This week the Brazilian Congress was scheduled to vote on a bill to amend the country’s forestry code. It is a bill that has evoked passionate debate.
But yesterday, yet again, that vote was delayed after a congressional shake-up in which President Rousseff replaced her coalition’s leaders in each chamber. Since last November, the vote has been delayed for a variety of reasons including criticisms from the scientific community, environmental experts and a subtle political international pressure. No new date has been scheduled as of the publication of this post.
Dating back to 1965, the current forestry code is credited with saving huge swaths of the Amazon rainforest. The proposed modifications, while originally intended to increase protection of forested areas, was changed in its drafting to allow areas to be farmed even if they were illegally logged before July 2008.
For the ruralistas, the powerful Brazilian agribusiness sector, it is a more realistic code for a key sector that represents 22 percent of Brazilian GDP. For environmentalists, such as former presidential candidate Marina Silva, it will foster deforestation by reducing conservation areas and granting amnesty to those who cut down trees in the past.
Brazil, the world´s leading beef producer and second soya exporter after the U.S., has become a powerful global food supplier. The consequences of the new forest code could be felt not only domestically, but also abroad.
Last week I met Ms. Silva in her new office on the second floor of a shopping mall in the north of Brasilia. She told me why she is fighting the new proposal and the reasons she is campaigning for President Rousseff to veto the new code if it is approved.
Morales: Why do you oppose the new Forest Code?
Silva: Since 1965 we have a law to protect forests in Brazil. The new forest code reverses the logic: it is a law to facilitate farming.
Morales: What are the consequences?
Silva: Without a shadow of doubt, we will have an increase in deforestation. On the other hand, there will be forgiveness for all those who deforested land through 2008. This will legalize some 40 million hectares of illegally deforested areas.
In addition, the new code reduces the protection buffers for springs and river banks. This endangers the water. In small rivers the law mandates the preservation of a 30-meter band. In the new text this is halved. In large rivers like the Amazon, Solimões and Tapajós, the protected area is 500 meters. The revised code would reduce it to only 100.
The new code is only part of a series of initiatives to weaken environmental legislation across the country.
Morales: What other initiatives are you referring to?
Silva: The government and Congress also are changing the legislation to create Indigenous lands. Today these areas are created by presidential decree. They want to pass that to the Congress. As the majority in Congress is against the Indigenous I doubt they will create new Indigenous areas.
They also approved an interim measure that allows the president to reduce Conservation Units (areas of natural reserve and national parks).
Morales: Why has so much attention been focused on the new code?
Silva: The forest code is one of the most important and best known laws. So it has great potential for citizen oversight. If the law is amended, this will be only the first step in changing other environmental laws. The National System of Protected Areas and the environmental crimes law are also targeted by farmers who are stuck in an old way of thinking. We must understand the importance of conservation and make an effort to boost production through increased productivity and not a predatory expansion of the agricultural frontier.
Morales: The Ministry of Environment of Brazil said that the new law is a much more realistic middle ground. It considers its critics idealists.
Silva: It is unfortunate that the Ministry of Environment is not fulfilling its role in defending the Brazilian environmental legislation of the last 30 years—legislation that was drafted due to the great effort of academics, civil organizations and parliamentarians committed to the protection of environmental assets in Brazil.
When I was at the Ministry of Environment I made a huge effort to mediate the things that could be mediated. I think it is possible to accept the permanent placement of some crops in areas that were previously forest and are now home to vines, apples and coffee.
What they have done now, with consent of the Ministry, is to enlarge the scope to include livestock grazing, planting of pines, eucalyptus, and agriculture. This is what we oppose.
It is not true that defending the forest code in a way that enables protection and development without compromising the forests is merely a dream. During my time as environmental minister we fought deforestation and reduced deforestation by more than 80 percent in the Amazon. We achieved this within the existing legal framework, and did so while growing economically and reducing poverty and CO2 emissions. The new flexibilities will end this virtuous circle of growth.
Lorenzo Morales is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is a professor at the Center for Journalism Studies at the Universidad de los Andes in Bogotá, Colombia, and is also a journalist currently funded by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting to focus on the Colombian mining industry.