Sunday, November 11, 2007



The lead story in today's São Paulo newspaper states, "Brazil will face another 4 years of shortage of gas." The recent discoveries of huge new oil and gas deposits off the coast of southern Brasil will take years to come on-line.

As Brazil's economy takes off and more and more people are lifted out of poverty the demand for more electric energy (especially in the industrial South) is also soaring. Demand is increasing faster than supply. New electrical energy depends on hydro-electric projects or gas-fired power plants. Natural gas comes primarily from Bolivia which nationalized the holdings of Brazil's Petrobras and has been bargaining for higher prices. So there's talk of more gas prospecting in the Brazilian Amazon and more pipelines, including the possibility of one stretching all the way from Venezuela to Argentina. Additionally several huge new hydro projects have been moving toward a fast track. Thus, electrical energy and natural gas are added to soybeans, biofuels, logging and ranching as pressures on Amazõnia.

Last June, Larry Rohter, writing in the International Herald Tribune saw it this way:

PORTO VELHO, Brazil: The eternal tension between Brazil's need for economic growth and the damage that can cause to the environment are nowhere more visible than here in this corner of the western Amazon.

More than one-quarter of this rugged frontier state, Rondônia, has been deforested, the highest rate in the Amazon. Over the years, ranchers, miners and loggers have routinely invaded nature reserves and Indian reservations.

Now a proposal to build an $11 billion hydroelectric project here on the Madeira River, which may have the world's most diverse fish stocks, has set off a new controversy.

How that dispute is resolved, advocates on both sides say, could determine nothing less than Brazil's vision of its future at a moment when it is simultaneously facing energy and environmental pressures and casting envious glances at faster-growing developing countries like India and China.


The energy generated by the dams is to be transported south more than 1,500 kilometers to Brazil's industrial heartland, with little or no immediate benefit for this state of 1.5 million people, whose own growing demand for energy is supposed to be met by a new gas pipeline to the north.

But it's not just Brazil casting envious glances at the economic growth of China and India. Many investors from the richer parts of the world are casting envious glances at Amazônia and places like Porto Velho, Rondonia. Sean Silcoff, reporting for Canada's Financial Post offered a view from the north entitled, "Bringing Malls To The Amazon: Caisse steps off the beaten path to walk on the frontier of pension fund investment":

Far down one of the main tributaries of the Amazon River lies the city of Porto Velho, population 400,000. It is a place that rates little notice from tourists, and little wonder: The city has been witness to much ugliness. It was the last stop on the notorious Madeira-Mamore "railway of death" that claimed the lives of tens of thousands of workers as it was carved through the jungle to serve the rubber trade -- just before prices collapsed 100 years ago. A gold rush turned bust. In the 1970s and 1980s, the jungle around Porto Velho was deforestated for crops. More recently, this frontier town has served as a conduit for Bolivian cocaine traffickers.

In short, it is one of the last places on Earth you would expect to run into a conservative foreign investor, particularly one that manages Canadian pension fund assets.

But plans are taking shape to radically overhaul the commercial heart of Porto Velho with the construction of its first shopping mall on a 22-acre downtown plot. Canada's largest institutional investor, the Caisse de depot et placement du Quebec, is the main financial backer of the 60-million reais ($34-million) project.


Like Brazil, Porto Velho's dodgy past sits at odds with the vast potential. If the economy continues to improve, tens of millions of Brazilians will be lifted out of poverty and join the middle class, bringing with them enormous new spending power. That will bring new-found prosperity everywhere, including a mid-sized centre like Porto Velho. But the city has two other bright spots. It is a major river port, serving nearby soybean and sugar cane farms -- which stand to play a larger role if demand for biofuels continues to rise. In addition, there is a proposal to dam the river, for a major hydroelectric plant nearby. The US$11-billion project is controversial -- the river is home to the world's most diverse fish stocks --but seen as a vital tool to bring economic prosperity to a country hungry for more. Things are looking up for Porto Velho, and Brazil. For a relatively small risk, the Caisse could make a nice return -- and a huge difference.

While it is clear that change is arriving very quickly, the future of Amazônia is not a done deal. Development will surely happen, lots of it. But we are becoming aware -- dramatically aware -- that it is an illusion to think of humans and nature as separate or that we can serve the needs of one without considering the other. The question before us is: will our development -- material, social, ecological and spiritual -- lead us toward a more harmonious relationship of humans and nature, toward an expanded and more evolved human nature? Or, will it be business as usual? Perhaps our present quest begins by asking the question, "How much is enough?"

Much is at stake, including our own survival.

No comments: