New threat to Amazon as Brazilian legislators lay siege to forest law



Posted on 28 June 2010  | 
Amazonian rainforest being burnt to create pasture for ranching, Brazil.
Amazonian rainforest being burnt to create pasture for ranching, Brazil.
© WWF-Canon / Mauri RAUTKARIEnlarge
Brasilia, Brazil: The Amazon is facing an urgent new threat as legislators allied to agribusiness interests and landowners seek to drastically weaken conservation requirements of the country’s Forest Law, the foundation of several decades of sometimes impressive progress in reducing deforestation.

The issue could come to a head tomorrow (June 29), with a so-called “ruralist bloc” trying to push “flexibilisation” of the laws through a Special Committee on Forest Law Change on the back of a parliamentary special commission report claiming the laws are holding back economic prosperity.

If the Special Committee accepts the report, it will then go to the parliament for a vote which is expected to be favourable. The president has the option of signing or vetoing any amendments, but a veto is considered unlikely in the charged atmosphere of Brazilian presidential and legislative elections.

WWF-Brazil has strongly attacked the basis of the report, which takes particular aim at hard fought requirements for environmental and sustainable production reserves on private land – an essential complement to a gradually growing system of declared reserves. Ruralist bloc legislators are seeking sharp cutbacks in reserve requirements and an amnesty covering widespread disregard of the law.

According to WWF, Brazilian agribusiness needs to become more productive rather than to clear – and often then devastate – new land before moving on. Even with very patchy enforcement, Brazil’s Forest Law and related measures have been credited with a major role in bringing Amazon deforestation down from the levels that horrified the world in the 1980s.

"Discussions should have been based on science . . . "

“Discussions should have been based on science, not on oblique and distorted arguments,” said Carlos Alberto de Mattos Scaramuzza, Conservation Director of WWF-Brazil. “The scientific community has been very little consulted in the preparation of this document.”

The scientific community has, however, been extensively consulted in the preparation of counter reports, two of which were presented by WWF, Greenpeace and other NGOs in May.

A detailed GIS based analysis of Permanent Preservation Areas, conducted by the respected agricultural college of the University of Sao Paulo (USP/ESALQ), found the APPs had a negligible impact – around 1.5% - on agricultural production in some of Brazil’s leading coffee, grape, rice and fruit producing areas. The zones, APPs in the Portuguese acronym, protect riparian zones along waterways, and vegetation on steep slopes, hilltops and in high altitude areas.

Scaramuzza told a May seminar that positive effects of the APPs and other Legal Reserve (RL) areas required to be set aside for conservation and sustainable development included catchment, river and water quality protection and reduced soil erosion and risk from landslides and floods.

The other larger scale study, still undergoing peer review following a mammoth one and a half years spent in constructing a land use database, is the result of a partnership between USP/ESALQ, Brazil’s Ministry of Agricultural Development, WWF and Chalmers University in Sweden.

It finds that the required area for APPs is about 103 million hectares – with only about 59 million hectares under permanent preservation, a 43 per cent deficit. The area of Legal Reserves is estimated to be about 43 million hectares short of the requirement.

In contrast, 97 per cent of protected areas and indigenous lands are still covered with natural vegetation. The study also finds ample area for expansion of agricultural lands without abolishing or encroaching on reserve areas in line with the parliamentary commission proposals.

More prosperity from boosting productivity than just clearing more land

Agriculture and cattle ranching expansion does not depend on further deforestation to achieve higher productivity rates or even to enlarge its farming areas, USP/ESALQ’s Professor Gerd Sparovek told the seminar. The study points out that much of the 211 million hectares now used in Brazil for cattle ranching has very low rates of cattle per hectare, with sustainable increases in productivity available from integrating agriculture and ranching and improved pasture management.

While Brazil has had some success reducing deforestation in the Amazon, other areas with less of an international profile are under significant assault which only worsen if Forest Law provisions are wound back. They include the endangered Atlantic Forests now the subject of a significant international conservation effort and high savanna areas of the Cerrado, headwaters of many significant Amazon tributaries and the source of the springs for the Pantanal wetlands and Paraguay River.

With significant opposition being expressed to the committee by other legislators, communities, NGOs and the research community WWF is hoping the controversial report is not adopted.

Amazon set to burn again

If the amendments are signed into law, effective control of deforestation will pass from strong Federal legislative control to a piecemeal state by state approach. Under this scenario, a strong upsurge in deforestation is expected, raising the spectre of “the Amazon is burning” past which became a celebrated cause internationally and helped form the basis of a structure of international environmental conventions and institutions.

Passage would also make impossible the Brazilian action plan on climate change which relies on continued reductions in deforestation related emissions. Independent calculations show the amendments could lead to several times the quantity of emissions reductions Brazil has promised.


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Amazonian rainforest being burnt to create pasture for ranching, Brazil.
Amazonian rainforest being burnt to create pasture for ranching, Brazil.
© WWF-Canon / Mauri RAUTKARI Enlarge
Aerial view of forest clearing to create grazing pasture for cattle. Amazon, Brazil.
© WWF / Zig Koch Enlarge

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