The Brazilian Congress recently passed a controversial new forest code that many scientists believe could cause more deforestation in the Amazon. Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb reports on the rules but says Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff still has the power to veto the changes.
GELLERMAN: From the Jennifer and Ted Stanley Studios in Somerville, Massachusetts, it’s Living on Earth. I’m Bruce Gellerman.
Call it the law of the jungle. For the past 50 years, Brazil’s vast Amazon region has been governed by the Forest Code. It’s a set of detailed environmental rules and regulations designed to protect the rainforest by limiting the amount of land property owners can cut down and develop.
But over the past half century the Forest Code has often been more honored in the breach than the observance. Now, Brazil is set to get a new Forest Code, if the president agrees to sign the controversial changes. Living on Earth’s Bobby Bascomb reports.
BASCOMB: In the 1950s and 60s the Brazilian government encouraged people to move to the Amazon and make it productive, grow food to feed an impoverished country.
[ARCHIVE DOCUMENTARY MUSIC UP THEN UNDER]
[PORTUGUESE ANNOUNCER WITH VOICEOVER: It is not enough to build roads. We must colonize for agriculture or for cattle. The land is good. There are green pastures in the forest made of milk and honey. MUSIC FADES]
BASCOMB: Ninety-two year old Jospe Perrer de Brito was one of those early settlers.
DE BRITO WITH VOICEOVER: When I first came here I came by paddle in 1958. There were only wild Indians living here.
[DEBRITO IN PORTUGUESE]
BASCOMB: De Brito paddled up the Rio des Mortes, in a dug out canoe. He came to farm and raise cows.
DE BRITO WITH VOICEOVER: When I first came here there was a lot of free land. Now every piece of land has been grabbed up by people. There was a lot of forest, very big. Not anymore. The people chopped it down. I think things will be worse if they chop down all of the forest.
BASCOMB: Today, half a century since De Brito paddled up the river, 150 million acres of forest has been chopped down, in spite of the Forest Code that requires landowners to keep 80 percent of their property forested. It’s called the legal reserve and people that cut down their legal reserve must reforest it and pay fines. Yet four point six million agricultural producers are in violation of the law.
RIEDEL: It’s a very complex situation where it made 90 percent of the producers outlaws.
BASCOMB: Eduardo Riedel represents those producers as vice president of the National Federation of Agriculture and Livestock. He says Brazil needs the new Forest Code Congress just passed because the current law is out of step with reality. The new code would create an amnesty for people that illegally deforested before 2008. People will not have to pay the fines as long as they reforest the degraded land.
RIEDEL: We think it’s much better for the environment if you reforest than you pay the fines. It’s not an amnesty that ‘oh,you don’t need anymore to pay the fine.’ It’s not that. You don’t pay the fine if you reforest.
BASCOMB: But environmentalists and scientists see two problems with that rationale. First is the problem of enforcement. The Brazilian Amazon is roughly half the size of the continental United States, yet has just 400 environmental police to patrol the region and enforce laws.
A second concern is that the amnesty clause could actually spur more deforestation. Daniel Brindis is a forests campaigner for Greenpeace, based in Brazil.
BRINDIS: The message is that you can violate the law with impunity. It’s actually sending the message that there might be another round of amnesty on the way or you just don’t need to take the code seriously.
BASCOMB: A piece of land cleared and ready to grow soybeans or graze cows is far more valuable than the same piece of land with trees on it. So Brindis says that farmers and ranchers are choosing to deforest now, assuming another pardon will come along later.
BRINDIS: We’ve actually seen this response in the rise in deforestation rates. The first quarter, the first three months of the year, deforestation was triple that of the same three months from the year before.
BASCOMB: Another change in the law directly encourages deforestation by allowing landowners to cut down trees closer to riverbanks. The Amazon Basin is full of meandering rivers with broad bands of dark green forest along them. The new code will requires a narrower forest buffer along the rivers. That troubles Philip Fearnside, a research professor at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon.
FEARNSIDE: Those riverside forests are very important in terms of avoiding flooding and so forth, and there also very important for biodiversity because those are the corridors that allow animals and plants to move between the different patches that are left after deforestation has advanced.
What keeps the biodiversity viable is have some sort of connection between those little patches that are left, and by eliminating these areas of permanent protection, you have a much greater impact on biodiversity than cutting out that same area of forest somewhere else. It’s the worst place to have that extra clearing allowed.
BASCOMB: Most scientists agree that the new Forest Code will increase deforestation and reduce biodiversity. And Fearnside says the majority of the Brazilian public are against the changes, as well.
FEARNSIDE: Brazil is now over 80 percent urban, so most of the population has no direct economic stake in being allowed to deforest more. Opinion polls also show that most of the population was against this but still,the original proposal in the lower House passed by a margin of seven to one for something that’s basically against the interest of the majority of the Brazilian population.
BASCOMB: And so, why was the Congress so overwhelmingly in support of the forest bill if the Brazilian people are not in support of it?
FEARNSIDE: Well, that’s a very good question [LAUGHS]. You have a very powerful lobby, this ruralist lobby has a tremendous amount of money. There’s obviously the big soybean planters and ranchers and so forth that are contributing to this. It’s presented as if it were something to favor the small farmers but actually, of course, the money and the influence is coming from these wealthy landowners. And it shows very much the sort of balance of power which has shifted to be very anti-environmentalist.
BASCOMB: The fate of the new Forest Code rests on the pen of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. When she campaigned for the job she promised to balance economic development with environmental conservation. She has continued to say that she would veto any provision that allowed amnesty for illegal deforestation. The Brazilian public is holding her to that promise with a widespread campaign known as “Veta Dilma” - Veto the Forest Code, President Dilma.
The slogan even made its way to an awards ceremony for the former president Lula, hosted by a famous Brazilian actress Camila Pitanga.
[PORTUGUESE THEN ENGLISH]
PITANGA WITH VOICEOVER: Mr. President, I will break protocol for a moment, only to ask you onething....Veta Dilma!
[CROUD ERUPTS WITH CLAPPING AND CHEERING]
CROWD: VETA DILMA!
[CLAPPING FADES UNDER]
Actress Camila Pitanga tells President Rousseff to veto the forest code.
BASCOMB: Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has a line item veto. She has the power to strike down individual parts of the bill. She could remove the amnesty clause for illegal deforestation. But once its signed the bill goes back to Congress where her veto could be overturned. The president has until May 25 to decide what changes, if any, to make. As we record this story she has not yet weighed in on the Forest Code. For Living on Earth, I’m Bobby Bascomb.
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