Monthly Archives: May 2012

Environmental campaigners outside the Palácio do Planalto, Brasília. Photo by Valter Campanato (Agência Brasil)

“What face are you going to turn up to Rio+20 with, Dilma?” – Environmental campaigners on Three Powers Square (Praça dos Três Poderes) outside the Palácio do Planalto, the government’s Lower House, in Brasília. Photo: Valter Campanato/Agência Brasil)

Last week Brazil’s President Rousseff part-vetoed the controversial Código Florestral (Forest Code) which is aimed at regulating the amount of land farmers in the Amazon region, in Brazil’s north, must keep as forest.

Dilma vetoed 12 articles and made 32 other modifications to the bill – most importantly rejecting the amnesty on illegal logging and blocking the section on allowing agriculture closer to riverbanks within forests.

The government were fairly realistic with their decision-making – and, as usual, tried to appease all sides, admitting that the sensitive Amazon region needed to be used for the good of the people, and that small-scale farmers needed to be supported and not squeezed out of business, but at the same time they had to show they were aware of environmentalists’ concerns, globally calls indeed, over the future of the Amazon.

These concerns have not been alleviated: the WWF, Avaaz, AmazonWatch and an array of other environmental organisations have continued to voice their concern over the plight of the Amazon – one of the areas in the world with the highest biodiversity.

They say the legislation fell well short even of their limited expectations – and actually reduces the rainforest’s protection in its new form.

Everything Dilma vetoed and amended must now go back to the Senate to be reviewed and re-voted on before they can become law, and a provisional law in now in place to plug the holes created by the president’s amendments.

The farmers, although not thrilled by the resultant bill, have said it was not as bad as expected, calling the changes “palatable”. But they stress that restrictions in the approved bill will stop the chance for them to use the land more productively, primarily for raising livestock and growing crops.

The environmental protesters camped outside the Palácio do Planalto – the seat of the government in Brasília – are unlikely to up sticks and leave after this decision. The fight just continues.

Some reports have suggested deforestation in the Amazon is slowing, but environment campaigners are not convinced and have not been appeased by the Forestry Code in its post-Dilma guise. They say the new legislation is worse for the rainforest.

The WWF in Brazil said that “Brazilians and the whole world have watched a country continuing to play with the future of its forests, and that the legislative was instead “designed to meet the needs of only the section of society that wants to increase the potential for deforestation and grant amnesties to those who deforest illegally”.

The high-profile campaign has enjoyed a lot of support from Brazilian celebrities, and social networks have been jammed with “Veto it, Dilma!” ads.

Many believe the President has taken a “safe option” – attempting to placate all sides, at least to some extent, and postponing the tough decision until a later date – and perhaps just in the nick of time, they might think.

Why? Because Rio+20, the UN’s biggest-ever conference on sustainable development, starts in a few weeks’ time – and the last thing the government wants is a load of protesters banging on about the rainforest while they discuss the environment.

They may be in for a shock.

You don’t have to look far in Curitiba to see the state symbol: the araucária – known locally as the Paraná pine. These umbrella-shaped trees are everywhere, and they bear a wintry treat – the pinhão.

Paraná pine, photo by Ben Tavener

“Paraná pine”, or Araucária, in Curitiba. Photo by Ben Tavener.

The trees hold coconut-sized, heavy seed pods called pinhas – which often break open in the 40-metre drop to the ground, to reveal its stash of seeds – the pinhões.

Although called a “pine” or a “pinheiro”, it’s not – it’s from the Araucariaceae order of the conifer family, (which confusingly does also include pines).

Anyway, with cooler times now upon us here in South Brazil, the winter fairs are just round the corner, which means people are tucking into these nut-like seeds.

When ready, they taste a bit like cassava – mandioca – once they’re softened by boiling them in salt. Then go down particularly well with another wintry treat – mulled wine, or quentão as it’s called here.

Some of the harvesting of the pinhões is done by the state’s small number of Native Americans.

But according to Wikipedia, the tree species is under considerable threat, partly due to extensive logging, but also because 3,400 tonnes of the seeds are harvested every year – reducing the trees’ capability to reproduce, and stemming a food sources for local wild animals.

Pinhões, photo by Ben Tavener

Boiled pinhões are a winter favourite down in South Brazil. Photo by Ben Tavener.

But that doesn’t seem to bother most locals, many of whom enjoy the most exciting way of preparing the seed, called a “sapecada de pinhões“.

Traditionally done outside, you turn a pile of the tree’s dry, spiky leaves into a bonfire over the top of a piles of the seeds. Here’s a cockle-warming video of the fun people have bonfire-ing pinhões.

Anyway, however you cook them, you can then delicately prise the fleshy seed from its casing, or unceremoniously bite on the end until it pops out.

Whatever floats your boat really…

No Ben Tavener blog post would be complete without some mention of birds – so here goes: Paraná’s state bird – the Azure jay, which still eludes me – is also the chief muncher, and therefore seed spreader, of the Paraná pine.

One things for sure, they’re really filling – and get a bit starchy once they go cold – so eat ’em while they’re hot!

It’s not exactly threatening to snow, but winter is definitely on its way down here in the Southern Hemisphere and the cooler, darker nights are drawing in.

Brrrrrazil: It only really gets cold, by European standards, in the south of Brazil – and ice and snow are still relative rarities there.

Here’s it’s called Austral winter – as opposed to the Northern Hemisphere’s Boreal winter.

Once Mother’s Day has gone by, the supermarkets in the south of Brazil start ringing in the cooler times – with pictures of hot chocolate and marshmallow and other wintry wonders, and you know it’s only a matter of time before the pinhões (pinenuts) and quentão (mulled wine) are wheeled out for the winter fair.

Winter in Brazil is a funny affair – as in vast parts of the country it doesn’t really change that much. In the north-east, it rains a bit more… that’s it.

Down in the south, like in Curitiba where I’m living at the moment, it gets noticeably colder – and the buildings are strangely in no way prepared for it. Single-glazed windows and gaps in the masonry made me think last year’s cold winter – and the nights can get down to 0°C and even minus temperatures further inland – was something special, but it’s not.

People just wrap up and wear socks in bed! Very strange, I thought… But, actually, even now in winter you can encounter high 20s Celsius, even the odd 30°C – and so in truth the houses here, as in the rest of Brazil, are built to be cool, which is a damned relief during the rest of the year.

The trade-off is that winters can really bite – so heaters and plenty of layers are needed down here!

And even further south – towards the border with Uruguay – you can find snow, for example, in the interior parts of Santa Catarina state.

But I’m off to the UK in a couple of weeks – to soak up some British sunshine(!) ahead of the Olympics – so I’ll be able to sleep without socks and that extra blanket for a while, fingers crossed.

This week Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff inaugurated the long-awaited Truth Commission – Comissão da Verdade – which has been set up to investigate the crimes – murders, forced exiles, torture and general human rights abuses – of the post-war period, starting 1946 and running through to 1988, including Brazil’s 1964-1985 military regime. 

Although Dilma says that it’s not “hate” for the past that’s driving her and the other four presidents since democracy was restored in Brazil in 1985, the fact that she was herself jailed and tortured during the Military Regime of 1964-1985 probably made it that more satisfying to give the new panel carte blanche to investigate the atrocities of the dark pages of Brazil’s recent history.

But whatever the commissioners find, there will probably be no trials, and certainly not over what happened during the bulk of military dictatorship, which started in 1964 after a coup d’état ousted then president João Goulart: this is due to a military time amnesty granted in 1979 and upheld in 2010.

And right from the outset, there seems to be a slight disagreement within the panel as to what the commission will be looking at: some want “all violations” to be investigated, while others only want crimes committed by those working for the state to be put under the spotlight.

The mud has already started to be flung over bias and agenda – two things members of the panel are forbidden to bring to the table.

Although only 500 were killed or went missing during the military regime’s time in power – and I say only as similar cruel dictatorships in fellow South American nations Argentina and Chile, for example, were much more deadly – in Brazil many more suffered at the hands of the regime, through violence and a lack of political freedom. This process is therefore extremely important for those people who never got what they see as true justice, mainly due to the 1979 amnesty that is unlikely ever to be revoked.

So what’s it for? Just a show? Or will it really bring satisfaction to those touched by these more sinister parts of the 20th century in Brazil? Hard to tell.

Given the amnesty, the satisfying(?) sight of ageing criminals in the dock, as in The Reader, sent down for the rest of their lives cannot happen, and I suspect it will instead simply reopen old wounds and bring a lot of painful emotions unnecessarily back to the surface…

Today, the words Feliz Dia das Mães – Happy Mother’s Day – are difficult to escape.

Unlike the UK, which celebrates on the fourth Sunday of Lent, Brazil gives thanks for its mums on the second Sunday of May, along with a lot of other countries around the world that choose this day over International Women’s Day on 8 March.

The mother holds a particularly powerful place in the family pecking order in Brazil and she is eulogised at every possible moment. Probably something to do with the significance of Mary in this Catholic nation’s psyche… Not sure, but nobody crosses mãe – mum – that’s for sure.

Anyway, yesterday’s grocery shopping to the local member of the Walmart family – Mercadorama – was made even more excruciating that it usually is. I don’t like shopping in a supermarket where there are normally two people serving hundreds of customers, but yesterday’s constant reminders of Mother’s Day and the need to buy lots of stuff for it were quite over-the-top.

Flowers, chocolates and stacks of other unimaginative Mother’s Day gifts were piled up in every conceivable place. And if this didn’t remind you, the onslaught of Tannoy announcements would have left you in very little doubt of your woeful approach to son-ly duties should you leave the place without tons of the stuff.

Glad to know it isn’t just this way in Britain…

France’s new socialist president-elect François Hollande and recently reinstalled Russian President Vladimir Putin have confirmed to Dilma Rousseff, the Brazilian president, that they will attend Rio+20, the UN’s upcoming summit on sustainable development – and fourth such big event since 1972, which was last held in Rio in 1992 – then dubbed Eco’92.


Hollande and Putin are heading to Rio+20 in June, but is Obama Barack coming? And what about the Chinese leadership?

Both will take time out of their hectic domestic schedules – despite Hollande being up to his elbows in re-Lefty-ing France – to many people’s joy and others’ utter terror, and Putin busy trying to ignore ongoing protests at home led by restive Russians unhappy at his returning to the presidency – probably now until 2024.

UPDATE: Putin has now said he’s not going to the G8 meeting (which was “upgraded” from G7 to G8 specifically to include Russia!), where it was widely thought he’d be making his “comeback” to the world stage. Bit of a slap in the face, I reckon, that instead he’s going to Mexico for the G20 and then straight on to Brazil for Rio+20. You decide…

EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy have also said they’re coming to Rio+20 – but I doubt an eyelid was batted at those announcements. Sorry…

More importantly, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will not be attending, and neither will British Prime Minister David Cameron – who’s sending Nick Clegg in his stead – despite the summit being moved so as not to coincide with the Queen’s 60th Jubilee.

But Brazil knows Cleggy – he was sent last year to reinvigorate UK-Brazil ties and double UK trade with the South American leader – and new 6th world economy (just don’t mention it was Brazil that pushed the UK down to #7).

No word yet on whether Barack Obama is coming, or anyone from China for that matter – both of which are of course crucial to any negotiation on global sustainable development and the “green and social economies” that the summit is aiming for the 100+ leaders to agree on, along with the eradicating poverty and protecting the environment.

Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs isn’t commenting as it’s apparently not their business, nor their responsibility, to know who will or won’t turn up for a UN summit – which makes sense, but they might want to be a bit more overt in their caring for the event as it is, of course, widely seen as a kind of “dummy run” for Rio, to see if the city can cope with the influx of guests it will see for this event – and then even more so for the World Cup (2014) and the Olympics (2016).

Brazil is getting a taste for being in the spotlight – and the government is surely going to make the most of having scores of high-profile world leaders at its finger tips for a few days. I wonder how many deals will be hammered out during the conference – I mean business deals on the sidelines, of course. Cynical of me, of course – but there you go.

Whether you think these UN summits actually do anything positive for poverty-stricken countries, the environment, the seas and oceans, or sustainable development – the big buzz words for these conferences – and actually make countries like the US and China change the way they roll – well, that’s another matter entirely.

Anyway – lots more on Rio+20 to come, fear not!

Brazil has everything a tourist could possibly want. History, culture, outstanding nature, thousands of wonderful beaches and islands, fantastic food, a welcoming attitude, and that feeling of exoticism and adventure – coupled with “easy access tourism” – that is surely practically unrivalled in the world.

I was first a tourist in Brazil in 2011 when I visited Rio, Curitiba and the Iguaçu Falls.

However, recent figures released by the country’s Ministry of Tourism show that, although 2011 had record figures – 5.4 million foreign tourists a year – a big proportion of these are simple visits from Argentina and neighbouring countries, rather than visitors from the US or Europe, of which there were relatively few.

Mexico had 22.4 million tourists last year – and, yes, inevitably many of those will have been from the US, it’s still a staggering figure – which makes Mexico tenth best globally for tourism.

Brazil really does have a lot to offer – and it’s pretty bewildering that it isn’t doing better, despite occasionally spikes in the figures, like for Carnaval in February.

But even though the Brazilian real (R$) is currently sliding against the dollar and the pound and you’re getting a lot of bang to your buck, perhaps one reason is that it is difficult to do Brazil on a shoestring. Other places in South America – Argentina included – are relatively cheap to visit and travel around once you’ve made it to the country.

In Brazil, this is not the case. Accommodation is often pricey; local and inter-city transport – be it by bus or plane (notice no train option available) is expensive – particularly if you’re used to the prices in Ecuador or Peru, for example; and going out is definitely going to put a dent in your wallet.

Places in Brazil are simply a long way apart – and you have to do some domestic travelling if you want to see more than just Rio. Even from Rio to São Paulo you’re going to need a six-hour bus ride, let alone if you want to visit Salvador, Foz do Iguaçu, the Pantanal or the Amazon – where plane is the only viable option.

The Iguaçu Falls, in Brazil’s southern state of Paraná, attract hundreds of thousands of tourists a year. Photo by Ben Tavener.

Many people visit South America thinking – okay, the flight’s expensive, but the rest will be cheap. Brazil doesn’t offer that, really – and this is perhaps why, particularly when talking to backpackers in Ecuador, they said that Brazil would have to wait – and that this time it would be Bolivia and Peru, perhaps Chile… maybe Argentina if it’s a big trip, and then back home.

Although there are huge distances involved, you’re getting another country – another experience – to tick off the list, and often it’s cheap that crossing Brazil on a domestic flight.

One problem often citing is a bit misleading – and I don’t think the fact that Brazil’s airport infrastructure is pretty much unprepared for mass tourism has really made a big difference, despite FIFA’s accusations and concerns over Brazil’s hosting of the World Cup in 2014. I’m not sure people really think about that when they’re planning a trip here. Airports are an inevitable evil wherever you travel.

This year’s Rio+20 conference will be a good “dummy run” to test to see if Rio’s airports and other infrastructure can cope, before the onslaught of tourists in 2014 for the World Cup and two years later for the Olympics.

Perhaps these two major sporting events are what’s needed to get Brazil’s tourism to the level it should really be at. Although there is the risk that, if Brazil blows it, it could knock it back further. Fingers crossed that doesn’t happen.