The Complexities of Environmental Governance in the Brazilian Amazon

di Enrico Fedi - 15 Luglio 2020

from London, United Kingdom

   DOI: 10.48256/TDM2012_00118

The spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Brazil has shifted the attention’s spotlight to the health and economic crisis. This has led to a lower level of attention towards deforestation issues in the Brazilian Amazon Forest. Not surprisingly, the deforestation rate on April 30th 2020 was 40% higher than where it stood last year and illegal extraction activities have expanded (INPE, Figure 1).  The chaos created by the pandemic has exacerbated the previous country’s inadequacies and difficulties. The country has fallen into a political and social crisis. Moreover, Brazilian Environmental Minister Ricardo Salles has called on the federal government to push onto the deregulation of environmental policy (Reuters, 2020). In the meantime, indigenous communities have proven again to be key actors in forest management, in a time in which governmental action could not reach out to them.

Figure 1

These events increasingly triggered the questioning of the deforestation policies in the Brazilian Amazon and the dynamics behind environmental governance. This article aims to highlight the complexities of governing the biggest biodiversity reservoir in the world, in a time of climate and health crisis. To show that, this article will highlight the three different layers of governance (Federal, National and Municipal) and their shortcomings. Then, it will analyse indigenous management systems and environmental NGOs action in deforestation reduction policy. Lastly, it will underline the importance of the collaboration of different forms of knowledge to enhance environmental governance.

Institutional capacity 

Brazil is a Federal country, structured in 26 states and thousands of municipalities. Environmental policies are the outcome of the interrelation of actors from different layers. Therefore, coordination and clarity are key. Nevertheless, given the high level of informal economy in Brazil and the difficulties in information disclosure, coordination and adequate management are not guaranteed. As a consequence, environmental governance is threatened as well.

Federal level

As former-president Rousseff has argued during the Brazil Forum UK 2020, the main problem of the central government is the lack of leadership and connection with Brazilian citizens’ instances. Regarding environmental policies and forest conservation, Veronika Miranda Chase (2019) has highlighted a gap between rhetoric and practice in Amazon conservation. In fact, despite Brazil being a signatory of several environmental agreements, it lacks adequate implementation instruments and, most of all, commitment. The ILO Convention No 169 can be taken as an example of inaction despite its federal ratification. Also, recent dynamics such as the Environmental Ministry’s intention of pushing towards an environmental deregulation, and the warnings of foreign investors on the ‘dismantling’ of environmental policies (The Guardian, 2020) highlight a lack of attention towards deforestation issues. Furthermore, the federal government legally allows indigenous representatives in the environmental discussion. Nevertheless, their instances are not considered, as COIAB coordinator affirms.

Estados and municipalities

According to Brazilian law, states and municipalities are prominent actors in forest governance and environmental policies. These entities are responsible for the development of local projects and provide a legal framework for environmental protection. However, agencies face challenges in implementing policies that result in the paralysation of several processes (Istituto Ambiental, 2020). As a general rule, to enforce efficient environmental policies, information disclosure is fundamental. Nevertheless, the main difficulty for municipalities entails transparency and accountability (Bizzo and Gregory, 2017). In fact, despite the presence of legal instruments to collect information, local governments are not disclosing and are not transparent because their performance on forest governance is well below the adequate level.

Therefore, to avoid any form of blaming, states put in place resistance practices to information disclosure (Hood, 2010). As a consequence, it is difficult to address environmental governance in the Brazilian Amazon and tackle deforestation. For instance, the article mentions the Freedom of Information (FOI) law, which is a tool that helps to make adequate decisions on deforestation front-line actors through the collection of data. Potentially, it is a useful tool, but it is not efficiently implemented. Also, Malhado et al. (2017) argue that municipalities face difficulties in policy implementation because of financial restrictiveness, scarce human resource capacity and familiar links with illegal actors.

Indigenous governance

Given the shortcomings of national policies and the strong commitment of indigenous communities, social movements have grown in scope and scale in the Brazilian Amazon States (Gomes et al., 2018). Communities are fundamental in forest management. They opt for a development strategy that strives to secure smallholders dependent on forest resources and increase social justice (Medina, 2012). Through a comparative study led by Nolte et al. (2013), indigenous areas are more effective in conservation than restricted areas. This is evident particularly in locations where deforestation pressures are high. Extractive Reserves managed by indigenous have become a key tool in Amazonian environmental policies and are receiving the attention of both national and international actors (Gomes et al, 2018).

Additionally, indigenous communities have been capable of guaranteeing the respect of environmental international conventions by the federal government (Veronika Miranda Chase, 2019). As an example, the ILO convention no 169 on prior consultation for affected communities, which was adopted by Brazil, was not respected in practice. Anyway, indigenous communities have organized themselves and have contributed to the diffusion of ILO convention in policy-making processes.

Environmental NGOs (ENGOs)

Indigenous communities have become a key tool in ensuring the development and the protection of both local people and the forest. They also efficiently counterbalance the action of external actors (Medina, 2012). To do so, grassroots and social movements are often supported by ENGOs. These actors are fundamental in allowing the growth of indigenous communities as they provide funds and communicate local instances in the international arena. Therefore, environmental governance does not necessarily pass through governmental channels in Brazil. Hence, a complex network of private actors influences and shapes forest policies. In other words, ENGOs act as mediators. Nevertheless, Chernela ( 2005) warns about their role and potential risks. Because ENGOs frame and problematize issues, from mediators they could become dominators, altering the perception of “local”.

Combining knowledges

The role and the efficacy of indigenous communities in forest management are recognized by many. A common aspect of local communities is the different cosmology and system of knowledge. Authors such as Barrows et al., (2006) have shown the efficacy of local knowledge in environmental governance in the Brazilian Amazon. This allows to reconsider and challenge the production of universal -western- knowledge, which often leads to inadequacies and inequalities. In this regard, scholars have underlined the relativity of knowledge and recognize the relevance of local cosmologies in addressing local environmental issues (Mato, 2011). Alongside the commitment of academics to challenge the hegemonic worldview, indigenous communities have also organized themselves and founded research centres based on local expertise. These institutions are identified as intercultural. To give evidence, the article mentions the Amazonic Center of Indigenous Education created by the Coordinating Body of the Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB).

However, different kind of worldviews, are not mutually exclusive but can complement each other. Mato (2011) argues that collaboration is key in any form of policies. Hence, the concept applies to environmental governance as well. Regarding collaboration, Medina (2012) highlights the importance of indigenous expertise in tackling deforestation reduction policies. At the same time, it is argued that local knowledge should be coupled with official recognition to efficiently address environmental governance. Regarding the importance of collaboration, it is relevant to mention the Brazil Forum UK 2020 on Environmental Governance, which is consistent with what mentioned beforehand. Panellists were coming from different domains to open a discussion on environmental governance: the governor of Pará, the coordinator of COIAB and scientist Carlos Nobre. This event witnessed the recognition of the importance of collaboration to ensure environmental governance. 

The role of science

With regards to different forms of knowledge, scientist Carlos Nobre (Brazil Forum UK 2020)  has mentioned the prospects for a new configuration of science in the post-pandemic scenario. Nobre argues that science is often in conflict with federal choices about the Brazilian Amazon. This is because science risks to jeopardize economic interests and many politicians are supported by enormous agribusinesses companies. But with the pandemic, science has certainly gained authority among the politicians and can guide future choices. Biodiversity is the biggest richness of the Amazon, and it could become its most important economic asset. Moreover, making biodiversity the most important value could also help to improve the significance of indigenous voices, because of their ancestral expertise. Science could, therefore, be a turning point for forestry conservation and could also enhance democracy and participation in environmental governance.


To conclude, the article has analysed the current scenario behind environmental governance in the Brazilian Amazon. The discrepancies of governmental action, as well as the dichotomy of hegemonic and local knowledge, have been mentioned. Through the analysis, it emerges that an approach based on collaboration and transparency is needed, as well as a reconsideration of what is valued and how it is valued. Given the challenges and the urgency behind forestry conservation and management, it is necessary to open a fruitful dialogue between indigenous communities, governmental institutions and international actors. Fortunately, the world is aware of the situation. Now it is time to act and bridge the gap between rhetoric and practice.


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Autore dell’articolo: Enrico Fedi. Studente di Master in Environment and Development presso London School of Economics and Political Science e Dottore in Scienze Internazionali e Diplomatiche presso l’ Università degli studi di Trieste. Come sempre pubblichiamo i nostri lavori per stimolare altre riflessioni, che possano portare ad integrazioni e approfondimenti.


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