Why deforesters could soon have freer rein in the Amazon

Despite overwhelming support among the Brazilian public for harsh measures against illegal deforesters, Brazil's Congress looks set to loosen deforestation restrictions instead. Why?

By , Guest blogger

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    In this Sept. 15, 2009, file photo, a forest in the Amazon is illegally burnt on the outskirts of Novo Progresso, northern Brazilian state of Para. Brazil's Congress is considering a bill that will ease restrictions on deforestation, despite strong public support for environmental protections.
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The Código Forestal or Forest Code now being debated in Congress will determine the future of Brazil’s forests, including the world’s last great rainforest, the Amazon. In order to make good on a 1965 forest code that was rarely if ever enforced, President Dilma Rousseff introduced strong legislation in 2010. Legislators in the Lower House then weakened the bill substantially, and after being approved with minor alterations in the Senate, it is now heading back to the Lower House for congressional sanction.

The bill “constitutes one of the worst regressions for environmental legislation in Brazil,” according to Marina Silva, the rebellious Minister of the Environment under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the third place candidate in the last presidential election. The Forest Code’s policy example illustrates how representational democracy is not translating citizen interests into law, a universal problem that travels far beyond Brazil.

What Brazilians Want Done

One the country’s leading pollsters surveyed 1,268 citizens across Brazil about the Forest Code in early 2010. They found high public approval for harsh measures against illegal forestry, as reflected by the bill President Rousseff sent to Congress in early 2010. An overwhelming 98 percent of respondents supported the President’s measures and rejected a proposed amendment in the Lower House to grant amnesty for offending deforesters. It is estimated that amnesty for those who deforested between 1998 and 2009 will disclaim 8 billion reais, according to Greenpeace – a huge loss for tax payers.

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Yet despite overwhelming public opinion in favor of stricter environmental measures, a huge loss in tax revenue, and the principle of accountability – making lawbreakers pay for their actions – legislators chose to favor the interests of big agro-business. No wonder – the Folha de São Paulo recently reported that agro-interests spent over 15 million reais (nearly $9 million) to stuff the party coffers of 50 representatives deliberating on the bill. Donating companies spent 42 percent more on lobbying in the past two years than they contributed to candidates during the entire 2006 presidential election. The largest donor was the cellulose industry (paper), which donated 4.7 million reais. Influential governors, such as Bahia’s Jacques Wagner (PT), received 4 million reais.

A Weaker Forest Code

In addition to the blanket amnesty for deforesters, the bill as it now stands has substantially weakened the original presidential proposal. Whereas deforested river banks had to be re-planted 30 meters back from the edge of ‘peak’ water levels, the new bill stipulates 15 meters from ‘average’ river heights. To comply with the legal forest reserve quotas – 80 percent forested in Amazon, 35 percent in the Amazon highlands, and 20 percent in the rest of the country – land owners may now use 50 percent ‘exotic’ trees for re-plantation, which opens up the possibility of mono-culture fruit orchards.

Given the way that representatives take action contrary to the expressed public interest, i.e. that business interests trump public interests, news that deforestation in the Amazon has ‘slowed’ this year by more than 10 percent gives us little reason to be hopeful for the future of Brazil’s forests. Brazil needs to adopt and enforce mechanisms to ensure greater accountability – such as lobbying regulation – if true representational democracy is to take hold and do what is right for the country and the planet.

Check out an interesting video on issues surrounding deforestation in the Amazon (part III of IV).

--- Greg Michener, based in Rio de Janeiro, writes the blog, Observing Brazil. He is currently writing a book on Freedom of Information in Latin America for Cambridge University Press.

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