The Amazon biome, home to the world's largest variety of plant and animal life, is under serious threat. Hit by rising rates of deforestation, longer droughts and the potential for increasing die-back, as fewer trees could reduce rainfall in the region.
If that wasn't enough, the Brazilian government, under pressure from industry is pushing through plans to partially abandon its Forest Code, an almost unique law in the world requiring landowners to protect rainforest.
In May of this year a 410 to 63 majority in the Brazilian House of Deputies voted through reform that represents a relaxation of the country’s Forest Code. It is still awaiting final approval.
There has since been an outcry by conservationists and opponents to the proposed bill both in terms of what it symbolises and, secondly, for fears it may open the floodgates for further legalised deforestation of previously protected areas.
Brazil had made significant strides towards conserving its fragile Amazonian resource, with deforestation dropping by 70 per cent between 2004-2010. But that success is now being reversed, with rates of deforestation now up 500 per cent year-on-year.
Campaigners blame increased rates of deforestation, in part, on the uncertainty surrounding plans to reform the Forest Code – with the assumption being that forest protection laws are going to be relaxed.
Was it working anyway?
That is not to say the Forest Code - or Law as it is also called - has been a complete success story to date in protecting the Amazon, with more than 90 per cent of landowners in the Amazon still operating illegally.
The Forest Code has evolved sporadically since it was first established in 1934, when the government felt the need to intervene in the unrestricted plundering of a valuable resource. From the Code’s outset it has been subject to constant change, the amendments now numbering in the hundreds.
One of the most notable changes to the Code was made in 1965, with a stipulation that 50 per cent of landowner’s property was designated as legal reserve. Legal reserve denotes an area set aside for conservation and sustainable production and is one of two prescribed areas of preservation under the forest Code, the other being areas of permanent preservation, in which the economic use of resources is prohibited. Today, landowners in Brazil are in theory required to maintain 80 per cent of forests as legal reserve.
While this high requirement of private landowners to protect forest shows good intent, the reality is that far more resources are required than are currently being provided to enforce the legislation.
There are few incentives for compliance, with the emphasis being on punitive measures for those who break the law. Petterson Molina Vale, an economist doing his PhD in Development Studies at LSE, has written extensively on Brazil’s Forest Code and says it is unique in the world for forcing landowners to protect forest.
‘One must bear in mind that the Brazilian environmental legislation is the single one in the world where private rural producers are required to keep a forest reserve, so called legal reserve, within their properties without receiving any compensation for doing so,’ he says.
But Petterson says this is the wrong approach.
Reward don’t penalise farmers
He argues the Brazilian government should incentivise conservation rather than place those who comply with the legislation at a disadvantage, as is currently the case. Why, he asks, should the costs of complying with the current code be borne solely by the landowner, whilst the benefits of protecting forests can be felt worldwide?
The worry from campaigners and forest dwellers is that the government now plans to give an amnesty to those who have deforested illegally prior to 2008. In effect penalising the minority who obeyed the law in the past and most likely stimulating further deforestation by undermining any incentives to effectively conserve legal reserve areas in the future.
Many smallholder farmers engaged in rainforest destruction are far removed from the law-makers in the country’s political capital, Brazillia, both culturally and geographically. The sense of dislocation makes for a difficult time when it comes to drafting and enforcing the legislation (as mentioned previously 90 per cent of land owners still operate illegally).
WWF’s Claudio Maretti, who works in the Amazon region, says a ‘lot of areas in Brazil have continued to allow people to carry on with the old style predatory approach to deforestation and agriculture with frontier land farming continuing to prevail’.
Supporters of scrapping the Forest Code argue it prevents small farmers expanding and lifting themselves out of poverty. But a study published earlier this summer by the Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA) in Brazil says this is not the case and what’s more, the proposed reforms are unlikely to even ease rural poverty, let alone set Brazil on a trajectory for further growth and development.
The study also says protecting areas of forest offered benefits to farmers by preventing soil erosion, hosting pollinators and allowing for the extraction of forest resources to supplement families’ food or income.
Marina Silva, the much-feted former Brazilian Minister for the Environment, says if the ambition is to aid poor farmers then there are much better ways than scrapping the Forest Law. She says the revised code would leave the country's commitments to reducing deforestation ‘fragile’.
WWF-Brazil meanwhile says the changes would ‘promote deforestation and pardon environmental crimes’. Somewhat controversially, it has been calling for more intensive, high-tech cattle farming as an alternative to ranching. Speaking to the Ecologist earlier this year, WWF chief executive Denise Hamu, called for the ‘scaling up’ of beef production in Brazil in order to reduce the pressure to clear rainforest.
What both agree on is that rather than changing the law as it stands, more government support for the forest code could better protect the Amazon – including paying farmers for successfully conserving legal reserve.
Whilst the punitive and restrictive measures included in the Forest Law may act as a symbolic disincentive to deforest, they alone have yet convince farmers in a country with a growing population to altruistically preserve forest. Paying them could help reverse that and perhaps give a reason for keeping Brazil’s historic Code intact.
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