Vicious Circle of Poverty in Brazil


The prevalence of poverty in many areas of the developing world has transformed little in the past years. About 70 percent of the rural populations of Asia, Africa, and Latin America live in poverty (Dunand, 1992). According to Katel, Kregel, and Reinert (2009, p. 102), the vicious circle of poverty is “a circular constellation of forces that tend to act and react on each other in such a way that the country in poverty maintains its poor state”. This definition comes from the knowledge that poverty is persistent.

The persistence of poverty, regardless of the many shocks that every state receives in the normal course of its survival, raises the feeling that underdevelopment is a condition of equilibrium and that there are pressures at work that tend to reinstate the equilibrium whenever there is a small uproar. In other words, underdeveloped countries remain poor despite the numerous efforts and opportunities to alleviate poverty in such regions. The word equilibrium is used to describe this state since once there, the economy has a propensity to stay there, as small shocks do not upset it. This equilibrium state of poverty together with the persistence of poverty in some areas gives birth to the notion of a vicious cycle of poverty.

The vicious cycle of poverty arises due to forces that make poor countries remain poor despite many advances. Some of these forces include uneven income distribution, ineffective government policies, and poor management, or planning. This paper discusses main environmental issues in Brazil, environment-poverty linkages, main environmental policies in Brazil, and the Brazilian economy. Each of these points is in the context of environment and poverty in Brazil.

Poverty as a Circular Constellation of Forces.
Poverty as a Circular Constellation of Forces.

Main Environmental Issues

Brazil experiences several environmental problems due to its large geographical size and different economic and social practices. Main environmental issues in Brazil include deforestation, biodiversity, land usage, air pollution, and waste and sewage disposal.

Deforestation in Brazil dates back 3900 years (Jain & Sen, 2009). The main affected areas include the Atlantic forest and the Amazon rainforest (Fearnside & Barbosa, 1996). Deforestation in Amazon causes floods. As an environmental issue, deforestation has aspects that make it both easy and difficult to resolve. Deforestation is one of the urgent, graphic, media-friendly environmental issues.

The exotic features of human and animal inhabitants, extensive flames of forest fires, and stark destruction of a clear-cut forest all demonstrate that deforestation is an issue necessitating immediate action. Most Brazilian residents feel that deforestation is the leading environmental problem in the country (Weidner, 2002).

Previous analysis by Gerber (2010) on causes of deforestation shows that the Brazilian government promoted deforestation through its activities. According to Gerber (2010), the Brazilian government developed numerous federal policies to integrate Amazon with the Brazilian national economy and to secure it from international intervention and this accelerated deforestation. Some of these policies included credit policies, road and construction, land tenure, and demand for soy, beef, and milk.

Credit Policies

The Brazilian government enlarged the amount of credit for livestock to encourage cattle expansion, following a growing international demand for beef between 1960 and the 1970s. Subsidized credit in Brazil helped endorse deforestation in different ways. For instance, it enabled farmers to conquer capital constraints for clearing woods for cattle ranching. It also gave incentives to landowners to institute pastures on formerly deforested lands so they could be eligible for credit.

Road Construction

Road construction was one of the most significant factors associated with deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, among government measures. Enhanced port facilities on the Amazon River created further incentives to pave highways used to transport soybeans from Mato Grosso state, and encouraged soybean farming in the Tapajos area. Paved roads were the best indicators of deforestation with sites close to paving roads more likely to be deforested.

Land tenure

Land tenure policies in Brazil contributed to cattle expansion and deforestation. Brazilian law conferred ownership rights to those who exhibited actual use of lands. The institution of pasture was the major strategy to attain land tenure, and thus for a long time, cattle ranchers cleared forests to secure their tenure.

Demand Beef, Soy, and Milk

Between 1970 and the 1990s, domestic beef and milk consumption contributed to the development of Brazil’s cattle ranching activities (Gerber, 2010).

Later, international demand for these products stimulated cattle ranching. Between 1996 and 2005, there was a 6% constant increase in the cattle herd in Amazon. Hence, cattle herding in Amazon increased from 35.6 million in 1996 to 74.6 million, in 2005. The rapid increase of cattle rearing between 1995 and 2006 contributed to a surge of deforestation in the Amazon (Gerber, 2010). At the same time, demand for Brazilian soybeans and soy products increased, triggering more deforestation in the region.

Another research by Jain and Sen (2009), indicates that deforestation occurs due to economic forces such as land distribution. Brazil’s problems with defining suitable uses of its natural environment do not arise from any quantitative computation of overpopulation for its landmass (Weidner, 2002). Rather, historical injustices such as unequal distribution of land play a major part in environmental degradation.

An additional issue facing the Brazilian economy is air pollution. Brazil’s vast and medium-sized cities have poor air quality due to pollution (Salati, 2007). The problem displays the other, urban face of Brazil’s dual economy. For a long time, the Brazilian government led a grand program of industrialization, which changed the country’s economic model from a local, primary-production nation to one of the leading economic organizations in the world, with a well-built foundation in industrial production. However, one measure of the failure of this structure is its long-term legacy of industrial pollution.

Currently, the ongoing poor quality of air in Brazil’s large cities is due to the transportation segment, and not the industry. Back in 1993, the Government formulated a law to auto emissions, and up to date, eight urban regions regularly check their air quality.

Later in 1994, Sao Paulo’s state secretary of the environment instituted an annual rotation of cars aimed at controlling traffic in the winter season when thermal inversions are prevalent. Despite such measures, vehicle-based emissions are still on the rise.

Many poor Brazilians also experience a problem in waste disposal as they lack connections to the sewage systems. The Brazilian government estimates that of the 113 million citizens who live in metropolitan areas, 20 million lack running water, 75 million do not have sewage treatment and 60 million stays with uncollected garbage. Brazil segments people in classes when it comes to access to basic sanitation services (Laurance & Fearnside, 2002).

In the recent past, there has been a stable but gradually growing sanitary coverage of the Brazilian residents. Nevertheless, Brazil’s city administrations dispose of these wastes poorly, even after collecting them. Rather than recycling collected wastes, these administrators just take the garbage and direct sewages to less visible areas. When floods come, people suffer from waterborne diseases due to improper waste management, and the poverty cycle continues.

Environment-Poverty Linkages

Environment-poverty associations depend on how underprivileged people interact with the natural resource base. Poor citizens have more exposure to air and water pollution as well as other forms of urban congestion because they tend to reside in more polluted and harsh environments. Most poor citizens live in overpopulated areas that do not have adequate water supply, sanitation services, and

good systems of waste disposal. As a result, some citizens in these areas tend to burn waste products and throw human waste in rivers thus creating air and water pollution. Besides, poor people are more susceptible since they lack sufficient funds for protecting themselves from the effects of pollution or getting treatment immediately. The fact is that the poor usually use and benefit less from the materials, products, and services that create the greatest pollution and overcrowding.

Most Brazil citizens have low levels of income and this contributes to the absence of essential services for a large portion of the population (International Development Research Centre (Canada), & International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, 1996). However, those that have high-income levels are the leading contributors to automobile and land degradation created by large amounts of garbage. Several diseases and accidents are environmental effects of a great agglomeration of the underprivileged. The relationship between environmental degradation and poverty has not received stress in the investigation of environmental problems in developing countries. This may be because developed states found solutions to similar problems many years ago.

Environmental challenges have various effects on humans that aggravate the vicious circle of poverty in Brazil. Damages caused by water pollution include poor human health due to exposure to diseases such as diarrhea, typhoid, or parasitic infection as well as economic costs such as loss of local livelihoods dependent on waterways. The floods as well bring about water pollution that in turn causes the above challenges.

Deforestation is common in Brazil owing to human activities that lead to forestland occupation. Some of these activities include road construction, cattle ranching, and farming. Deforestation affects climatic patterns and hence agricultural activities. Trees attract rainfall and cutting down such trees reduces the amount of rainfall. Agricultural activities such as farming in Brazil rely mainly on rainfall and when the country receives inadequate rainfall, there is a reduction in crop yield.

This in turn increases poverty in the country as the majority of citizens rely on local productions. The Brazilian Amazon, for example, has a population of 16 million (61% urban) who depend on local production marketed by both small-scale farmers and large enterprises (Baer, 2008). When there is a low supply of local productions, demand rises, and consequently, the prices of commodities rise.

Policies, Government, and its linkage to the Environmental Issues and Poverty

In the 1970s, Brazil realized that environmental degradation and pollution were necessary for development. In 1973, the Brazilian government created the Special Secretariat for the Environment (SEMA) as an agency of the interior ministry (Diniz, 2001). The core task of SEMA was to institute standards for environmental fortification and to control some of the extremes of the product segment. In 1975, the state of Sao Paulo formed its environmental union called State Company for Technology of Basic Sanitation and Pollution Control (CETESB), and at the same time, Rio de Janeiro formed the State Foundation of Environmental Engineering (FEMA).

These later became the two most vigorous organizations in Brazil concerned with the environment. In 1981, the National Policy for the Environment (NPE) came into being following the enactment of law 6938 (Baer, 2001). This framework prearranged and integrated already existing standards, thus establishing a reliable legal structure. The framework has been guiding environmental practices in the country since then, with slight modifications. Its purpose is to encourage preservation, recovery, and enhancement of environmental quality in a mode that is steady with economic expansion and national security.

In addition, Brazil has initiated many programs such as the Pluriannual programs. They include BrasilemAcao that lasted from 1996 to 1999, the AvancaBrasil that succeeded the former program between 2000 and 2003, and “the Plan for the Acceleration of Growth” which was established in 2008 and lasted until 2011. These programs established by the government are necessary for reducing environmental impacts on the country while enabling the country to attain sustainable development (Gunderson & Holling, 2002).

Brazil Economy and its linkage to Environmental Issues, Poverty and Institutions

Brazilian has experienced economic growth since the great depression. In 2005, for example, Brazil manufactured “2.4 million motor vehicles, 34.4 million tons of cement, 33 million tons of steel, 5.9 million television sets, 23.3 cellular phones, and 4.8 million refrigerators yearly” (Baer, 2008, p. 10). This indicates that the country has had major developments in the industrial sector. Other areas that have undergone massive developments include road infrastructure, electric power installation, industrial exports, and agriculture. Due to agriculture, Brazilian’s land areas in crops, as well as planted pasturelands, have seen much growth over the years.

The country’s land area in crops extended from 6.6. a million hectares in 1920 to 52.1 million in 1985, exceeding 65 million in 2003 and planted pasture lands rose from 74 million hectares in 1985 to 197 million hectares in 2002” (Baer, 2008, p.9).

Other areas where the Brazilian economy has experienced much growth are in the production and export of cattle meat and soy.

Despite all these successes, Brazil remains far from an advanced industrial world. Although statistics may show that overall, the Brazilian economy is fairing well, this does not mean that the standards of living are high. This is so particularly because of uneven income distribution between different classes as well as geographic segmentations.

Apart from adding to the development and intensification of Brazil, policymakers thought that industrialization would make the nation sovereign from olden global industrial centers. In the 19th century, Brazil and other developing nations obtained the status of primary product suppliers. This aimed at making Brazil and these other states more self-sufficient, economically. Nonetheless, no effort succeeded in ending the dependency relationship.

Many areas in Brazil lack essential services like water supply and sewage systems. According to Baer (2008), “83.3% of urban households in Northern Brazil had access to a general water supply system in 2003 and 57.5 % had water access in the North, as compared to 95.5 % in the Southeast” (p.9).

Brazil’s environment has many mineral resources. It has an immense reserve of iron ore, manganese, and other industrial metals, as shown in the table below.

In 2000
Gross Iron ore 210 million tons
Gross Manganese ore 2.19 million tons
Gross tin concentrate 14, 200 tons
Bauxite 13.85 million

Table 1 Amounts of Brazilian Minerals that were mined in 2000 (Jain & Sen, 2009).


Brazil’s environmental management should take an integrated approach. This should involve integrating environmental activities with activities in other segments.

Environmental agencies are compelled to take a watchdog approach to environmental management and a confrontational stance toward other sector ministries. Necessitating wastewater management in projects that center on connecting poor communities to sewerage networks is an example of a confrontational approach when an integrated approach would suggest phasing such investments in overtime (starting with wastewater collection and slowly moving toward wastewater treatment in low-income communities as part of a comprehensive wastewater treatment strategy). Integrating sector policies and environmental policies may be the single most essential short-term plan that environmental agencies at all ranks in Brazil could pursue.

At the civic level, this could include upgrading transport and urban services planning to cut down urban congestion, sprawl, and air pollution. Such mainstreaming or integration requires that all stakeholders obtain sufficient information, such as private agents who may willingly collaborate with an understanding of environmental regulations and susceptible populations such as the urban poor, who may gain most from suitable environmental policies.

In addition, the government should focus on activities that can bridge the gap between the rich and the poor in Brazil. This could include introducing policies that encourage the poor to acquire education and health assistance. For instance, the government can introduce incentives to parents who let their children attend schools as well as small tokens for children who attend health care facilities.


Many problems surrounding most Brazilian residents in the low-income group are vicious. First, most Brazilian residents in this group cannot afford adequate housing and therefore live in overcrowded areas. Such areas lack essential services such as sewerage systems, clean water, and sanitation services. Lack of a proper sewerage system causes water pollution and thus, poor human health due to exposure to diseases such as diarrhea, typhoid, or parasitic infection. When poor Brazilians acquire these illnesses, they suffer more because they cannot afford medical services. A vicious cycle develops where low-income group Brazilians living in poverty are unable to access medical aid, and hence quality healthcare, and so suffer greater ill health while continuing their lives in overcrowded areas.

Second, most poor Brazilians living in urban areas live along the Amazon. Due to the quench to own land, cattle ranchers clear forests to secure their tenure. When people clear these forests, heavy rain pours and causes floods. The floods as well bring about water pollution and this makes the poor Brazilians susceptible to diseases although when they become sick, they cannot afford treatment. This situation also conforms to the definition of the vicious circle of poverty since environmental problems, as well as economic forces, act on the poor Brazilians making the country maintain its poor state.

Third, Brazilian has experienced economic growth since the great depression, but despite all these successes, the country remains far from an advanced industrial world. This is so particularly because of uneven income distribution between different classes as well as geographic segmentations. This aspect conforms to the idea that poverty is an equilibrium state, notwithstanding the many shocks that every state receives in the normal course of its survival. In other words, there exist pressures at work that tend to reinstate the equilibrium whenever there is a small development in a poor country.

Brazil should therefore adopt the abovementioned suggestions in effort to end this vicious cycle.


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