Thursday, December 8, 2011

Brazil forest code reignites Amazon fears

December 7, 2011
Source: Financial Times

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Brazil’s senate has passed a landmark forest code that had caused a heated debate between environmentalists and landowners over the future of the Amazon rainforest.

Environmentalists say the new law amounts to an amnesty for illegal clearing by ranchers, while proponents say it provides much-needed legal certainty for farmers in the world’s largest producer of coffee, sugar, beef and orange juice.

“I would like to tell you something: this is not the code of my dreams. This is was what was possible and I believe this is as good as we could get,” said Jorge Viana, the senator from the Amazonian state of Acre who oversaw the passage of the law through Brazil’s upper house.

The bill, which has yet to be signed by President Dilma Rousseff, updates a 1965 law that severely restricted the amount of land farmers can clear in Brazil but which was widely flouted.

The fierce debate over the issue in Brazil comes as the world’s big economies are discussing a global deal to combat climate change at United Nations-backed talks in Durban, South Africa, this week.

Brazil has made strides to reduce the destruction of the Amazon, seen as one of the world’s main bulwarks against climate change, with deforestation falling to its lowest levels since state monitoring began in 1988 in the 12 months until the end of July.

But environmentalists warn that the forest faces multiple threats, ranging from logging, ranching and degradation from fires to climate change itself in the form of higher frequencies of floods and droughts.

An earlier version of the law, which was passed by the lower house, offered a sweeping amnesty for farmers who had illegally deforested before July 2008.

The Senate version has revised this but, out of about 55m hectares – an area the size of France – that would have had to have been reforested according to the old code, farmers will now have to restore only 24m ha, according to Mr Viana.

Farmers who illegally deforested before 2008 will not be required to pay billions of dollars of fines and will instead have time to allow regeneration of some of the areas that should have vegetation.

The law must now go back to the lower house, or Congress, where it is expected to pass virtually unchanged, before it goes to Ms Rousseff, who has veto power.

People familiar with her position say that while she opposed the earlier draft, which offered a fuller amnesty, she is unlikely to oppose this version, arguing that the amnesty has been removed.

“The people who talk about an amnesty are not speaking the truth,” said Mr Viana. “Farmers will have to reforest 24m hectares. If they do that, we will have the greatest reforestation programme in the world.”

But former environment minister Marina Silva, who during her term was credited with cracking down on illegal clearing, said the law amounted to carte blanche for landowners to continue clearing in the expectation of future amnesties.

“There is an amnesty. Why? If you have a tax bill, the fiscal authorities might give you a 10 or 20 per cent discount but a discount of more than 50 per cent is a different thing,” she said.

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