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Brazil's budding environmental ethic. Activist says disasters abroad, at home, have raised awareness

Protecting Brazil's Amazon forests, its endless coastline, or the air of its booming industrial centers sometimes seems like a monumental task, says environmentalist Fabio Feldmann, given the average Brazilian's lack of concern for such questions. But Mr. Feldmann says he sees encouraging signs of a budding environmental ethic among his countrymen, who inhabit one of the world's richest - but perhaps most endangered - expanses of land. The unexpected support for Feldmann in recent elections here, he says, is solid evidence of this.

Feldmann, who is an attorney, was the first Brazilian ever to mount an election campaign here solely on the issue of environmentalism. Though results of the Nov. 15 congressional elections were not yet final at press time, Feldmann had more than 40,000 votes. This was apparently enough to win a seat in Congress and place him among the top 40 vote-getters among the 2,000 candidates running at large for Congress in Sao Paulo State.

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He is convinced that his strong showing represents a growing environmental concern among Brazilians. Though he ran as a candidate of the popular ruling party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement, he spent much less money than many better-known candidates. Further, his issue-oriented campaign was in strong contrast to the traditional Brazilian campaign based on personalities.

``Environmentalism could be one of the most important popular movements of Brazil,'' speculates Feldmann, who is representing the victims of massive industrial pollution in Cubatao, frequently called the most polluted city in the world.

He says recent disasters - the poison gas escape in Bhopal, India, the nuclear plant accident in Chernobyl, and the chemical spill on the Rhine River in Europe - have had an impact in Brazil.

For example, health concerns were raised here when milk affected by Chernobyl radiation was imported to meet Brazilian milk shortages.

``Everyone was concerned about that - whether they were rich or poor,'' he says, noting that Brazilians are generally not aware of the linkages of development and environmental problems.

``Brazilian people are not educated like [people are] in the United States to have a very deep idea of community,'' he says. ``It's a South American mentality: The people don't consider themselves to be proprietors of public streets. We think we can litter because [public property] doesn't belong to us.''

But, he says, he sees signs that ``the conditions of the city are so aggressive that the average citizen is realizing things have to change.''

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The stench of a garbage dump wafting through a middle-class neighborhood, the threat of losing neighborhood trees to a new development, or the stinging air pollution common here in Sao Paulo are ``making people aware of their role as citizens. The fact [that] they're getting involved locally could mean in a few years they'll be discussing the Amazon, too,'' he says.

The new Congress will write a new Brazilian constitution. Though Feldmann admits he still represents a minority view, he hopes to encourage development plans that include serious environmental considerations.

``Our problem has been that we've had [environmental] legislation, but it wasn't applied,'' he says. Cubatao, for example, had had legislation since 1976 charging a government agency with pollution control, he says. But the agency didn't start operating until 1984, when public pressure forced action after pollution-related birth defects were found.

Though serious Brazilian environmental plans will take years, Feldmann concludes that the political climate for environmentalism is better than it has been since the Brazilian development boom began in the 1970s.

``Preservation of nature is directly proportional to democracy. We now have channels of participation in government,'' he says.