Aldo Rebelo: Bark or Bite?

Scientists and foreign observers are puzzling over the seemingly-incongruous choice of a climate change skeptic with a stridently nationalist technology agenda, as Brazil’s new Science Minister.

Since January the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation has been headed by veteran leftist Aldo Rebelo. The marks a significant shift after years during which the portfolio was headed by professional scientists, rather than career politicians.

As Rebelo made clear in remarks at his swearing-in January 2nd, he plans to make the science portfolio a very political one, linking it to issues of national sovereignty, strategic  positioning, defence and economic prowess. This new shrill tone being adopted by Rebelo may grate harshly on international partners  in the scientific and research community seeking to engage Brazil in deeper cooperation.

So far, he has made few guiding policy statements and nobody knows what he will do – or whether this ministry’s 2015 budget will survive uncut. But remarks made during his swearing-in suggest Rebelo may present more confrontational stance on technology sharing to further his developmentalist agenda.

At the event, Rebelo made the somewhat opaque announcement that Brazil shouldn’t become a “technology colony” and warned against science being used to “divide peoples and humanity.” Rebelo also defended protectionist barriers (revoked in the 1990s) designed to kickstart a computer and medical equipment industry in Brazil. You can read about it (in Portuguese) here.

No to "technology colony:" Science Minister Aldo Rebelo

No to “technology colonialism:” Science Minister Aldo Rebelo

Rebelo’s leadership of the Communist Party of Brazil is hardly of concern to scientists. The former student activist-turned politician emerged as a staunch defender of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and as president of the Congress helped the former administration to survive serious corruption charges.

Nor are they much concerned by Rebelo’s subsequent role as the former Sports Minister who presided over the 2014 FIFA World Cup. While Brazilians still wince at the painful memory of Brazil’s humiliating exit and the ballooning costs of the tournament, the 2014 event was well-organised and Rebelo deserves credit for its international success.

2014 FIFA World  Cup: job well cone.

2014 FIFA World Cup: job well cone.

What concerns the scientific and environmental lobby is Rebelo’s past congressional role as rapporteur or ‘Relator’ of Brazil’s controversial Forestry Code, that resulted in greater legal certainty for landowners needing to clear trees. Although the president vetoed some parts of the law drafted under Rebelo’s leadership and finally passed in May 2012, critics such as the WWF saw the law as a catastrophe for the Amazon forest.

Forest Code: Rebelo was object of  environmentalist ire.

Forest Code: Rebelo was object of environmentalist ire.

Scientists also sought to quantify the likely outcome of changes to the law that strengthened landowners rights, and because of Amazonia’s international profile the issue attracted widespread international media attention.

Rebelo’s proposition was that the existing 1965 legislation had prejudiced small producers wishing to farm their land more effectively. During the heated discussions, the man who is now Science Minister revealed his thinking about development and conservation issues. What he betrayed was a deep scepticism about climate change while advancing a “Man vs. Nature” narrative to justify development in Amazonia. This is already keeping bloggers busy.

The New York Times ran a story emphasizing Rebelo’s “climate change skeptic” credentials, stressing the incongruity of a ministerial appointment that is “causing alarm among climate scientists and environmentalists here, in a country that has been seeking to assert leadership in global climate talks.”

Steve Schwartzman, a veteran campaigner from the Environmental Defense Fund, dubs Rebelo a “bad choice.” Schwartzman has translated letters from Rebelo to another congressman in which the new minister claims that: “Science is not an oracle. In fact, there is no scientific proof of the projections of global warming, much less that it is occurring because of human action and not because of natural phenomena. It is a construct based on computer simulations.”

Although Rebelo is on the other side of the political aisle, Schwartzman notes that these views place Brazil’s Science Minister “exactly the same page on climate science as the hardest of the hard-core tea partiers in the United States.”

Rebelo's Forestry Law mobilised Brasilia protests

Rebelo’s Forestry Law mobilised Brasilia protests

Brazilian forestry engineer André Sampaio has dug up declarations from Rebelo which he says “show no sympathy for NGOs or environmentalists,” and reveals that “the concept of environmental sustainability is totally rejected by Rebelo” in favour of a development agenda. He notes that Rebelo is a fan of the late UN ambassador and FAO adviser Josué de Castro. His 1951 book “The Geography of Hunger” made development, not conservation, a priority.

It’s not only environmentalists who are riled by Rebelo’s appointment. In the technology field, journalists and critics note that he has in the past given support to congressional initiatives to ban such devices as self-service pumps at gas stations, and electronic ticketing gates in buses. The objective is to maintain high levels of employment for unskilled or semi-skilled workers. Rebelo too is on record for his opposition for linguistic imports in the computer and IT field – seeking a ban on the use of English words for “mouse” and “tablet” in official Brazilian documents.

As a seasoned political warhorse of the left, Rebelo also has a devoted fan-club of campaigners and commentators already on watch for attacks from the ‘bourgeois media’ seeking to undermine their champion.

While some of these concerns may appear trivial, it’s clear that Brazil could experience a major shift in scientific direction if Rebelo is given the resources and political clout to push through a more combative 1970’s style national sovereignty agenda involving science.

Sports-to-science: Rebelo's trade-off with Rousseff.

Sports-to-science: Rebelo’s trade-off with Rousseff.

Reports suggested that depriving Rebelo of his right to supervise the 2016 Olympic Games, were he to have continued as Sports Minister, required a substantial political trade-off from President Dilma Rousseff. Which means Rebelo will command a strong voice in Rousseff’s albeit-compromised administration.

In his swearing-in speech Rebelo said “Science, technology and innovation are directly linked to the widening of democracy and the consolidation of national sovereignty and a rise in the material and spiritual living standards of the working population.”

According to local press reports, Rebelo continued: “The best way of protecting our country and our national interest is to strengthen and develop ourselves through science and technology, and to widen the possibilities for innovation. We will do this because we will not permit our country to become a ‘technology colony’.”

Just how Brazil’s new science policies develop in the context of a recession-struck economy and an administration so roiled by corruption allegations that Dilma Rousseff is already being described as a lame-duck president, remain to be seen.

Brazil's "Little Red Riding Hood" is now Science Minister

Bark or Bite: Brazil’s “Little Red Riding Hood” is now Science Minister

In terms of international cooperation the omens might not look good, but it’s almost certain that Rebelo’s bark will turn out to be much worse than his bite.

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