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Brazil: SOS Forests — the Forest Code is in Danger


 SOS Forests — the Forest Code is in Danger

A group of socio-environmental organisations is appealing to its supporters to write to their parliamentary representatives in protest over proposed changes in the Forestry Code. Their appeal can be accessed here.

Here is the translation into English:

SOS Forests — the Forestry Code is in Danger*

“The law that protects forests, rivers, mountains, biodiversity and the climate in Brazil is in danger. Parliamentarians linked to agrobusiness are once again organising to get National Congress to approve profound changes in the Forestry Code and other environmental laws.

If these proposals by the agrobusiness lobby are approved, it will become far easy to destroy the ecosystems in Amazonia and the Cerrado, because the size of areas enjoying legal protection will diminish. It will also become impossible to restore the Atlantic Forest, because there will no longer be a legal obligation to reforest areas excessively cleared.

Those who never had any intention of obeying the law will benefit. And those who have spent time and money doing what the law demanded have once again been treated like fools.

One of the most important laws protecting Brazil’s natural resources will be binned to promote private interests who, wrapping their discourse in nationalist rhetoric, only want the freedom to use and abuse goods that are important for society.

Brazilian society cannot remain passive!

If you, like us, believe it is possible to produce food and to build towns without destroying our natural resources, join our campaign.

Show what you think. Send emails to Parliamentarians. Say no to ecosystem destruction and rewarding of criminals.”

*This initiative is being jointly organised by Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), Instituto de Pesquisa Ambiental da Amazonia (Ipam), Associacao de Preservacao do Meio Ambiente (Apremavi), WWF Brasil, Greenpeace, Instituto de Manejo e Certificacao Florestal e Agricola (Imaflora) and Instituto Centro de Vida (ICV)

The problem

The controversy has arisen over an amendment to the Forestry Code that the Federal Deputy, Aldo Rebelo, is wishing to get approved by Congress. Raul Silva Telles do Valle, a lawyer and environmentalist, who works as legal consultant for ISA, has provided some excellent analysis of what is wrong with recent trends in Brazil’s environmental legislation. To read a couple of his articles in full in Portuguese click here and here
Since 1934 Brazilian landowners have been forbidden by the Forestry Code to cut down vegetation that has the “function of preventing soil erosion”, by which is meant vegetation on slopes and hilltops, and to maintain a “legal reserve” of original vegetation. Currently, this reserve is 80% on land in the Amazon and much lower in the rest of the country. T

This law has been widely infringed but, with the growth in environmental awareness in recent years, the authorities have insisted that the law must henceforth be respected and landowners will be given a fixed term within which to replant the native vegetation they have illegally felled. This process is the basis of Brazil’s commitment to conserve biodiversity and mitigate climate change.

According to Telles, this law will become “inoperable” if Aldo Rebelo’s changes are accepted. “This is because, in a very underhand way, he is opening several loopholes that will allow landowners to get round the law”, he says. The bill is, he says, a “bomb” for Brazil’s biodiversity and climate policies.

Telles’s first concern is over the changes planned for the legal reserve. In his bill, Aldo Rebelo proposes abolishing the legal reserve for all properties of less than four ‘modules’ (the size of the module is defined as the area of land needed to sustain a family, and its size varies from region to region). As a module can be 100 hectares in the Amazon, this immediately exempts properties of up to 400 hectares.

Rebelo claims that this is a measure to help small farmers but Valle says that, in fact, it will be much larger landowners who will end up benefiting most. This is because there will no mechanism for rooting out abuses. Big landowners will be able to artificially separate their estate into a number of smaller properties, each of which will be able to benefit form the exemption.

But it is not just this. Even if a property is bigger, say six modules, the area to be preserved will be calculated from the area over and above four modules; in this case, just 50% or 80% of two modules, not six modules. Reserves, which are often very small already, will become tiny.

Yet another loophole concerns the way the law is to be applied. Municipal governments are to become responsible for implementing the law and, as most of them don’t even have a proper department of the environment at the moment, Rebelo has suggested, quite sensibly, that there should be a period of transition in which both the authorities and the landowners prepare for the new situation. He suggests a bargain: for five years no one can be fined for having illegally cleared lands or forced to replant and, in exchange, landowners will not clear any more land.

Once again, the devil is in the detail. The commitment to ‘zero clearance’ refers only to ‘forests’. This means that it will not apply to the Cerrado (Brazil’s highly threatened savanna) or other endangered ecosystems, but only to Amazonia. And even here, if a landowner had already requested the right to clear an area before 2008, he can carry on, regardless of the embargo.

As municipal governments will be in charge, much will depend on the determination of the mayor to make sure that the landowners keep to their side of the bargain. Telles continues: “As in most towns in the interior the biggest landowners are the mayors themselves or people who are part of their group, the effect of this measure can be imagined. All over Amazonia there will appear thousands of requests for jungle clearance made before 2008.”

In all, Telles seeds the bill as “a huge step backwards”. “although it says it benefits the small landowners, it gives an amnesty to the big landowners”.

Greenpeace and IPAM have calculated that Aldo Rebelo’s bill could lead to an increase of between 25-31 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions. This is about six times the size of the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions that Brazil has promised and will make it quite impossinle for it to fulfill its Copenhagen commitments.

This calculation was made on the basis of the exemption made for properties of up to four modules and the proposal that the size of the legal reserve on properties bigger than four modules should be calculated only on the area of the property above four modules. Paulo Adario from Greenpeace says that this frees up for clearance 85 million hectares. “Let us suppose that half of this is cleared. That will produce at least 12 billion tonnes of emissions or four times the Brazilian target.

MST’s views

Luiz Zarref, from Brazil’s Landless Movement (MST), gave his response. You can find his interview in Portuguese if you click here.
He believes that the bill reflects the strength of the rural lobby. “Their objectives are clear: to push ahead with the huge destruction they have already caused in the Cerrado, the Atlantic Forest and other regions; and to advance in the destruction of the Amazon, consolidating areas they have already cleared. They want to plant monocultures and palm trees in the few areas of conservation that remain.” There is a plus side, however: “For the first time ever, people from the environmental movement are walking closely with people form the peasant movement.”

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