Posted on behalf of Claudio Angelo
The text of Brazil’s controversial Forest Code went through what is likely to be its final convulsion on Wednesday 29 August, after years of debate about how the country should balance the interests of farmers and developers with the need to protect the country’s forests.
Although forest protection has been enshrined in Brazilian law since the 1960s, stricter enforcement of the rules in recent years had prompted complaints from landowners, who argued that the law was hampering the country’s development.
Last year, Brazil’s Senate passed the bill in a form that gave landowners more freedom to cut into native forest (see ‘Brazilian bill weakens Amazon protection’).
In May, the lower house of Brazil’s National Congress passed a version of the bill that was even more favourable to rural interests. As Nature reported at the time (see ‘Brazil set to cut forest protection’ ), that draft of the bill was set to:
scale back forest protections along rivers and hills, give state and local governments more authority over forests, and relieve landholders of the responsibility of reforesting illegally cleared land.
Environmentalists had hoped that President Dilma Rousseff would use her veto to tone down the bill and restore more protection for Brazil’s forests, and, to a degree, she did (see ‘President prunes forest reforms’).
That amended text, for example, stipulated that landowners must preserve or re-establish a minimum 30-meter wide corridor of forests along rivers (so-called riparian forest), in order to protect the water courses and preserve biodiversity. But the bill still needed final approval from Congress, which has strong representation from the agricultural lobby.
The congressional committee responsible for finalising the text has now reduced the width of those riparian corridors to 15 meters for medium-sized properties (farms as big as 1,500 hectares), and from 30 meters to 20 meters for larger farms. Farmers required to reforest those areas will also be allowed to use fruit trees as a surrogate for native forest cover.
The committee also reduced wetland protection in the Cerrado, the Central Brazilian savannah that harbours both the bulk of agricultural expansion and the headwaters of most of Brazil’s major rivers, where the rate of deforestation has been at least as high as in the Amazon forests. The commission changed the criteria for protection of a kind of wetland called vereda, allowing for those areas to be occupied by food production.
Renata Camargo, a policy advisor at Greenpeace, says that it is unlikely that the text will see further changes at the National Congress’ Lower Chamber, which should pass it in the next few days. The Senate is then expected to approve the text immediately afterwards, which would be the last step before the code becomes a fully-functioning law.
Brazilian Environment minister Izabella Teixeira said she was “saddened” by the final form of the Forest Code, adding that the text “lacks balance”. It is not yet clear if she will push for another veto to the bill. Watering down the presidential text was, however, considered by government allies as the only possible way of pushing the forest legislation forwards. Earlier this month, the agriculture caucus (bancada ruralista) threatened to ignore any protection of riparian forests along “intermittent” rivers, a move that would have left half of Brazilian waterways unprotected, according to environmentalists. “We’ve managed to prevent a total disaster”, says Jorge Viana, a senator from Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT).
The final text does limit deforestation along intermittent rivers’ banks, but it cuts protection to forests along smaller, “ephemeral”, creeks. According to Camargo, the definition of “ephemeral” is murky, which could open the way for more deforestation. “The bill was already bad enough. It only got worse,” she says. “What we saw was a motorcade of tractors in Congress, and the government said yes to that.”
Read more about the changing Amazon in Nature’s special collection.