the hands of well-known families.
Dislodging them may get harder. In 2015, after a series of scandals, Brazil’s supreme court outlawed corporate campaign contributions. In October congress created a “special campaign-finance fund” for next year’s election. But the fund, and airtime, will be allocated in proportion to parties’ current representation. That frustrates newcomers. “Congress is like a cancer,” says Mr Oliveira. “It’s not working in the best interests of the body and it’s defending itself to survive.”
People are trying to find a cure. Mr Oliveira has applied to RenovaBR, a programme to support young Brazilians who want to run for congress. Financed by entrepreneurs, it offers 150 “scholars” courses on Brazil’s institutions plus advice on campaigning and policy. It has thousands of bidders for a half-year programme starting in January. Scholars will get a monthly stipend of 12,000 reais ($3,645).
They will be selected by written tests and interviews. They can belong to any party, but cannot hold extremist views. In return the scholars vow to complete their mandate, justify their voting decisions to their constituents and avoid hiring family as staff members. Eduardo Mufarej, who started the project, hopes to see at least 45 scholars elected.
Other groups are working to make congress more representative. Bancada Ativista (Activist Group) is a left-leaning outfit, formed to fight São Paulo’s city-council election in 2016. Rather than creating a party, it chose eight candidates from two established ones. Only one was a heterosexual white male. “By definition, a black woman is more representative than a white graduate from Harvard,” says Caio Tendolini, a 33-year-old member of the group. It arranged “speed-dating” events for candidates to meet voters and offered social-media training and public-policy contacts. It started working: the candidates drew a total of 75,000 votes and one got in. It will scale up its operation next October.
Agora! (Now!) was founded in 2016 to coax into politics young Brazilians who had shown leadership skills in other fields. Until now it has largely focused on developing policy ideas. “Politicians here think about getting elected first and then worry about their should be the other way around,” says Marco Aurélio Marrafon, one of the group’s 150 members. Agora! has working groups on everything from health to homicide. It initially had no plans to run for congress, but “things are getting out of control”, says Ilona Szabó, a co-founder. Next year it plans to field 30 candidates for congress by persuading two parties, Partido Popular Socialista and Rede, to be vehicles. “We want to be a new political force,” says Ms Szabó.
October’s elections are perhaps the most important since democracy was restored in 1985 after 20 years of dictatorship. They are also unpredictable. Fewer Brazilians than ever identify with the old left-right model. Most want to try something new. That can favour extremists: Jair Bolsonaro, a congressman who says harsh things about gays and women, is second in the polls for the presidency. But it could also help moderate newcomers. Four out of five Brazilians say they want “ordinary citizens” to run for congress next year.
Their efforts may fail. New candidates fret about finances and some are already running low. Mr Oliveira used to help his parents out with the bills. Since deciding to run for office he has had to stop. With corporate donations banned, the candidates must rely on individual contributions, and no one knows how generous Brazilians will be. Lack of broadcast time will hurt.
“Next year might not be the tipping point,” warns Mr Oliveira. “But we have to open a trail. If not, there will be no hope of renewal in 2022.” Political renewal may not happen overnight. But Brazil’s Young Turks are making a start.
This article appeared in the The Americas section of the print edition under the headline "Taking on