Amnesty for illegal rainforest loggers moves forward in Brazil

Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
May 25, 2011

Click to enlarge

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.

Related articles

Brazil's forest code debate may determine fate of the Amazon rainforest

(05/05/2011) Brazil's forest code may be about to get an overhaul. The federal code, which presently requires landowners in the Amazon to keep 80 percent of their land forest (20-35% in the cerrado), is widely flouted, but has been used in recent years as a lever by the government to go after deforesters. For example, the forest code served as the basis for the "blacklists" which restricted funds for municipalities where deforestation has been particularly high. To get off the blacklist, and thereby regain access to finance and markets, a municipality must demonstrate its landowners are in compliance with environmental laws.

Monitoring deforestation: an interview with Gilberto Camara, head of Brazil's space agency INPE

(02/08/2011) Perhaps unsurprisingly, the world's best deforestation tracking system is found in the country with the most rainforest: Brazil. Following international outcry over immense forest loss in the 1980s, Brazil in the 1990s set in motion a plan to develop a satellite-based system for tracking changes in forest cover. In 2003 Brazil made the system available to the world via its web site, providing transparency on an issue that was until then seen as a badge of shame by some. Since then Brazil has become recognized as the standard-bearer for deforestation tracking and reporting—no other country offers the kind of data Brazil provides. Space engineer Gilberto Camara has overseen much of INPE's earth sensing work and during his watch, INPE has released several new exciting capabilities.

The changing nature of illegal logging - and illegal logging investigations - in Brazil's Amazon

(07/08/2010) Operation Jurupari followed on several previous Brazilian Federal Police investigations into SEMA, including: Operation Curupira I (June 2005); Curupira II (August 2005); Mapinguari (2007), Arc of Fire (2008), Termes (April 2008); and Caipora (2008). It was led by Franco Perazzoni, Brazilian Federal Police "Delegado" (or chief), who, since 2006, has headed the environmental crimes unit in Mato Grosso and been responsible for about 300 investigations on environmental crimes, of which about 75% were on illegal deforestation in federal areas. The nature of the illegal deforestation has changed over the years.

Brazil could halt Amazon deforestation within a decade

(12/03/2009) Funds generated under a U.S. cap-and-trade or a broader U.N.-supported scheme to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and degradation ("REDD") could play a critical role in bringing deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon to a halt, reports a team writing in the journal Science. But the window of opportunity is short — Brazil has a two to three year window to take actions that would end Amazon deforestation within a decade.

Concerns over deforestation may drive new approach to cattle ranching in the Amazon

(09/08/2009) While you're browsing the mall for running shoes, the Amazon rainforest is probably the farthest thing from your mind. Perhaps it shouldn't be. The globalization of commodity supply chains has created links between consumer products and distant ecosystems like the Amazon. Shoes sold in downtown Manhattan may have been assembled in Vietnam using leather supplied from a Brazilian processor that subcontracted to a rancher in the Amazon. But while demand for these products is currently driving environmental degradation, this connection may also hold the key to slowing the destruction of Earth's largest rainforest.

Activists target Brazil's largest driver of deforestation: cattle ranching

(09/08/2009) Perhaps unexpectedly for a group with roots in confrontational activism, Amigos da Terra - Amazônia Brasileira is calling for a rather pragmatic approach to address to cattle ranching, the largest driver of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. The solution, says Roberto Smeraldi, founder and director of Amigos da Terra, involves improving the productivity of cattle ranching, thereby allowing forest to recover without sacrificing jobs or income; establishing a moratorium on new clearing; and recognizing the economic values of maintaining the ecological functions of Earth's largest rainforest.

Brazil's plan to save the Amazon rainforest

(06/02/2009) Accounting for roughly half of tropical deforestation between 2000 and 2005, Brazil is the most important supply-side player when it comes to developing a climate framework that includes reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD). But Brazil's position on REDD contrasts with proposals put forth by other tropical forest countries, including the Coalition for Rainforest Nations, a negotiating block of 15 countries. Instead of advocating a market-based approach to REDD, where credits generated from forest conservation would be traded between countries, Brazil is calling for a giant fund financed with donations from industrialized nations. Contributors would not be eligible for carbon credits that could be used to meet emission reduction obligations under a binding climate treaty.

Future threats to the Amazon rainforest

(07/31/2008) Between June 2000 and June 2008, more than 150,000 square kilometers of rainforest were cleared in the Brazilian Amazon. While deforestation rates have slowed since 2004, forest loss is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. This is a look at past, current and potential future drivers of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

How to save the Amazon rainforest

(01/04/2009) Environmentalists have long voiced concern over the vanishing Amazon rainforest, but they haven't been particularly effective at slowing forest loss. In fact, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars in donor funds that have flowed into the region since 2000 and the establishment of more than 100 million hectares of protected areas since 2002, average annual deforestation rates have increased since the 1990s, peaking at 73,785 square kilometers (28,488 square miles) of forest loss between 2002 and 2004. With land prices fast appreciating, cattle ranching and industrial soy farms expanding, and billions of dollars' worth of new infrastructure projects in the works, development pressure on the Amazon is expected to accelerate. Given these trends, it is apparent that conservation efforts alone will not determine the fate of the Amazon or other rainforests. Some argue that market measures, which value forests for the ecosystem services they provide as well as reward developers for environmental performance, will be the key to saving the Amazon from large-scale destruction. In the end it may be the very markets currently driving deforestation that save forests.

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

Amnesty for illegal rainforest loggers moves forward in Brazil.