As you walk into the office of Brazilian Senator Ivo Cassol, there is a giant picture of him on the side of the door. A Bible sits on his office coffee table and pictures of his family adorn the walls.
He’s charming, with a wide, toothy smile and a firm handshake. “Darling,” he calls me.
Why are we meeting Ivo Cassol?
He sits on the Senate’s environmental committee. That committee will have a say in any deal reached at the international climate control talks in Paris, where representatives of almost every country in the world are meeting at the end of this month to try and hammer out an agreement on climate change. Already, 146 countries have submitted their targets to reduce carbon emissions. That includes Brazil.
It may seem strange, but the opinion of one politician from one small Brazilian state in the Amazon matters.
That state is called Rondonia and it’s in western Brazil. It’s one of the areas that has been most damaged by deforestation. Cassol has the dubious distinction of being called one of the Amazon’s “founding fathers of deforestation.”
To see what that deforestation looks like from the air, I take a flight in a tiny, twin-engine plane. As we soar over the northern part of the state, the forest is patchy. Swaths of green jungle are surrounded by cattle ranches and farms. Trucks laden with freshly cut logs feed massive saw mills.
Rondonia was once covered almost entirely by the Amazon rain forest, but now it looks like the agricultural state it has become.
And there is something else you can see from above. The buildings of Rondonia’s state legislature form the letters “IC.”
Back when Cassol was a two-term governor, he used public money to build those offices in the shape of his initials. And that says a lot about the man, according to those who know him.
“When he talks to the public, he holds a hat. And [wears] very common clothes to make him look like a normal person,” says Gudemberg de Oliveira, who works at the prosecutor’s office in Ronodonia.
He explains that Rondonia is the newest state in Brazil, established in the 1980s. People moved here from other parts of country to make their fortunes. And many, like Cassol, who comes from the coastal state of Santa Catarina, did just that in cattle ranching and logging.
This has made Cassol one of the wealthiest men in the Senate. But, says de Oliveira, “He speaks in the ‘wrong’ way, so people can see him as a person of the people, and he does that intentionally and people say, ‘Wow, this guy really represents me.’ ”
Cassol settled in Rolim de Moura, which is cattle country. He started his political career here, becoming the mayor. In the town square, a group of older men, wearing cowboy boots and baseball caps, sits in the shade listening to sertaneja, the music of Brazil’s countryside.
They know Cassol personally. They speak over one another to sing his praises. He built roads. He changed the state. If he ever runs again, he’d win in a heartbeat, they say.
But according to Brazil’s Supreme Court and the prosecutor general, Cassol is also a criminal. He was found guilty of fraud, though he’s appealing his almost 5-year prison sentence on technical grounds.
According to the indictment, Cassol gave government contracts to associates, friends and family members when he was mayor. But to the many people here, it doesn’t matter. He’s a champion who fought for their interests.
And those interests often clash with preserving the rainforest.
“Unfortunately, all our politicians, just like Ivo Cassol, make their money from logging, from cattle ranching. They all own land,” says Hermínio Coelho, one of the few opposition politicians in the state legislature.
Coelho, who belongs to a leftist party, is pretty plainspoken. He calls the local assembly to which he belongs “a whorehouse.”
“Our assembly is a criminal enterprise. No one is interested in helping the environment and if it was up to the state assembly, there wouldn’t be a single tree left in Rondonia,” he says.
The situation in Rondonia is not unique. Brazil is an agricultural powerhouse. It’s one of the breadbaskets of the world. One of the few bright spots in its struggling economy right now is agricultural exports like meat and soy. These products require large tracts of land and lead to greater deforestation.
Cassol is part of the large and powerful rural caucus in the National Congress and they have their own ideas about any deal Brazil makes with the outside world.
The capital, Brasilia, was a city built from scratch to be the center of government. And its striking architecture, the work of Oscar Niemeyer, is designed to show man’s dominance over the land. There are wide concrete esplanades — and not a tree in sight.
Cassol’s office is perched above it all.
When we sit down to talk, I tell him that he seems to have a lot of support in Rondonia.
“I am actually grateful for the recognition of society, the people of my state. I always say the following: When you plant a good seed, you reap up good fruits,” he tells me.
For the record, he also says he’s innocent of the corruption charges. He blames his conviction on a “technicality” and an over-zealous prosecutor.
“How many world leaders out there had to face problems and were arrested?” he says. “And afterwards that was proven that they were great leaders. So I respect the Supreme Court, but I will fight and will continue proving my innocence.” And, he tells me, “If tomorrow I need to do time because I defended my people, I will certainly not lower my head.”
He also denies being involved in deforestation, even though he’s been fined by the country’s environmental monitoring agency, IBAMA. He says he plants trees on his farms and properties, he doesn’t cut them down.
Those who call him one of the founding fathers of deforestation “are certainly my enemies,” he says. “If there’s someone who has respected Brazilian legislation, that is Ivo Narciso Casol, me, ex-mayor, ex-governor, current senator.”
I ask him about the deal that Brazil wants to make in Paris to try to slow climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And this is where he gets animated.
“Is it fair to ask Brazil to do all the conservation when the United States made the mess to begin with? That’s very hypocritical of the Americans,” he says. “The same rules have to apply for everyone or for no one. Are we to be the slave of other countries? The lungs of the United States? The lungs of other countries? Even though they send us only a pittance to pay for conservation? I won’t accept it. No.”
He says if the Amazon is the lungs of the world, they’ll have to pay Brazil to breathe.
And this is one of the central sticking points in the upcoming Paris talks. Europe and the U.S. cut down many of their forests as they developed.
Brazilian politicians like Cassol now say rich nations need to foot the bill for poorer ones to save what remains. And that’s why Cassol’s position matters. Because whatever deal is reached in Paris, it will have to be implemented by politicians like Cassol.