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Brazilian Congress waters down forest protection

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.

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    James Vance said:

    Along with the recent resurrection of the Belo Monte dam project by Brasil’s Supreme Court, this legal enshrinement of watered-down of forest protections bodes serious ill, not only for the indigenous tribes of Amazonia but for the entire planet due to the loss of biodiversity from damage to a significant component of the globe’s remaining intact tropical rainforest, which themselves represent an important part of the biosphere’s oxygen-producing lungs.

    There is undoubtedly a need for Brasil to modernize and leverage its natural resource base into progressive development for benefit of all its citizens, but given the importance of specific regions within its political jurisdiction to the planet’s health upon which all human beings rely, it seems necessary for the broader world to insist that Brasil pursue a path of sustainable development with significant attention to long-term environmental protections rather than the rapacious short-term exploitation which most human societies and economic systems have followed in the past.

    In order to demonstrate clearly and impress upon the leaders of Brasil the high level of importance and concern, I will personally refuse to attend or watch any events in the 2014 World Cup or 2016 Olympic Games, nor will I support in any way the sponsors of or service providers associated with those events, unless and until the country takes an assertive change of direction and commits by action to a path of less destructive and more sustainable development, starting with suspension of the Belo Monte project and stronger revision for forest protections. I encourage others to do the same.

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    Pedro Marques said:

    To Claudio Angelo
    Nature Blog News

    Dear Claudio,

    Regarding the article “Brazilian Congress waters down forest protection”, published in the Nature News Blog by Claudio Angelo, we consider it of upmost importance to clarify some points related to the debate of the new Forest Code in the Brazilian Parliament. In this way it will certainly contribute to a better understanding of the issue by the readers of Nature

    – Brazil has and will continue to have the strictest environmental legislation in the world. The text of the new Forest Code maintains the requirement of preservation, with no government subsidy of at least 80% of private farms in the Amazon, areas called legal reserves. This signifies that the farmer who owns land in the Brazilian Amazon can only use 20% of his property. The only exception is in the State of Amapa, which has more than 65% of its territory occupied by public conservation units. Only in this state was the legal reserve reduced to 50%;

    In the last 15 years the proposed update of the Forest Code has been under discussion in the Brazilian Congress. The debate has intensified over the past three years, when Representative Aldo Rebelo, from the Brazilian Communist Party, was appointed rapporteur of the matter in the House of Representatives. During the years 2010 and 2011, the representative attended 64 public hearings in all regions, with the participation of scientists and various segments of society, who had the opportunity to present their proposals and submit them for review by the rapporteur. The matter was discussed again in the Senate, where over 25 hearings were held which included scientists, environmentalists, farmers and other experts involved in the issue;

    – The new Code will restore legal certainty in the Brazilian countryside, establishing clear rules on which areas are to be occupied by agricultural production and which should be preserved. The law will allow Brazil to establish itself as a major producer of food and as an environmental power;

    – The prospect of settling estates and redeeming environmental liabilities are the main advances of the new law to be approved by the Brazilian Congress. For example, it would regularize the situation of small farmers, giving them proper social inclusion, waiving the recovery of legal reserve properties in an area that varies in size according to each region. In the Amazon, this area reaches the maximum size of 440 hectares. Only in this way are the small producers, especially in the more remote regions such as the Amazon, able to continue their farming activities. It is important to note that this exemption applies only to the need to replant areas previously occupied. No new deforestation would be permitted.

    – The Agriculture and Livestock Confederation of Brazil (CNA), which represents farmers in the country, has been deeply involved in this discussion and has maintained its commitment with the expansion of sustainable agricultural production through productivity gains, without the need to open new areas of production. The new Forest Code will keep 61% of Brazil’s territory native vegetation preserved, allowing Brazilian farmers to continue producing quality food at low cost to supply the domestic and foreign markets.

    END

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