Proposed forest law threatens Amazon rainforest

Posted by jamie — 5 July 2010 at 12:17pm - Comments

In Brazil, moves are afoot to amend a piece of legislation which has been protecting the Amazon rainforest for over 70 years, and not for the better. If the changes are voted through, it could mean that the area of the Amazon which can be legally destroyed will double, and it's the backers of these changes - the agriculture, biofuels and energy barons - who stand to benefit as they argue that pesky forest laws are a hindrance to economic development. 

Believe it or not, Brazil's forest code is a wonderfully progressive piece of legislation, in theory protecting huge areas of rainforest (whereas in practice, the problems of policing such a vast area and associated corruption means that there's plenty of illegal logging going on). 

It's been around in one form or another since 1934, and was significantly improved by the previous president, Fernando Henrique Cardoso. The deforestation rates in 1995 were so abominably high that the following year, he amended the code to increase what's known as the legal reserve - the amount of forest on a farm or settlement which must be protected - from 50 to 80 per cent. 

Over the last 10 years, there have been over 30 attempts to undermine the code (here's a previous effort we reported on), all of which have failed to make any significant changes. But now another effort is underway to roll back the legal reserve to 50 per cent, spearheaded by Aldo Rebelo, a politician who is painting the concept of forest protection as a conspiracy by the developed world to restrict Brazilian development. This chimes nicely with the demands of the big agribusiness corporations who want to expand further into what they see as land with undeveloped potential. 

Lots of other insidious alterations are currently being discussed, including an amnesty on anyone guilty of illegal logging before July 2008, but it's the 50 per cent marker which will do the most damage if it gets through. 

Our researchers, together with IPAM (the Amazon Environmental Research Institute), estimate that the area of rainforest which can be legally cleared could double, so around 85m hectares could vanish. Imagine England and France squished together - that's how big 85m hectares is, and given that only (only - ha!) 73m hectares have been lost to date, that's a hell of a lot. 

So what's happening? The Brazilian congress will vote on the package of changes this week and, although there are several more political hoops to jump through before it becomes law, if congress votes in favour the forest code will be one step further to being approved. 

It's also an election year in Brazil and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva will be stepping down as president. During his term of office over the last seven years, deforestation in the Amazon has plummeted and he has made commitments to further reduce deforestation as well as slash Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions. If the amendments go through, both of these ambitions will be in tatters, not to mention Lula's legacy, and the impacts on the health of our planet will be devastating.

What may look like a national issue is one of global importance - the influence the Amazon rainforest has on climate and water cycles stretch far beyond its official boundaries, and the greenhouse gas emissions which will be the true bounty from further deforestation will affect us all. 

We're not asking your help at the moment, but if it looks like the new forest code is getting closer to becoming law then we may well ask you to take action to save the Amazon rainforest.

About Jamie

I'm a forests campaigner working mainly on Indonesia. My personal mumblings can be found @shrinkydinky.

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