Aproposed overhaul of Brazilian forest policy being considered in Congress is raising concern that the world’s largest forest could be left more vulnerable than in decades to razing by farmers despite recent progress in protecting it.
Destruction of the forest, which is a vital global climate regulator due to the vast amount of carbon it stores as well as a caldron of biodiversity, is driven mainly by farmers who clear Amazon land for crops and livestock.
Supported by the powerful farming lobby, the proposed changes to Brazil’s 1965 Forest Code would take away important powers to set forest protection policy from the federal government and give them to states. Environmentalists say this would spark a race to laxer standards.
The measure also would give amnesty to people fined for violating the current forest code up to 2008 and sharply cut the amount of land that owners would have to save as forest.
The legislation could cause problems for President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva or his successor to be chosen in October’s presidential election in which Lula cannot run.
A special committee in Congress passed the measure this month. It is expected to be voted on by the full Congress this year, likely after the elections.
“It will be a huge embarrassment for whoever gets into office,” said Fabio Scarano, the executive director of the Conservation International Brazil environmental group.
“Environmentally it’s a disaster from what science tells us, and from the agricultural point of view it’s also a disaster. The water they use for irrigation is the water that is protected by these very reserves. All sides lose,” Scarano added.
Supporters of the bill say it would make Brazil’s agriculture sector more competitive by giving farmers more access to productive land. They point to language in the bill that would require a five-year moratorium on new deforestation as evidence that the measure, if made law, would not herald a new wave of Amazon destruction.
Farmers say that stricter protection rules over the years have left many of them outside the law, even though they themselves may not have been responsible for clearing the forest land now used for farming.
Under the bill, farmers in Amazon states would need to keep only 20 per cent of their land as forest, down from 80 per cent now.