In Brazil, when someone thinks of Norway the first thing that comes to mind is the famous bacalhau (codfish), the main Thanksgiving dinner specialty in Brazilian homes. There is even a popular saying when one refers to something extremely rare: rare as 'codfish head', because of the Norwegian cod that arrives salted and headless in those wood boxes to the Brazilian ports. Bizarrre as it is, no Brazilian has ever seen a codfish head in his/her entire life, and that legend still lives strong.
Having a background on advocacy for indigenous peoples' and environmental rights in a Brazilian NGO (Instituto Socioambiental - ISA) my perceptions on Norway have evolved somewhat beyond the 'bacalhau legacy'. Since 1980's Norway has long been seen under a positive light by those who work in civil society advocacy in Brazil in the fields of environmental and indigenous peoples' rights. The Norwegian government has contributed for the strenghtning of indigenous peoples' rights in Brazil for the past 27 years through Norad's Program for Indigenous Peoples, which has promoted the visibility of indigenous peoples' claims to rights and the consolidation of these rights from the Federal Constitution until today. Norwegian NGOs such as Regnskogfondet have worked for the establishment of the Alternative Cooperation Network in Brazil, a network of indigenous and non-indigenous organizations founded in 1997 that has become an important space for the exchange of experiences, problems and political strategies of indigenous peoples and allies in fields such as territorial management, health and education. Without the efforts from Norwegian government and NGOs there would certainly have been more difficult to attain the actual level of recognition of indigenous rights in Brazil.
In the environmental policy field Norway's role has been also increasingly important in the struggle to detain deforestation in the Amazon. Norway and Brazil were key players in the development of the REDD1 concept and the implementation of pioneering mechanisms of support such as the Amazon Fund (with a contribution of US$ 1 billion up to 2013 depending on results). Norwegian cooperation support to Brazilian civil society has played a relevant role to resist political pressures against forest protection legislation and to implement local scale solutions in Amazonian river basins through networking2 with stakeholders. Even though many questions and dillemmas still persist about the way REDD policies should be, the Nordic country has been far more active than its european neighbours as far as climate and forest policies are concerned. In the multilateral arena Norway has also been playing a vital role of bridging diverting interests between the so-called developed and developing countries, not only in the climate change negotiations but also on other less hyped fora such as the negotiations around access to genetic resources and intellectual property policies.
After living in Norway for one year, my perspective on the country has changed, some perceptions were confirmed, others crashed - such as to witness a live codfish with a head swimming in the Bergen's Aquarium. Something new for me was also the fact that Norway was not a rich country until the 1970's, when oil reserves were discovered in the North Sea. But contrary to most of the countries which experienced such circumstances - a sudden access to economic wealth - income inequalities and disparities in social classes were not experienced in Norway. The parlament and society were mature enough to create national reserves from the oil income for future generations, while maintaining strong State participation over oil, gas, mining, and energy industries, and keeping strong social policies. Norway has been trying to 'export' this policy know-how through the so-called 'Oil for Development' initiative3, even though Brazil is not one of its members.
Gradually other perceptions began to play with my image of Norway as the fair and just country which cares for the social welfare of peoples. Such as for example the fact that Norwegian politics are actually much more conservative than I though. I was surprised to read about the 'blue wave' of conservatism and the rise of extreme-right wing parties in the parlament. Last year's election debates were constantly dealing with questions such as the exhaustion of the welfare State model in place and the need to embrace a more capitalistic-oriented policy with more room to private capital and less State intervention. The two most right-winged parties have tipped the balance against the red-green socialist coalition, disputing tight every seat in the parlament.
The perceptions on the Sami indigenous people - as well as immigrants and foreigners - were also quite dissonant from the principles of multiculturalism and democracy that I believed were common sense around here. Prejudice and intolerance were also quite often, judging from heavily biased newspapers to everyday small episodes of veiled hate against Somalis or Muslims citizens in the streets of Oslo. Even though Norway was the first country to ratify the ILO4 Convention 169 on Indigenous Peoples Rights back in 1989, it is not rare to hear sharp critics against the 'excess of rights' held by the Sami people in the Finnmark county, and the need to eliminate these rights for the sake of democracy and equal rights. Fremskrittspartiet, the most right-winged party in parlament, claims at Norway should formally withdraw from the ILO 169 Convention.
Among all, corporation interests linked to oil and mining industry are perhaps the most important link between the two countries today. Norway has an aggressive oil industry with high technology that competes in different countries. In Brazil, the interests are linked to the exploitation of offshore oil fields and transfer (meaning sale) of technology to deepwater drilling. At the same time, oil cities that concentrate such activities, such as Macaé (RJ), are way far from Stavanger: poverty and drug wars are still the mainstream among the majority. Never have so many Norwegian companies established offices in Brazil, and never have Norwegian capital acquisitions been so large.
NorskHydro, a partially State-owned mining industry, recently bought aluminum operations from mining-giant Vale in Brazil for US$ 5.3 billion (five times the Amazon Fund until 2013 if everything goes well). The NorskHydro/Vale deal was highlighted as a historic and strategic move from the Norwegian industry, as it would allow the country to reach self-sustainable levels of primary commodities for the Norwegian aluminum industry, without having to compete with the hungry Chinese market. From the perspective of Vale, the Brazilian side of the deal, it was a good opportunity to get rid of the high energy costs (economic, social and environmental) associated with the aluminum chain, while keeping a foot inside NorskHydro's board of directors. From the perspective of many other Brazilians, like myself, the NorskHydro/Vale deal shows Brazil as the country who repeats its colonial fate of exporter of raw material to industrial countries, sending away resources (many times importing them back once manufactured), bearing the well known social and environmental costs of the exploitation, and with no added value at the local or regional level. Pará state in Brazil, where the aluminum hub is located, is the example of concentration of wealth and social exclusion generated by these greenfield projects: US$ 7.2 billion trade balance in 2007, while holding the third worst position among states in the GNP5 per capita.
By the way, NorskHydro bought itself into the highly problematic energy policy in Brazil, aimed at the exploitation of hydroelectric potential in Amazonian rivers through large-scale dams, with huge socioenvironmental impacts (and not necessarily high efficiency). For example, the dispute over the Belo Monte dam in the Xingu river, with over 20 years of social resistance, will certainly affect the new Norwegian owners, who will need a lot of energy in Brazil to keep their plants going and sustain the 5th place in the ranking of alumina producers in the world. Twenty to forty thousand people will be extruded from their lands because of the Belo Monte dam, and 500,000 people are expected to migrate to the region in search of a job. The government itself recognizes that it does not have the complete dimensions of the impacts of such enterprise.
At this point it is fair to ask: is it likely that the impacts of Belo Monte and other enterprises associated to the aluminum expansion fever can be greater than the efforts deployed to avoid deforestation through the Amazon Fund and REDD policies?
Both governments in Norway and Brazil should be concerned about this and work to bridge this contradiction gap so as to avoid losing genuine efforts or being accused of greenwashing.
Today (21/06/10) the Norwegian government gave another step towards deepening relations with Brazil: the launching of the 'Strategy Brazil'1. The initiative is coordinated by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Industry and Commerce, with participation of the Ministries of Environment and Oil&Gas. The strategy will focus on four areas: industry (focus on oil&gas and mining), environment (climate&forest policy), research and education. The contradictions that may arise from the combination of heavy-impact industries with social and environmental concerns were acknowledged by the authorities and seen as something natural to the process. But just acknowledge that seems too little.
At a time when Norwegian business interests in Brazil is about to reach another dimension, it is important to improve standards of corporate socioenvironmental responsibility along all the production chain, from local production/extraction to export and final consumption in Norway. They should also aim at active policies to give transparency to corporate decision-making that may affect the population, generate (and redistribute) value and genuinely improve livelihoods at the local level, even if it represents higher taxes.
1Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation
2 such as the Y'Ikatu Xingu Campaign (http://www.yikatuxingu.org.br/)
4International Labour Organization
5Gross National Product