Inaugural Harris Policy Summit Focuses on Amazon Deforestation

Earlier this month, more than 30 graduate students from schools across the US came together for the Inter-Policy School Summit at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy. The first conference of its kind, the student-led Summit aimed to leverage the brainpower and training of the handpicked students to produce tangible results to a current policy dilemma.

The students spent the weekend working on recommendations to protect the existence of indigenous lands in the Brazilian Amazon. The lands play a key role in regional climate health by keeping deforestation in check, in addition to providing a homeland for those communities. However, the legal protections of those lands are currently at risk, due to a change in legislation in the Brazilian National Congress.

That legislation and the political challenges surrounding it formed the basis of the Summit held March 3–5 and co-sponsored by Harris Public Policy, The Pearson Institute for the Study and Resolution of Global Conflicts at University of Chicago, the United Nations Development Programme World Centre for Sustainable Development (RIO+ Centre), Harris’ International Innovation Corps (IIC) and the Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazonia (IPAM).

The participants came from Harris Public Policy, the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and nine other universities, with students from 16 countries around the world. They worked in groups to break down predetermined issue areas related to the Summit’s topic. At the conclusion of the day’s proceedings the groups reassembled to make concrete policy recommendations for those issues.

Tangible Outcomes

The concept for the event stemmed from Harris student discussions about the need to network with their counterparts from other policy schools, says Manuel Esquivel, a Harris second-year student who co-organized the summit.

As the concept took shape, Esquivel says the organizers wanted to ensure that the policy conference produced impactful recommendations that would be put into effect rather than the hypothetical ideas that result from most conferences, which prompted the notion of co-sponsoring with outside organizations.

Co-organizer Marie-Noelle Steinig, another Harris second-year, said the 2016 launch of The Pearson Institute and the international nature of the Harris student body helped flesh out the inspiration. “We had to be realistic about what could be achieved in nine hours,” she says. “We will not save the world in one day. But maybe we can contribute something to a solution for a pressing global challenge.”

The specific topic for the first annual summit stemmed from a policy brief written by Harris second-year student Alicia Barceinas Cruz and a Brazilian student named Ariane Rodrigues, who were Summer Fellows in 2016 for IIC in Brasilia, and who laid out the issues involved in the proposed constitutional amendment being considered by the Brazilian National Congress. The Summit organizers wed that to the theme of global conflict by noting how issues related to climate change and land use can be replicated in virtually any country around the globe.

The policy brief described how the forest helps to maintain the rainfall cycle, and deforestation causes greater runoff, which means that even the short-term benefits to agribusiness due to the additional lands gained for crop production ends up hurting that sector in the long run because of droughts, soil erosion and other environmental degradation, Barceinas Cruz says.

“Our conclusion was that the Brazilian government needs to put in place policies to reduce deforestation,” Barceinas Cruz says. “That brings benefits for indigenous people but also for the agricultural sector and society in general…Our proposal was to try to create synergies between the agribusiness sector and indigenous groups.”

The Recommendations

The event started with a presentation by Barceinas Cruz before splitting into the working groups that tackled different pieces of the puzzle. Arrayed along the sides of the presentation room in the International House on the University of Chicago campus by day’s end were easel-sized butcher-paper notes about the regulations involved, costs and benefits, how to get messages out, the cultural and global implications and other related issues.

The working group presentations covered six issues areas:

  • Stakeholder Analysis and Game Theory. This group analyzed how the stakeholders are interrelated and how power flowed among them, and recommended that indigenous people must build and broaden coalitions by working together on common interests to strengthen their needs into demands.
  • Cost Benefit Analysis. This group laid out the costs and benefits for indigenous people, agribusiness and society in general, underscoring the points made in the policy brief about the longer-term costs even to agribusiness, and recommended that the government perform an unbiased analysis and consider alternative, more sustainable uses for the forest lands.
  • Inclusive Market System and Strategic Alliances. This group examined the lack of voice indigenous communities seem to have at the state level and how NGOs can change consumer behavior and public opinion through social media and other levers, leading to questions about how to create enforcement mechanisms and influence local business associations.
  • Technology, Innovation and Area Protection. This group looked at how technology could be helpful in guarding against deforestation and protecting indigenous lands, including how to marshal available data and how to use public information channels to make a case. They recommended creating an open-source social-media and mobile app to raise public awareness.
  • Community Campaigns and Public Awareness. This group screened existing communication campaigns to create public awareness about the legal recognition of indigenous lands. The group came up with ways to effectively combine the efforts made, and new innovative campaigns to gain public support for land protection.
  • Community Funds and Land Protection. This group assessed which funds are available for indigenous groups to ensure the protection of their land. They analyzed current processes to access these funds, detected flaws in the process, and made a recommendation on how to make funds more accessible.

Actionable Items

The actionable steps presented by the working groups impressed representatives of the co-sponsoring organizations. Rosaly Byrd of the UNDP’s RIO+ Centre says she saw the Summit as an opportunity to bring youthful and marginalized voices into the development conversation.

“The RIO+ Centre is working to engage with young leaders to come up with solutions,” she says. “It is a fresh way to look at these ideas, bring young people together and get an exchange of skill sets. It’s what we need to address complex issues.”

Fernanda Bortolotto of IPAM says the policy brief and the ensuing discussions during the day drove home the point that deforestation affects not only the indigenous peoples but the whole country and ultimately, the entire globe.

“A huge portion of the forest is in their territories, and the rate of deforestation is lower in those areas,” she says. “It’s very interesting to see how we can mobilize these students to find innovative ways of thinking to influence collaboration around policies that effect indigenous people and the environmental policies in Brazil.”

--Ed Finkel

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