The Amazon is home to the largest remaining rainforest in the world. But the Brazilian government (backed by powerful agribusiness interests) is poised to open up vast new areas to agriculture and cattle ranching by changing its long-standing forest law.
Brazil's original Forest Code of 1965 established a proportion of rural land that should be maintained permanently as forest (Legal Reserves), and also prohibited the clearing of vegetation in sensitive areas – such as on steep slopes and along the margins of rivers and streams (Areas of Permanent Protection).
In 2011, despite fierce opposition by civil society groups, including WWF, and due to pressure of archaic agriculture and ranching sectors and contamination by political disputes, the proposed legislative reform passed with a substantial majority on both legislative houses and is now up for the president's approval or veto.
Studies reveal that the revised Forest Code proposal could have negative effects on an area roughly equivalent to Germany, Italy and Austria combined.
If put in effect, the new law, promoted by rural and agribusiness interests, opens vast new areas of forest to agriculture and cattle ranching and extends amnesties to illegal deforestation conducted prior to 2008. Areas formerly held to be too steep or vital to the protection of watersheds and watercourses are among those now open to destruction.
What is the area liable to be deforested/affected as a result of the changes to the Brazilian Forest Law?
According to the study made by the Institute of Applied Economic Research (Ipea), a body linked to the Federal Government, the area that could be deforested as a result of the alterations to the Brazilian Forest Law could be as much as 79 million hectares, an area similar to the size of Chile.
How much carbon would be released into the atmosphere?
According to the Ipea study mentioned above, carbon release into the atmosphere could amount to 28 billion tonnes. This figure represents the carbon stocks that would no longer be replenished because of the amnesty proposal in the draft reform bill, and because of new waves of deforestation that could take place in areas that would have the protection they currently enjoy removed.
The emissions associated with that would make it practically impossible for Brazil to meet its commitments on greenhouse gas emission reductions. Brazil has committed itself to reducing the growth curve of greenhouse gas emissions by somewhere between 36.1% and 38.9% by the year 2020.
That commitment was formalised in Law 12.187/2009 which instituted Brazilian National Climate Change Policy and it was also formalised before the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
A Climate Observatory Study has shown that more than 25 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases could be launched released into the atmosphere as a result of deforestation stemming from the alterations approved in the Brazilian House of Representatives. That is 13 times more than Brazil’s total emissions for the year 2007.
Both studies, from Ipea and Climate Observatory, show in the worst scenario how the situation is critical for Brazil.
Whose interests are served by the proposed alterations to the Forest law?
The main interested parties are the big landowners who have traditionally ignored and failed to comply with environmental legislation. In recent years the Office of the Federal Public Prosecutor, the federal government and the Justice Branch have been taking a firmer attitude, demanding obedience to the legislation and applying fines and sanctions.
Feeling themselves being pushed into a corner, the big landowners set out to obtain changes in the legislation that would legalise the deforestation they have carried out.
How much abandoned or inadequately used land is there that could be used for agricultural and livestock raising purposes?
Currently Brazil has at least 61 million hectares of pastures (610 thousand km²) in lands that are suitable for agriculture and those could be used immediately for such ends thereby avoiding the need for any new deforestation. That is actually an area slightly larger than France and only a little smaller than the area under agriculture today in Brazil which is 67 million hectares (670 thousand km²). Those figures were obtained by researchers at the Luiz de Queiroz Superior School of Agriculture (Esalq-USP) headed by renowned Professor Gerd Sparovek PhD.
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