July 06, 2011
Over the past twenty years Brazil emerged as an agricultural superpower: today it is the largest exporter beef, sugar, coffee, and orange juice, and the second largest producer of soybeans.
While much of this growth has been fueled by a sharp increase in productivity resulting from improved breeding stock and technological innovation, Brazil has benefited from large expanses of available land in the Amazon and the cerrado, a grassland ecosystem. But agricultural growth in Brazil has always been limited — at least on paper — by its environmental laws. Under the country's Forest Code, landowners in the Amazon must keep 80 percent of their land forested. In the cerrado, the proportion is 20-35 percent.
The provisions of the Forest Code make Brazil's environmental laws some of the most stringent in the world, but in practice they are haphazardly enforced and often used as a tool for extracting bribes from farmers and ranchers, rather than protecting the environment. As such, it is estimated that less than 10 percent of landowners in the Amazon are compliant with the regulation.
Given widespread "illegality" in the farm sector, there is strong interest in "regularizing" the Forest Code. Leading the push has been an alliance of large-scale farmers and ranchers, which is hoping to reduce forest reserve requirements, stipulations for reforestation, and restrictions against clearing forest along waterways and on hillsides.
But the effort to reform the Forest Code is controversial. Citing Brazil's progress in reducing its annual deforestation by more than 75 percent since 2004, environmentalists generally oppose the proposed changes. Some greens fear the new code would effectively grant "amnesty" for illegal deforesters and signal that further transgressions may be forgiven in the future, potentially reversing Brazil's progress in arresting deforestation. Recent data released by Brazilian NGOs and the government seems to support these concerns, revealing a sharp increase in deforestation and degradation in key agricultural states. Two-thirds of clearing in recent months occurred on private lands, which are most likely to benefit from changes in the Forest Code.
Agroindustrial interests in Brazil maintain that modernization of the 1965 law is critical to encouraging investment in the farm sector and providing more food to feed the world. They note that farmers and ranchers in places in the United States and Europe face no legal reserve requirement.
Among the biggest supporters of the Forest Code reform bill is Senator Katia Abreu, a member of opposition Democrat Party who heads the Brazilian Agricultural Confederation (CNA).
Abreu, herself a large landowner in the state of Tocantins, told mongabay.com during a June 2011 interview that reform of the Forest Code is essential to ensuring Brazil's economic growth, while safeguarding environmental services provided by the Amazon rainforest.
"To become a global agricultural powerhouse, Brazil needs modern environmental legislation, which combines agricultural production and environmental conservation, providing a legal certainty for farmers, who depend on a balanced environment to continue production," she said.
"The Brazilian Forest Code is a law from 1965, modified by a series of government actions, which no longer reflects the reality of national agriculture. If not updated, will continue criminalizing 90% of farmers in the country."
Abreu claims modernization of the Forest Code "will not diminish the rules of protection."
Instead, the rules will "become clearer."
Abreu maintains the product of reform will be a "preserved" Amazon: "In 2030, the Amazon will be is as it stands today, preserved."