In Brazil, a showdown over rainforest deforestation

Brazil's president is scheduled to sign a reform package today that could retroactively legalize the deforestation of millions of acres in the Amazon.

Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters
Environmentalists protest against the adoption of the country's new Forest Code, during the plenary vote of the Chamber of Deputies in Brasilia April 25. The placards on the left and right read: 'Forest Code, Veto Dilma,' urging Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to veto the country's new forestry code, which proposes to relax regulations in the Amazon rainforest and opening up parts of the rainforest to farming.

A throng of students, young professionals, and activists gathered on the lawn as dusk took over the towering parliament and Planalto, Brazil’s executive branch. They took their tambourines and whistles, promising to camp out until midnight and serenaded the president: “Oh Dilma! You can veto it! Brazil will support you!” 

Theirs was the latest in a series of nationwide protests in recent months over a proposed reform of the 1965 “Forest Code” that will, as currently written, effectively legalize the deforestation of tens of millions of Amazon jungle after the fact and reduce requirements on landowners to reforest protected areas.

Later today, President Dilma Roussef is expected to sign part of the "amnesty" bill into law, though she's signaled that some amendments will be made in response to environmental concerns. But whether they go far enough to mollify an angry movement of citizens and environmental activists remains to be seen.

Agricultural industry representatives say their business is economically vital and that Brazil still has massive tracts of preserved land. Brazil hosts about 40 percent of the world’s rainforests, and its Amazon region alone is larger than India

But the movement to preserve the environmentally-friendly, though oft-flouted, 1965 code has galvanized citizens in a way observers say no sustainability cause has before – and Brazil’s hosting of the Rio+20 United Nations sustainability conference in June has only sharpened their criticisms.

“Without a doubt this is the largest mobilization for the environment you have seen in Brazil – and this in a country where the environment is so important,” says Pedro Abramovay, formerly the National Secretary for Drug Policy and now campaign director for the social media organization Avaaz. On Thursday, Avaaz gave Rousseff a petition with 2 million signatures calling for a veto of the new law.

Social media and activism

“We’ve always had big protests in Brazil, but it was always linked to political parties and unions. Social networking is making it so that you can join outside of these channels,” Mr. Abramovay says, citing the forest code debate along with last year’s nationwide anti-corruption protests.

Ms. Rousseff, who has ridden a wave of steady popularity since she took over from predecessor and mentor Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva last January, now faces one of the largest challenges of her government. On one side are first-of-its-kind protests from civil society and pop culture stars. #VetaTudoDilma (Veto it all, Dilma!) has been a trending topic for weeks on Twitter and creative banners have been plastered across Facebook, such as “Run, Forest run! Veto, Dilma, veto!”

The polling agency Datafolha found that 80 percent of respondents were against the reformed code. Celebrities like supermodel Gisele Bundchen and actor Wagner Mourna have launched online campaigns for the cause.

Diverse groups, such as the Bar Association, the National Council of Catholic Bishops, and even the National Council on Food and Nutritional Security have also weighed in against the reformed code.

On the other side 

But on the other side are agricultural lobbyists, called ruralistas, and their numerous allies in parliament. They say that hardly any other country has so much untouched land – 61 percent of Brazil has its native vegetation, while 28 percent is used for agriculture – and that legalizing producers who don’t fall within the 1965 rules would be a forward-looking policy that would establish a balance point between production and preservation.

“What is amnesty? If it has a synonym, it is pacification,” says Senator Kátia Abreu, a leading supporter of the reform. “You bet on the future and you forget. You don’t really forget, but you put the past to sleep in order to have social awareness for the future,” she adds.

Ms. Abreu is from the savannah state of Tocantins where she inherited a large farm when she was suddenly widowed, while pregnant, at age 25. She not only became a successful businesswoman but now is the president of the National Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock (CNA). The CNA argues that Brazil’s robust agro-industry compensates for wan production in other sectors, generating a trade surplus of more $77.5 billion last year. Brazil's trade surplus from all other industries was not even half that.

The ruralistas also point out that Brazilian governments once encouraged the migration of Brazil’s coastal population to develop the underused interior with a Horace Greeley-like zeal. Government ads from the early 20th century read, “Farmers, Brazil needs you to produce in order to make it rich!” and “You too can go to the Amazon!”

But their opponents counter that amnestying landowners who illegally cleared jungle to produce soybeans or cattle would be punishing those who took the care to obey the cautious law all along.

“The center of the debate are the illegal landowners who don’t want to fulfill the law, who want to make the law adapt to their illegality,” says Pedro Batista, an aide to the former environmental minister Marina Silva. Ms. Silva’s strong performance as a third party candidate forced Rousseff into a runoff despite predictions of an easy win.

Though the code is from 1965, Batista says serious discontent from landowners came only in recent years after Silva’s intensified efforts to enforce the law as a minister in the Lula government. After illegal deforestation peaked in 2003 – more than 10,500 square miles were cleared – some 725 people were arrested, 1,500 businesses dismantled and $2 billion in fines were levied when Silva ran the ministry.

Tony Gigliotti Bezerra, who works in the Culture Ministry and came in green to the evening protest, says the forest code issue underscores how Brazil’s legislators do not feel compelled to represent their constituents’ interests. “The population is revolted with the parliament,” he says. “And the revolt will turn against Dilma if she doesn’t veto it.”

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