Burned trunks are seen in an illegally deforested area of the Jamanxim National Forest, state of Para, northern Brazil.
As world political and business leaders ready for the Rio+20 U.N. sustainability conference in June, Brazil’s leaders are debating policy changes that could jeopardize the leadership it has earned from reducing Amazon deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions.
Since hosting the 1992 “Earth Summit,” which produced the first international agreement on forest protection, Brazil has risen from the ninth- to sixth-largest economy, ahead of the U.K. and just behind France. Deforestation in the Amazon last year fell to the lowest rate since government began monitoring the world’s biggest rainforest in 1988. The rate is down almost 80 percent in six years.
“A decade ago, almost everyone would have said efforts to get Brazil to stop cutting down the Amazon were a total failure,” said Doug Boucher, head of the Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “Thanks to a shift in political dynamics and rise of a strong environmental movement, it became a huge success story.”
Brazil is now in danger of backtracking because of a proposed overhaul to the country’s 1965 Forest Code, which requires farmers to keep as much as 80 percent of their land as forest, environmentalists say. Brazil’s House and Senate have each passed legislation that farmers and ranchers say is necessary to update current law and that activists call unacceptable.
The proposed bills include lowering the amount of forest that landowners must maintain, granting farmers amnesty and exempting them from having to replant areas that were illegally cleared before 2009. The measures still must be reconciled and sent to President Dilma Rousseff for approval.
Rousseff, elected Brazil’s first woman leader in 2010, made a campaign pledge to reject such efforts. She also criticized former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva for not doing enough to control deforestation.
Failure to veto the legislation would thwart Brazil’s goal of reducing deforestation by 80 percent by 2020 and hurt the country’s newfound role as global environmental leader, according to some analysts.
Rolling back forest protections would be the “exact wrong message to send to the world,” given the upcoming Rio+20 U.N. conference, said Riordan Roett, head of Latin American studies at Johns Hopkins University’s School for Advanced International Affairs in Washington D.C.
Critics say they will be watching Rousseff closely to see if she uses her line-item veto power to kill any provisions granting amnesty to farmers and ranchers who have broken the law.
Senator Katia Abreu, president of the Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock, said in November that Brazil would lose about $100 billion in agricultural output if lawmakers fail to pass legislation that includes amnesty for farmers.
Without such a provision, farmers would be forced to reforest about 70 million hectares (173 million acres) of land currently growing coffee, oranges and other commodities, she said. The amnesty and replanting provisions are fair because many farmers complied with the limits on deforestation, only to see those restrictions then tightened by decree, Abreu said.
Since the 1960s, farmers have helped transform Brazil from a food importer into one of the world’s largest exporters of agricultural commodities. Brazil is now the world’s top producer and exporter of coffee and sugar cane and the second-biggest exporter of beef and soy after the U.S. Much of that expansion has been made possible by cutting down the rain forest, not always legally.
Pressure in recent years on Brazilian soybean farmers, and to a lesser extent on cattle ranchers, to stay clear of the forest prompted a self-imposed industry moratorium.
About seven years ago, soybean production was responsible for as much as a fourth of deforestation, according to Boucher. Today, it’s less than 2 percent.
Brazilian Climate Change Secretary Mauro Pires says Brazil’s strategy to fight the problem is two-pronged.
“On one hand, our effort is focused on curbing illegal, predatory deforestation through oversight,” he said. “On the other hand, the effort is aimed at increasing opportunities for sustainable economic activities such as forest management, ecotourism and biotechnology.”
One key monitoring tool the Brazilian government is using in its push to save forestland is satellites, Brazilian lead climate negotiator Ambassador Andre Correa do Lago said in a December interview. Data sales and value-added services from Earth-observation satellites may more than double to $4.5 billion in the decade ending 2020, according to Northern Sky Research.
By combining hundreds of images from satellite coverage with software analysis, experts can analyze patterns of deforestation down to a single tree and calculate the additional emissions that will stay in the atmosphere without trees to pull them down.
Greater political emphasis on sustainability helped drive Brazil’s deforestation rates down as much as other major efforts, such as government monitoring, pressure from environmental groups and the possibility of a global carbon market that pays farmers for saving trees, Boucher said.
That emphasis began with the 2002 election of President Lula, which marked a “major change” in tone, Boucher said.
Lula, whose second term ended in 2010, called for a reduction in Amazon deforestation by 80 percent. It’s part of an effort by Brazil, the fourth largest greenhouse gas emitter, to slash its contribution by as much as 1.3 billion tons in 2020. Seventy-five percent of Brazil’s emissions come from deforestation, which itself is responsible for more than 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
Brazil has cut emissions 68 percent percent below a 1996- 2005 baseline, the largest reduction of any single country.
“Whether Brazil maintains this leadership could very well depend on the outcome of this fight over the forest code,” Stephan Schwartzman, director of tropical forest policy at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, said in an interview. “The fate of the largest, last remaining tropical forest in the world is at stake.”