Brazil's forests at risk under proposed law, critics say
By Diana Renee Mar 8, 2012, 14:08 GMT
Brasilia - Just three months before world leaders gather in Rio to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit, Brazil's forest laws remain at the centre of a drawn out controversy.
The government of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is trying to get through Congress a new Forest Code which environmental protection organizations have already slammed as a major blow to the country's efforts to halt deforestation.
Now the farming lobby is working to get legislators to water down the text even more.
Agriculture Minister Mendes Ribeiro has stressed that, while 'it is not perfect,' the proposed new code remains 'the best possible' right now. The government is trying to get its allies in the lower house of the Brazilian Congress to support, unchanged, a bill that the Senate already passed in December.
However, things do not look easy. The fear of a legislative defeat led Marco Maia, the speaker of the lower house of the Brazilian Congress, to postpone until next week the vote on the bill, which had originally been scheduled for late Tuesday. He hopes to secure a deal by then.
Legislators of the so-called farming block - which represents the interests of large landowners - are trying to remove from the text the requirement that farmers reforest areas that were illegally destroyed.
The government is also facing rebellion from its main ally, the centrist Party of the Brazilian Democratic Movement (PMDB), whose legislators recently complained in a manifesto about the 'unfair and unequal treatment' they get from Rousseff.
Environmental organizations are alarmed about the government-sponsored bill. They say that the proposed new code would lead to an increase in the destruction of the Amazon rainforest and grant an 'amnesty' to those who illegally engaged in deforestation.
About 1,000 protestors, a mix of environmental activists and small farmers, gathered in Brasilia Wednesday to demand that Rousseff veto the new code if it makes it through Congress.
The controversy caught up with UN Under-Secretary General Sha Zukang, responsible for the upcoming UN Conference on Sustainable Development (known as Rio+20), as he visited Brazil this week. Sha is busy organizing the summit, which is expected to bring together in Rio the leaders of around 100 countries June 20-22.
The gathering will mark the 20th anniversary of the watershed Rio Earth Summit of 1992 that put climate change, preservation of diverse species and conservation onto the international agenda.
'This forest belongs to Brazil. That's very clear. Of course, Brazil is a part of the world,' the Chinese diplomat told a press conference Tuesday.
Brazil, whose economy ranks in the world's top ten, is a global leader in climate protection and has committed to drastically reducing its carbon dioxide emissions and reducing deforestation by 80 per cent by 2020.
'We are living in the same planet. When you ... exploit your resources, like forests, you should be taking into account its impact on the environment,' Sha said about the proposed forest code.
He spoke about assessing the impact of any moves on the environment of 'first of all Brazil, and then also the whole world.' South America's Amazon forests, which occupy large expanses of Brazil, are considered to be one of the world's largest green lungs for the carbon dioxide they consume and oxygen they produce.
But they are disappearing at an alarming rate to heavy logging and land-clearing for agriculture and grazing.
Late last year, the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) said that even if no changes are made to the current version of the bill, the new code will pave the way for the destruction of 76.5 million hectares of rainforest, a surface equivalent to Germany, Austria and Italy put together.
The current text, as approved by the Senate, imposes no legal sanctions on farmers who engaged in illegal deforestation prior to July 22, 2008. To avoid penalties, however, large landowners are required to restore the forest areas they destroyed. According to the Brazilian daily Folha de Sao Paulo, restoration of all such lands would end up forgiving about 285 million dollars in fines.
Small landholders, with estates of up to 400 hectares depending on the state, do not even need to do that much and are exempted from the obligation to reforest the land they illegally destroyed.
The bill also reduces from 30 to 15 metres the swath of original vegetation that has to be preserved on the banks of rivers narrower than 10 metres - a measure environmental activists say increases the risk of natural disasters, including floods and mudslides.
The new code would also controversially reduce the area of compulsory Amazon rainforest reserve from 80 per cent to just 50 per cent in those Brazilian states where preservation areas and/or the lands of indigenous peoples cover more than 65 per cent of the land.