This piece was written with Catarina Freitas, a Brazilian legal intern with WRI's Institutions and Governance Program.
On September 20, eight governments will gather in New York to launch the Open Government Partnership (OGP), a new multilateral initiative to strengthen transparency, citizen participation, accountability, and share new technologies and innovation. The Brazilian and U.S. governments are leading the initiative, which also involves the governments of Indonesia, Mexico, Norway, the Philippines, South Africa, and the United Kingdom as founding members. To join this club, governments must commit to fiscal transparency through timely publication of budget documents and an open budget system, a law on access to information, rules for public disclosure of income and assets of elected and senior officials, and citizen participation and engagement in policymaking and protection of civil liberties. Another 22 countries have already joined the partnership, bringing the total participating countries to 36.
As co-chair, Brazil is expected to make strong commitments to strengthen transparency and civil society participation. At the July 12 OGP meeting, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Brazil’s leadership in the initiative, and noted that Brazil “has long been a leader in creating innovative methods to make the work of its government more open and accessible to its people.” Yet Brazil has not yet been successful in passing an access to information law and the country has much to do in order to ensure greater transparency (see Box). In a country where sustainable economic growth depends on careful protection of the environment, can these commitments help improve Brazil’s environmental performance?
Brazil: Sustainability and Transparency
Rapid economic growth in Brazil has brought numerous sustainability challenges, and local civil society organizations have criticized the government for its pursuit of large-scale infrastructure projects in the Amazon. High profile projects, such as the Belo Monte Dam, lack transparency in the environmental licensing process, specifically with regard to information on how impacts were assessed and on the mitigating measures being implemented. Additionally, the new Forest Code, under discussion in Congress, may weaken protections against deforestation if consultation with civil society and biologists does not take place in the process of amending the Code.
Good governance is crucial to environmental protection. When people have access to information about the environment (and about changes to the environment), they can make better decisions about how to stay healthy, where to find food and water, and how to earn a living. Furthermore, engagement with civil society during the decision-making process improves environmental protection, allowing governments to make better decisions about how to use natural resources and mitigate the harmful impacts.
The World Resources Institute’s Access Initiative, a network of civil society organizations working on environmental democracy, organized the Three Demands campaign, in which countries make demands of their respective governments for commitments at the Rio 2012 Earth Summit. Based on the Brazilian Civil Society Coalition demands, here are some steps for Brazil to improve its environmental performance through good governance. Some of these actions have already begun under the OGP:
1. Encourage civil society participation in decision-making processes that may impact the environment.
The OGP initiative is an opportunity to provide Brazilian civil society organizations with access to information from the government on a variety of high profile topics: environmentally sensitive areas, environmental and social impacts for proposed development projects, investments by public financial institutions, fiscal and revenue transparency, transparency and accountability within the Judiciary, and so on. The OGP requires governments to have an Access to Information Law as one condition for engaging in this initiative. This law will provide the public with access to records on every government institution, including ministries and public financial institutions. With access to such information, civil society will be able to better engage in decision-making.
2. Address concerns over the Brazilian Development Bank’s Investments.
The Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES) is a major actor in Brazil’s rapid economic growth and expansion plans, responsible for financing 60% of all the infrastructure projects in Brazil and providing financial support for market expansion and outward foreign direct investments. All of Brazil’s Multi-Year Plans and development policies include a role for BNDES, and the Bank’s investments finance many infrastructure projects across South America. As a driver of Brazil’s economy, many BNDES- financed projects have significant environmental and social impacts. BNDES is purportedly strengthening its environmental and social policies, but the Bank’s lack of transparency and openness to stakeholders are barriers to greater accountability. It is important that the Bank provides information about each project under consideration, the safeguards to be used, and how the projects will be implemented, so that stakeholders can have a greater voice in the decisions that affect them. The OGP presents a starting point, by requiring the passing and implementation of the Access to Information (ATI) Law, which includes public financial institutions, such as the BNDES, among the government bodies that will need to disclose their records. Once an ATI law is passed, society can monitor BNDES’ performance in promoting sustainable development.
3. Make Access to Information Law and environmental information available online.
Brazil’s Access to Information Bill is still being debated in the Senate. The OGP, therefore, serves as an opportunity for the public to provide more input into the debate and to further study international best practices with respect to access to information, accountability and transparency. Brazil enacted an Access to Environmental Information Law in 2003 (Law n. 10,650/2003), but this law only applies to the environmental institutions and not to the broader range of government institutions and companies involved in development activities. Furthermore, both laws will need to be fully implemented in order to give broad and unlimited access, through the internet, to information, especially from environmental agencies and the judiciary, when making decisions that impact the environment.
We expect Brazil’s commitments to the OGP to be ambitious, meaningful, and measurable. Brazil is hosting the 2012 Earth Summit (Rio+20) next June, which indicates that the country is willing to commit to sustainable development and green economy in an open debate with civil society. This can only be achieved with an accessible and open government; the Open Government Partnership provides the basic tools for civil society organizations to participate in government decisions and policy making. Now is the opportunity for the Brazilian Government to take a leading step towards sustainable development.
WRI initiatives working on environmental governance in Brazil
- The Access Initiative (TAI) produced recommendations for governments involved in the Open Government Partnership. Additionally, TAI partners in Brazil submitted Three Demands to the Brazilian Government for the Rio+20 Earth Summit on transparency and participation on environmental issues.
- The International Financial Flows and Environment project is mapping the environmental and social sustainability of BNDES.
- The Governance of Forests Initiative has developed a toolkit to assess good governance in the forest sector.
- The Electricity Governance Initiative has developed a toolkit to assess good governance in the electricity sector.