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Protecting Nature in Federal Systems: States, Private Interests, and Conservation Units in Brazil


This research addresses the decentralization of policy making. Much of the literature argues that decentralization is more efficient because local policy makers are more responsive to local demands than are national policy makers. However, I find that centralization often provides greater environmental policy effectiveness. While both national and subnational tiers of government must weigh economic growth against environmental goals, the balance of these conflicting goals is different for subnational than for national governments. Through an empirical analysis of the location, type, and degree of implementation of federal and state conservation units (unidades de conser¬vação, or UC) in Brazil, I argue that political incentives to establish more or less strict types of conservation units differ across levels of government due to the character and political influence of local economic interests. Two key variables explain variation in conservation unit types: the tier of government – national or subnational – enacting a conservation unit, and the type of industry present where a conservation unit is proposed, as well as the importance of that industry in the eco¬nomy of the state. National governments have a geographically broader mandate, and so are less vulnerable to capture by local economic interests that oppose environmental policy than are subnational governments. Further, subnational governments are more dependent on local eco¬nomic interests for revenue and income generation. As a result, subnational environmental protec¬tion is often weaker than national environmental protection, because subnational govern¬ments ac¬com¬modate the interests of powerful local economic actors. Nevertheless, the strin¬gency of en¬viron¬mental policy and outcomes vary across subnational jurisdictions, depending on the type of in¬dustry present in an area and the industry’s importance in the jurisdiction. Areas characterized by industries that require complete land conversion in order to produce – including urban develop-ment, ranching, and modern agriculture – pose considerable challenges to conser¬vation efforts. In contrast, areas characterized by industries that do not require complete land conversion – including timber and mining firms, as well as small-scale “traditional” extract¬ivism (e.g. rubber tapping, fruit gathering), are more amenable to compromises between environ¬ment and development.

I make this argument first on the basis of an analysis of federal and state UC creation and imple¬mentation across all of Brazil’s 26 states and Federal District of Brasília (Chapter 2). I then analyze in depth three Brazilian states located in two regions of the country: Pará (Chapter 3) and Ama¬zonas (Chapter 4), in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil’s north; and Minas Gerais (Chapter 5), which straddles the arid Cerrado savannah and the Atlantic forest, in Brazil’s southeast. Brazil is a par¬ti¬c¬ularly good country in which to compare national and subnational environmental policy because the federal and state tiers of government in the country have common authority to establish and manage UCs, and operate under the same federal law. I chose these three states to maximize varia¬tion in region, state-federal relation¬ships, and strength of industries that require complete land con¬¬ver¬sion.

My findings are based on 15 months of field research in Brazil, and build on data from over 90 interviews with key informants, large-N datasets of UC creation and management, and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) spatial data to analyze UC proximity to or overlap with population centers and different types of economic activities. GIS and large-N data sets facilitate broad com¬parisons across Brazil’s 312 federal and 600 state UCs, while key informant interviews provide historical background on national and state politics, as well as individual UCs. The con¬clusions drawn hold implications for debates about the advantages and disadvantages of decentral¬ization for environmental policy effectiveness, as well as the challenges that federal democracies face in defining and implementing environmental policy goals across multiple tiers of government.

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