A special congressional commission approved a proposal to scale back Brazil’s forest code on Tuesday, making way for a broader discussion about agriculture and rural development in the Amazon and beyond. “Ruralistas” and the agricultural community argued for additional flexibility and leniency in order to make way for orderly development, overcoming opposition from scientists and environmentalists who say the changes are ill-advised and unnecessary. But the debate is only getting started.
Brazil’s environmental battles have played out under the international spotlight as loggers and ranchers have torn down the Amazon forest over the past three decades, but the problem was never a lack of legal protection on private land. Brazil’s forest code dates back to 1965 and requires all Brazilians to preserve native forest on private lands. In addition to preserving habitat along rivers, slopes and hilltops, the law requires landowners to preserve 20 percent of their property along the Atlantic Forest; that requirement increases to 35 percent in savannahs and 80 percent in the Amazon. But these requirements were never enough to overcome the brute force of frontier economics.
Aldo Rebelo, a Communist Party deputy from the state of Sao Paulo, has headed the reform effort. The commission’s report would put more power in the hands of state governments, allowing them to unilaterally decrease the amount of habitat landowners must preserve to 50 percent in the Amazon and 20 percent in the savannahs. Although Rebelo dropped language that would have scaled back permanent protections along rivers, the commission approved language that would provide amnesty to any and all landowners who illegally cleared their land prior to 22 July 2008.
In a land long plagued by questions about land tenure, the argument is that this will encourage landowners to register their holdings and come into compliance. Few would argue against those goals, but scientists say the proposal provides no technical basis for scaling back environmental protections. “There was no discussion with the scientific community,” says Carlos Joly, a botanist at the State University of Campinas who is tracking the issue. If passed, he says, the proposal would represent the largest setback in Brazilian environmental legislation in years “with tragic consequences not only for biodiversity but for the functioning of important ecosystems.”
Scientists are fighting back with numbers. One analysis led by researchers at the University of Sao Paulo suggests that the current code, even fully enforced, would allow landowners to cut down another 104 million hectares – enough land to double crop production and still expand the country’s vast cattle pastures by 20 percent. Moreover, they argue that agricultural intensification would allow for vast increases in food production without cutting a single tree. By contrast, Greenpeace estimates that the proposal could reduce protections on a chunk of land equivalent to England and France combined; if cut down, the greenhouse gas impact would be equal to 15 years of emissions from China. Those numbers are unchecked, but they nonetheless provide a sense of scale.
So what happens next? The proposal now goes to the full Congress, where the ruralistas are pushing for a vote. The major parties – including the ruling Workers’ Party of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva – have apparently said they want to wait until after this year’s elections for a vote. Which isn’t to say that the issue won’t play into the elections as environmentalists and rural interests make their case to voters.
Greenpeace officials expect the debate to continue into next year, at which point lawmakers are likely to strike some kind of compromise that will likely be a lot greener than what is currently on the table. “I’m optimistic,” says Rafael Cruz, who is tracking the issue for Greenpeace. “There will be a big debate, but I don’t think the parties will let this text go the way it is.”