Smoke and Trees: Brazil’s Forests and the Ruralistas

Smoke and Trees: Brazil’s Forests and the Ruralistas

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This aerial shot taken in March 2011 shows immense deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon

Brazil’s Senate is debating changes to the country’s forest code that could, in the words of one scientist, “create a recipe for Amazon dieback.” More trees would be cut, rainfall would ebb, and the ecosystem could become a vast savannah–with enormous amounts of climate warming carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. Others’ view is that the current forest code, which requires land-owners to keep forest on 80 percent of their land, is flouted so routinely that it’s not as effective as it could or should be. Reforming it, and relaxing the 80 percent requirement in some cases could, this argument goes, make the law that emerges more effective and sustainable.

But scientists at the University of Sao Paolo estimate that an additional 220,000 square kilometers of Amazon forest–about the size of the U.K.— could be lost if the law as written goes through. Brighter Green associate Simone de Lima, a professor at the University of Brasiiia, offers a window into the fractious process behind the revisions to the forest code:

“The Forest Code still has to go through the Senate and word has it President Dilma [Rousseff] will end up vetoing the worst parts because as it stands it would be a major blow to the GHG emissions agreements Brazil has signed. The way it passed in the House of Deputies was just plain shameful, especially because of the alliance built between the big land owners (called “ruralistas”) and the representative who wrote the report [the draft law is based on], Aldo Arantes, who’s a communist, for God’s sake [ed. note: although Communist Parties have not often been known for having strong environmental bona fides].

WWF and Greenpeace were vilified as ‘foreign interests’ meddling with the country, and even the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science, which issued a statement counter to the proposal, was accused by Aldo Arantes of having been corrupted by Greenpeace and WWF (because, of course, Cargill, Monsanto and the like represent the best local interests). It’s been a tough, heated, emotional debate, and because of the involvement of sectors from the left with the landowner caucus in Congress, it’s affected personal relations and friendships in the city [Brasilia].” 

According to WWF, criticism of the law in Brazil is growing, with Senators themselves noting the number of negative comments they’re received on the current draft. In a June poll by environmental organizations, 85 percent of Brazilians said protecting the forest should take priority over agricultural production. Luiz Martinelli, an ecologist and professor at the University of Sao Paolo, says: “Brazilian society is kind of sick of this deforestation debate.” Read more from Brighter Green about the tensions between Brazil’s environment, intensifying systems for animal agriculture, and the global climate — and how to resolve them. Read a summary in Portuguese here. Short documentary videos in English and Portuguese here.

Photo courtesy of Lou Gold