Inside Story Americas
The battle for Brazil's rainforest
Will proposed changes to Brazil's forest code set the Amazon on a path to speedier deforestation, as feared by many?
Last Modified: 04 May 2012 12:32

A new bill in Brazil seeks to relax the rules governing forest preservation in the Amazon.

"It's going to take some time for the agro-business industry to realise that preserving the environment is good for business. If you mess with the climate, rainfall patterns, erosion issues then you're going to mess with their businesses. Unfortunately people need to make mistakes before they learn ...."

- Mark London, a filmmaker and author

The new forestry bill is a victory for Brazil's agricultural lobbies. An economic boom fuelled by high commodity prices has boosted their political influence.

They argue that existing laws are too strict - classifying the majority of farms as illegal and their owners, criminals.

Large parts of the Amazon forest destroyed in past decades have become productive farmland. Soy farms, for example, have helped make Brazil the world's second-biggest producer.

Many in President Dilma Rousseff's Workers Party back environmental causes but others want to further exploit Brazil's vast natural resources to speed up growth. Rousseff's government backs new dams, roads and mines in the Amazon.

"It's quite extraordinary that in recent years the Brazilian economy has grown tremendously and has been a model, and at the same time the rate of deforestation has dropped. Why is that the case and why can't that necessarily continue?"

- Andrew Miller, an advocacy coordinator for Amazon Watch

The parliamentary vote however is being seen as a setback for the government. Officials close to the president say she is considering a veto of parts of the forestry bill.

Brazil established its forest code in 1936 and the current version has been on the books since 1965.

In less than two months the country will host a UN environmental conference to mark the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit of 1992. Environmental groups say the forest bill will speed up deforestation in a country with the world's largest rainforest.

So, are Brazil's actions setting a worrying environmental precedent? Will Rousseff try to preserve her environmental credentials by vetoing the forestry bill, or will she cave in to the powerful agricultural lobbies?

Joining the discussion on Inside Story Americas with presenter Shihab Rattansi are guests: Andrew Miller, an advocacy coordinator for Amazon Watch; Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, a Latin America analyst at Eurasia Group focusing on Brazil; and Mark London, a filmmaker and author who has extensively documented the changes in the Amazon region.

"It is a regional issue. There are many projects that try to balance environmental concerns with industrial and energy concerns, so it's very difficult to reach that balance in that region in South America."

Joao Augusto de Castro Neves, a Latin America analyst, Eurasia Group

Key provisions in Brazil's forestry bill:

  • Allows smaller farmers to cultivate land close to hilltops and streams, which are more vulnerable to erosion
  • Waives fines for illegal tree-clearing before 2008 but larger landholders will still have to replant cleared areas or preserve a similar size of land somewhere else
  • Authorises the state and local governments to determine how much area should be preserved as standing forest

Brazil's Amazon rainforest:

  • It stretches across nine South American countries, is the largest continuous tropical forest in the world and home to 1/5 of the world's plant and animal species
  • It made up roughly 60 per cent of Brazil's land mass in 1970 but since then about 20 per cent of it has been lost
  • Environmental experts estimate that at the current rate of deforestation, the rainforest area will be 40 per cent less by 2030 than what it was in 1970
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