Brazilian Congress Prepares New Assault Agarinst Forests and Climate


Editor's Note: From our friends at Greenpeace

Brazilian RainforestAfter three years of good news, with the annual deforestation rate in decline, the recent increase in prices of agro-commodities - soya and beef - is putting pressure on the Amazon rainforest once again. To make bad news worse, the Brazilian Congress, influenced by the agribusiness and agroenergy sectors, seeks to change the legislation -defined in the Forest Code - to increase from 20% to 50% the area authorized to be clearcut by farmers in the Brazilian Amazon, and allow Legal Reserves (area of forest a farmer needs to keep by law) to be recovered with exotic tree species such as palm trees and eucalyptus.

The region has already lost almost 18% of the forest cover - an area larger than the size of France was cut and burned in the last 40 years. An area similar in size is considered to have been severely degraded by logging and other predatory activities.

In theory, the change being discussed by the Brazilian Congress would immediately apply to 36% of the Amazon currently in the hands of the private sector. It will stimulate more migration, land grabbing and disputes over land rights in the Amazon, a region famous for its remoteness and lack of governance.

Millions of hectares would be legally authorized to be chopped down and burned, releasing some billion tons of Carbon in the atmosphere.

All this under the protection of the law. We need to stop it.

The proposed change

The proposed law originated in the Senate and is currently being analyzed by the Chamber of Deputies with the intent to change some chapters of the Forest Code to allow the use of exotic species with higher monetary value to be used in the process of recovering areas illegally deforested. The Code currently states that legal reserves need to be recovered with native species. The proposal of the Senate allows for planting of palm trees for oil production and eucalyptus for pulp or charcoal in 30% of the Legal Reserve area.

In real terms, it opens the door to large increases in legally sanctioned deforestation in Brazil and undermines all global efforts to fight climate change. If approved, the bill - pushed by the agribusiness sector - will allow 50% of all private properties in the Brazilian Amazon to be legally chopped down and burned, in addition to the clearance currently permitted.

The Forest Code is a 1965 law, amended over time, which, among other things:

  • Defines areas which need full protection (called permanent protected areas - APP in Portuguese) in public or private lands;
  • Regulates the maximum percentage of rural property that can be clearcut for economic use (such as agriculture or pasture). The remaining area kept forested is called "legal reserve" (LR). Legal reserves can be used for economic purposes- including selective logging - but can't be clearcut. Both clearcut and selective logging in private farms need to be authorized by the government.
  • Until 1996, the law stipulated that in the Amazon the Legal Reserve should be AT LEAST 50% of a rural property.

deforestationIn 1996, after a peak in the Amazon deforestation the previous year (30,000 km2/year, according to the historical record to date), Brazilian president Cardoso amended the Forest Code, increasing by decree the RL in the Amazon forest to 80%. This decree was a provisory act which had to be sanctioned by the Congress in order to become definitive and fully integrated into the Forest Code law.  But this never happened and the protection of the Amazon and other important Brazilian biomes remains provisory up to now.

Because of this, the Forest Code is constantly challenged by the agrobusiness  sector which controls a large block in the Brazilian parliament.

In 2001, after an intense attack from the rural sector to change the Forest Code and its provisory chapters from 1996, and a strong campaign led by Greenpeace, ISA, WWF and other NGOs against such changes, a new version of the provisory decree, proposed by Conama - the National Commission of Environment -, was put in place.

This act - the MP 2166 (MP meaning Provisory Measure) reconfirmed the legal reserve of 80% in the Amazon forests and 20% in all other Brazilian biomes, with an exception: to accommodate the demands from the rural sector, MP 2166 defined that the legal reserve in the Amazon savannahs should be 35% (it was 50% until 1996). Some 50% of the Amazonian state of Mato Grosso is covered by savannahs. Mato Grosso is by far the largest soya and beef producer in Brazil.

According to MP 2166, farmers with deforested areas larger than authorized by law must RECOVER their legal reserves by planting native tree species OR COMPENSATE the legal reserve in other areas of similar ecological value and extension, IF in the same ecosystem and microbasin.

Brazilian states with a long and old history of deforestation - such as the rich Southeast and South states and areas of the Northeast of Brazil originally covered by the Atlantic Rainforest - do not want to recover their legal reserve up to 20% as they must do according to the current Law. The Atlantic rainforest has been reduced to some 7% of its original size, and the land originally covered by this superb forest is today planted with soya, corn, beans, coffee and other grains, sugar cane or used for pasture fields. 

Farmers and their representatives say that it doesn't make sense to plant trees in areas of high economic value, and recover forests in areas deforested in the beggining of the last century or even earlier.

Farm leaders from Sao Paulo agree to restore their APPs (to protect water shelves, for instance), but would only agree to compensate for their legal reserves if it took place in other basins and biomes (in areas of less economic value) and pending on incentives. These farmers and their associations are very influential in Brazil and in the Congress.

As APPs are not included in the legal reserve, the total area that a farmer can use for agriculture or cattle ranching in those regions is legally smaller than 20%. Farming leaders propose to change the Code to incorporate APPs in the Legal Reserves. (This could make sense in the Amazon where LR is 80% and APPs cover, in general, around 3 to 5% of a property. But it would be a problem in Sao Paulo and other heavily deforested states.)

Farmers say that the Legal Reserve put Brazil at a disadvantage against other food exporting countries such as Argentina and the United States, where the concept of Legal reserves don't even exist.

Brazil is one of the largest food producers and exporters in the world and is heavily dependent on exports of agriculture commodities. It is also the country with the largest tropical forest on the planet. Solutions for the Brazilian population and its sustainable economic and social growth need to include the preservation of the Amazon.

The Forest Code is not perfect and can be improved. But it is the key measure and the legal umbrella protecting the Brazilian forests. The defense of its pillars provides the political framework for negotiations between environmentalists, conservationists, farmers and traditional communities. 

Forest Code, essential framework

Tropical deforestation accounts for 20% of the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, more than the entire global transportation sector. In Brazil, those figures are even more perverse: 75% of the Brazilian GHG emissions come from deforestation and poor land use for agribusiness purposes, placing Brazil as the 4th largest climate polluter in the world.

Brazilian environmental legislation has been praised as very strong and consistent. However, in the Amazon, the simple existence of laws without enforcement is not able to stop deforestation and other related-crimes. But attempts to weaken the legislation will surely encourage forest destruction.

In this context, changing the law as a legal self-service in order to fit the interests of each economic sector operating in the Amazon (as being proposed) is like settling highway speed limits based on each drivers' will to speed.

The Compliance to the forest code is an essential framework to enable the political and financial elements of our proposal to end deforestation.

It is by now understood that the world urgently needs to start putting in place concrete measures to reduce greenhouse gases emissions after a peak in 2015. According to the Stern Report, to reduce deforestation is the cheapest way to reduce these emissions.

The elimination of deforestation in the Amazon is crucial to reducing Brazil's main contribution to climate change, to conserving biodiversity and preserving the way of life of indigenous peoples and traditional populations, thereby improving the quality of life in the region.

The largest tropical forest on Earth, the Amazon, is a giant carbon stock. When it is destroyed through logging or burning, this carbon is released into the atmosphere.

Tropical forests are essential to life itself; they keep climate in check, regulate water flow, and maintain the healthy ecosystems on which humanity depends. Forests contain half of all life and  millions of indigenous people and traditional communities. They need to have their futures secured so they can remain guardians of the forests.

In recent years, the seemingly unstoppable expansion of soya farming in the Amazon had become one of the main threats to the world's largest rainforest. In 2006, Greenpeace exposed the companies implicated in deforestation, land-grabbing, slavery and violence. Since then there has been a sea change in attitude among the food industry towards the problem. In response to the pressure, the soya traders committed to a moratorium on buying soya from deforested areas. The moratorium will stay until proper procedures for legality and governance are in place and until there is an agreement with the Brazilian Government and key stakeholders on long term protection for the Amazon rainforest.

greenpeace logoIn October 2007, Greenpeace and other NGOs proposed that Brazil adopt the Zero Deforestation Pact - a national agreement to end Amazon deforestation. The agreement establishes the reduction of deforestation in the Amazon to zero within a period of seven years by adopting a system of reduction. In order to achieve this objective, we propose a combination of strong public policies and market strategies to finance existing forests and their environmental services. The services provided by the forest must benefit both local and global habitats, as well as supporting regional and national development.

In brief, to reduce deforestation to zero, Brazil needs, among other things, to:

  • Put public policies in place to face the challenges posed by different drivers of forest destruction such as logging, agribusiness expansion, mining, settlements etc;
  • Impose the rule of law, ensure governance in the region and increase command and control in forest areas;
  • Adopt clear incentives for sustainable activities in order to convince and stimulate local communities, farmers, settlers and other constituents to respect the law;
  • Invest in technology and the creation of market opportunities for sustainable forest products benefiting local communities.
  • Stop building large roads and other infrastructure in forest areas;
  • Complete the creation of a large green wall in the Amazon, and implement the already large network of protected areas;
  • Consolidate the demarcation of all indigenous lands;
  • Adopt and implement moratoria on key deforestation fronts through voluntary sector agreements following the example of the soya moratorium.

All this involves political will, social support of good government initiatives and money. A lot of money - including part of the money that may be raised through initiatives such as the Forest for Climate proposal and the Amazon Fund recently created by Brazil.

Meanwhile, while civil society supports the struggle to end the deforestation of the Amazon, land owners and large multinationals operating in the Amazon are actively working to weaken the public policies in place to protect the forest. Unfortunately, that effort is supported by sectors of the federal government. It is up to us to put an end on this process.


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  • Posted on Nov. 18, 2008. Listed in:

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