Brazil passes 'retrograde' forest code

Amazon forest How will heavy rains affect the newly cleared land?

They kept us in suspense for longer than an Oscars jury; but now, deputies in Brazil's lower parliamentary house have passed a batch of reforms easing the decades-old Forest Code.

As discussed here a few weeks ago when the long parliamentary discussions began, the code sets down national standards aimed at ensuring the really important bits of the nation's forests are protected from development.

The main force pushing the reforms is Aldo Rebelo, head of the Communist Party of Brazil (PCDoB).

His rationale is that the current code works against small-scale farmers. Regional rivals that compete with Brazil as food exporters are not expected to labour under such a handicap, supporters say.

Among the reforms, restrictions on clearing forests along rivers and on the tops of hills will be eased.

There will also be an amnesty for small-scale landowners who illegally chopped down trees prior to July 2008.

There's a dichotomy over development here that reflects a wider global dilemma.

Sure, farmers can exploit more of their land if they clear hilltops and riverbanks.

Dilma Rousseff President Rousseff was elected as the country's first female leader in November 2010

But what happens if strong rains come? How are the chances increased that water will pour down the newly naked slopes and wash soil away?

If drought comes to the Amazon again, as some climate forecasts suggest it will in ever stronger form, how will the removal of riverbank protection exacerbate water shortages that will affect everyone - farmers included?

Yet Mr Rebelo and agricultural leaders argue that Brazil needs the extra farmland in order to feed its own growing population and preserve an export capability.

The reforms have to pass the Senate before they can come into force, and President Dilma Rousseff has vowed to veto anything with an amnesty in it - so the issue isn't completely resolved.

And the country's environmental leaders are in no doubt which way the decision should go.

A group of 10 former environment ministers has sent a letter to President Dilma and to members of congress urging them to reject the reforms, describing them as a "retrograde step".

(You can find the letter in Portuguese on former minister Marina Silva's website - if anyone's seen an English version, please post a link - I haven't.)

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With deforestation being the country's largest source of emissions, reversing deforestation is also the only feasible way for it to meet that target”

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"Long before the world fully awoke to the importance of its forests, Brazil had taken the pioneering step of formally establishing the need for their conservation in its legislation," they write.

As the Forest Code dates back to 1965, it was something of a pioneering step, certainly for a developing country.

They say the code "has been the single most relevant institutional basis for the protection afforded to forests and all the other forms natural vegetation in Brazil, as well as protecting the biodiversity associated to them, the water resources they protect and the ecological services that they provide.

"Agricultural policy can benefit from the services that the standing forests offer and achieve new and more advanced levels of competitiveness and productivity."

They also point to a conflict between what Brazil says it wants to achieve in the climate change arena - a cut in emissions of more than one-third by 2020 - and reducing protection for forests.

With deforestation being the country's largest source of emissions, reversing deforestation is also the only feasible way for it to meet that target.

Yet just last week came news that Amazon deforestation had increased almost six-fold in just a year - an astonishing rise, and a trend large enough, if it continues, to guarantee the emissions target won't be met.

And the ministers link this to the Forest Code issue.

"The mere expectation that the amendment to the Forest Law and its consequent weakening would be approved set off a disturbing wave of renewed deforestation in the Amazon region, as has been unequivocally demonstrated by data recently released by the Brazilian Space Research Institute (INPE)," they write.

World leader

There is an international dimension to this.

In the run-ups to three successive UN climate conferences now, I've been told: "We won't finalise a comprehensive deal this time, but we might get something on REDD".

REDD - Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation - is envisaged as a scheme that would see rich countries funding poorer ones with significant forest resources, like Brazil, to preserve and enhance them, in the global interest of curbing climate change.

Well, REDD hasn't arrived... and probably can't, realistically, because a number of developing countries have said they won't agree measures unless they form part of a comprehensive global climate treaty - which remains as elusive as ever.

Brazil, like Indonesia, has said it would go further on reducing emissions and deforestation with Western support... which isn't forthcoming, because there's no global deal.

Those are the international politics in brief.

But there are also implications for Brazil itself.

Not only a regional leader now, it's also emerged as a global leader, certainly on the stage of nature protection.

At last year's UN biodiversity summit, no country was more visible, more vocal, more engaged in all the issues under discussion than Brazil.

Criticisms of Western nations coalesce around the notion that if you want to claim environmental leadership, do it with actions rather than words.

The same criticisms will, eventually, be levelled at developing countries that do not protect what they have - especially in the face of advice that protection is in their long-term economic interest.

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    #66 kiwiforester

    Water transport across the rainforest is by evapotranspiration from the trees, followed by rainfall downwind, leapfrogging the water eastwards.
    Clearing, especially ridges and slopes, takes water out of this cycle into watercourses, depriving trees downwind of water. At some point this will trigger the transformation of large areas of forest into scrub.
    Politicians beware!

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    I'm horrified at the results a democratic system can have in a country composed of majorly ignorant and unpoliticized people ! The argument mostly used by brazilians when defending this legislation change is that 'if the US and Europe could use their natural resources, so should we'. What about learning from other's mistakes? That is, when they even have an opinion to express! An ashamed brazilian

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Brazil has in many ways pioneered forest protection legislation in the past and has successfully restored and protected large areas of the Amazon in the last decade. We should oppose deforestation of the rain forest. The link below is a petition to President Dilma Rousseff to continue to promote sustainable land use in Brazil.

    Be inspired to help:

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    We are already feeling the effects of relentless pollution and CO2 build-up. This news should cause panic among people who breathe oxygen - of which about 25% comes recycled out of the rain-forests. I breathe oxygen when I can get it but hope we can do something before the panic sets in. I feel annoyed that I missed this article last month but am pleased Avaaz alerted me to it by e-mail.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    Thanks Richard.

    The first world seems to expect rainforest nations to do something for nothing in the interests of global climate stability and corporatisation.

    REDD - Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation, is contrained by its own name more to carbon - The water cycle may be more important and direct see

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    #63 ... continued... couldn't fit "+ high population densities"

    In the meantime, enjoy!

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    #62 - That is why the RIGHT balance is required. Same principals apply. To your #61, you are missing the point. TOTAL biodiversity in the WHOLE landscape is higher with more habitat diversity... as long as the right balance ensures there is enough of all, with corridors between. See C401's earlier comments. Makes complete sense to me. Re #63 - globalization + airplanes + new virus. Inevitable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.

    The problem in Brazil is just like in the U.S. That is a continually growing human population. Failure to deal with human population growth guarantees that even the best forest policies will only slow the destruction. Then the human population will be taken care of the good old fashion way: starvation, disease, and murder.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    CR said "But so is #32. In a given landscape, the RIGHT BALANCE of habitats and habitat diversity increases biodiversity. "

    Unfortunately, Island Bio-geography applies to habitat size on continents, you are conflating within habitat biodiversity with cross habitat biodiversity. Also, the ecology of temperate mountain forests in the Canadian Rockies is considerably different than in the Amazon.

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Character 401 wrote: "Biodiversity is a product of habitat diversity so "intact" old growth forests in themselves do not produce that."

    You are conflating different measures of biodiversity. Within habitat and between habitat biodiversity are not the same. In the Amazon rainforest, biodiversity is higher in the old growth areas than in cleared areas.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    #59 - Using umbrella species is standard procedure for corridor planning in North America. In the Amazon I would guess that any corridor that would work for jaguars would work for most species but agree on the complexity of the issue (thus this new format is useless).

    Brazil is not a wildlife sanctuary. It is home to millions of people. Must make the best of it. Life is risk.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    There is a lot of theory regarding corridors and patch dynamics etc. However, and I am sure you know this, the reason ecology is so tricky is that it is species specific. You can usually only do a behavioural study on one species at a time. Or you can choose an umbrella species e.g. the tiger and hope that maximising its habitat will do the same for many others. But what the concept of risk??

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.

    Just now

    Agreed on the economic value. The problem is that policy makers generally only consider use value (e.g. logging) and not non-use values like cultural or recreation for instance. When they do consider future value, the discount rate is usually ridiculously high. I.e. present economic needs outweigh all other concerns. In a nutshell - firefighting. Ok, green preach over..

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    @56 'Hey, look, no WUWT link!' - CR


    .. if I see things that way, its because after a decade in the cyber trenches, you get very cynical indeed

    The model you are describing is hypothetical ( the accuracy of parts of it, like corridors, are also still open to debate) the best way to preserve rainforest is to find a way to give it a genuine economic value while intact.. much like sharks.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    #55 - Try reading my #52 again. Don't see how I can be more clear.

    Fact is, this IS happening. And will continue to happen. Question is how to make the best of it.

    This has nothing to do with 'partisanship.' You seem to see things that way too much.

    Hey, look, no WUWT link!

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    @54 'Now to prove my innocence, I am going to thumb up all those comments.. ' -CanadianRockies

    I will take your statement at face value.. Thank you very much CR

    If you had not chosen to wheel out the hypothetical model for maximising biodiversity on this subject, I would have been less suspicious of partisanship, for the reasons noted by SO, in his post #51

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    #53 - If you are hinting at me, wrong. The thumb game is silly except where well deserved due to content, not which side the argument is on.

    Now to prove my innocence, I am going to thumb up all those comments so you will feel better. Except for #44 as I don't support the content. See my #52 for why. Biodiversity per se, not bound in the confines of Black's chosen 'take' on this topic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    ROFL!.. the neocon thought police on this forum where in such a hurry to negatively mark my posts, they even marked down the broken ones.. and the one where I asked the moderators to remove those broken posts to tidy up the thread.. priceless..

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    #51 - True. But so is #32. In a given landscape, the RIGHT BALANCE of habitats and habitat diversity increases biodiversity. Different species adapted to each habitat. Mature rainforests are home to exceptional numbers of them but if that was the only habitat, only those species would be present. Brazil pop growth = more frag so need most balance possible + large areas of intact rf protected.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    @39 Re "Fragmentation therefore is not a good thing".
    Of course the new format does not allow for caveats here. Lamna_lasus is correct here about the anthropogenic side. Ecotones aside, large areas of equatorial humid rainforest, on the whole contain 10s or even 100s of times more diversity than most other habitats as you well know (possibly excepting montane rainforest of course). Simplified yes


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