Flying down, moving in, figuring out

The whirlwind of (policy geek) action that is starting a new job. In a new country.

Moving to a new town takes some adjusting.  Scouting the best taqueria, cheapest pizza, and nearest ATM are necessary to start one’s new life.  Starting a new job requires similar steps: figuring out your employer’s goals and positions, strengths and weaknesses, expectations and limitations.  Moving to a new country to tackle an internship?  Well, that takes a whole lot of figuring out.

Figuring Out The Internship

Our employer, the Ministerio Publico (Public Ministry, or “MPRJ”) is a government agency unlike anything in the US.  In Brasil, it is a group of lifetime-appointed public prosecutors responsible for filing civil and criminal charges on behalf of the environment, the poor, minorities, and consumers.  Imagine if NRDC, the ACLU, and PIRG were made into a federal office, funded, and given free reign to sue to keep the government and businesses honest.  That’s who we work for.

Now, when you have the ability to send people to jail for crimes against the environment, you tend to carry a lot of sway on issues of policy.  My job here is to provide policy analysis for a rewrite of the state’s Environmental Impact Reporting process, currently underway.  Arriving here with only book-based knowledge of current Brasilian policy, I learned quickly that I had a lot of figuring out to do.  Do it right, and I can effect positive change for the environment for 16 million people.  Do it wrong, and I miss that chance.

And so the first weeks have been a lot of bumping around in the dark, trying to understand the limitations of changes that could be made.  Addressing questions like “how do we get the public to show up for a public hearing on a development” and “how do we define what an ‘environmental impact’ is?” have filled my days, and short policy briefs about “community resource management” and “significance thresholds” have filled my harddrive.  While not as exciting as off-roading through the brush with a tribal elder, someone has to do the wonky stuff, and sometimes the wonky stuff makes all the difference.  At least I get to eat a lot of Brasilian steak while I’m here.

Now that the job is figured out, the work is flying.  Our first “decree,” which answers the question “When do we need to do an Environmental Impact Report” is being finished.  Our top recommendation?  Shifting from a size-of-project based preliminary analysis to a preliminary analysis that takes into account the sensitivity of the setting and the potential for significant damage.  Why?  So that small projects located in wetlands or in critical habitat get the hard look they deserve.  Next week, we are moving on to “What needs to be in an Environmental Impact Report”.  The prognosis thus far: Rio de Janeiro will have a very robust EIR process.

Next episode is the far more entertaining and far more embarrassing story of figuring out the city, the local life, and the unavoidable double-kiss-on-the-cheek-greeting.  Stay tuned!