Recent reports indicate that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is not slowing down. In fact, it has jumped almost six-fold in the March-April period of this year, according to satellite images taken by the National Institute of Space Research. One factor which is contributing to this rise is the increasing demand for agricultural land to grow soy, cotton and other products – and new policies may propel this demand even further.
Brazil’s Congress voted Tuesday on proposed changes to Brazil’s Forestry Code. This Code was enacted in 1934 and amended in 1965 to help protect native Brazilian forests by limiting the amount of land a farmer can deforest. Regulations currently require landowners in Brazil to maintain 80% of their land as forest but the proposed changes will effectively allow more land to be converted for agricultural purposes.
The point of contention raised in recent reports was whether the current law impeded Brazil’s economic development and therefore needed to change. Environmentalists felt that changing the Forest Code to allow more land to be used for agriculture would be a disaster for Brazil’s rainforest ecosystems, while industries argued the changes were crucial to the country’s economy.
Deforestation and degradation in the Brazilian Amazon increasingly reflect market demands and private sector profitability, combined with a policy arena that, although averse to continued forest clearing, actively promotes activities that are among its principle driving forces.
Current government measures undertaken to reduce deforestation continue to be undermined by contradictory policies, particularly those within the agribusiness and mining sectors. The amendments to the Forest Code would exacerbate this trend.
The bill mandates that native vegetation must be conserved on private rural and farm properties, via creation of so-called Permanent Protection Areas to preserve “fragile” hillside and riverside areas, and legal reserves where native vegetation may not be touched. However, some small landowners will be exempt from the legal reserve requirement, according to the text of the bill. In addition, existing cultivation of some products including grapes, apples and coffee will continue to be allowed in areas designated as Permanent Protection Areas.
These exemptions recognize the current illicit practices that are driving deforestation, and which currently violate the Forest Code, but are not enforced. Over the years, the vast majority of fines for illegal deforestation, when issued, have simply not been paid, despite recent increases in the value of those fines. The bill provides an amnesty for these illicit practices, and may encourage further deforestation in Brazil.
Moreover, the amendments to the Forest Code may have an important negative effect on Brazil’s capacity to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation (REDD), an international policy approach developed under the United Nations Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). Brazil is also a key actor in the Interim REDD+ Partnership, currently chairing it with France.
Brazil’s main challenge in mitigating climate change is deforestation, which is responsible for up to 75% of Brazil’s CO2 emissions. Brazil has adopted a target for the reduction of deforestation of 80% in the Amazon and of 40% in Cerrado by 2020.
Thus far, the proposed changes to the Code have been approved in the lower house and will now proceed to the Senate for discussion and voting.