Amnesty for illegal rainforest loggers moves forward in Brazil

Rhett A. Butler,
May 25, 2011

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A controversial bill environmentalists say could increase deforestation in the Amazon rainforest moved a step forward to becoming law in Brazil after winning approval in Brazil's lower house of Congress.

The measure, which has been hotly debated for months, next goes to the Senate where it is expected to pass, before heading to President Dilma Rousseff, who has vowed to veto any bill that grants amnesty for illegal deforestation. The bill includes such a measure, although it could be subject to change before a final decision by the president.

The bill aims to reform Brazil's Forest Code, which requires landowners in the Amazon rainforest to maintain 80 percent of their holdings as forest. The Forest Code also mandates forest cover along waterways and on mountain slopes.

While the provisions make Brazil's environmental laws some of the strictest in the world, in practice they are haphazardly enforced and often used as a tool for extracting bribes from farmers and ranchers. As such it is estimated that less than 10 percent of landowners in the Amazon are compliant with the regulation.

The proposed changes include allowing states to set the minimum forest cover requirement, reducing the area of forest that needs be conserved in riparian zones and hilltops, and granting amnesty for illegal deforestation in protected areas and on holdings under 400 hectares (1000 acres). The amnesty would only apply to areas cleared prior to July 2008, but language in the bill suggests that the cut-off date could shift in the future.

The chief architect of the bill, Aldo Rebelo of Brazil's Communist Party, says the changes would most benefit poor farmers, although small-holder schemes in the past have been widely abused by barons who subdivide holdings and use peasants as proxies to control and grab land. Landowners who have less than 400 hectares won't be expected to reforest deforested areas.

Environmentalists say the changes will increase deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. They point to a recent surge in clearing in Mato Grosso, Pará, and Rondonia — states that lie on the deforestation frontier and account for much of the Brazil's cattle and soy production — as proof that agricultural interests are preparing to chop down more forest. Cattle pasture is the fate of more than 70 percent of deforested land in the Brazilian Amazon, while industrial soy farms have been a major contributor to forest loss until recently.

The bill's passage through the Chamber of Deputies came just hours after one of Brazil's best-known environmentalists was gunned down. José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva and his wife Maria do Espírito Santo da Silva were killed in an ambush near their home in Pará. Suspicion immediately fell on illegal loggers linked to the charcoal trade that supplies pig iron smelters in the region. Da Silva had expressed fear of being assassinated on many occasions but refused police protection.

While environmentalists have mostly opposed the measure, some say that the impact could be mitigated through better enforcement of the Forest Code. Some Brazilian states have recently begun requiring landowners to register their holdings in order to qualify for loans and sell product in legitimate markets. However "regularization" process has been slower than expected, partially held up by looming changes to the Forest Code.

Roughly a fifth of the Brazilian Amazon has been cleared in the past four decades, but deforestation rates have slowed considerably since 2004 primarily due to conservation measures, government policy, economic factors, and private-sector initiatives. Last year deforestation reach the lowest point since annual record-keeping began in 1988, but the environmentalists worry that rising commodity prices, new infrastructure projects, and climate change — which has contributed to the two worst droughts on record in the past five yearscould put much of the Amazon at risk.

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Rhett A. Butler, (May 25, 2011).

Amnesty for illegal rainforest loggers moves forward in Brazil.