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Written by: Ludmila Caminha Barros
Writing date: October 2011
Since colonization, rural development in Brazil has been dominated by a hegemonic model of export plantations. By taking advantage of factors such as the over-exploitation of labor1, the illegal appropriation of public land2 and forest destruction, Brazil has become a leader in the global agricultural commodities trade, which has allowed it to maintain a positive trade balance. It has also achieved this position thanks to generous public support for certain forms of agriculture: export plantations3 receive far more public investment than family farms4, though the latter produce most of the food that Brazilians eat. Monocultures for export receive the « lion’s share » of public investment in infrastructure for production, production financing, technical assistance and extension, research, and development, for associations and cooperatives, etc. This would not have been possible without the political hegemony that is required to control local governments and parliaments at all three levels of the Brazilian Federation.
Although representatives of agribusiness recognize « that it is possible to increase food production without the need to give up protected areas, only with investments to increase productivity » and a former Minister of Agriculture states that « today areas of degraded pasture occupy the same space of grain crops »5, many continue to insist that forest preservation limits food production. In the late 19th century, farmers argued that it was impossible to abolish slavery without undermining the competitiveness of Brazilian agricultural production. At present, they accuse forests of doing so!
Thus, current attempts to reform the Brazilian Forestry Code are underpinned by irrationality and misunderstanding. The Brazilian parliament has chosen to ignore a survey6 that the well reputed Datafolha Institute has released indicating that a vast majority of Brazilian civil society is against changing the Forest Code. Every year, during the rainy season, floods inundate cities around the banks of rivers, and landslides in hilly urban areas kill thousands of people. And yet, a substitute bill allows for the removal of 50 percent of the vegetation that is currently preventing any even higher death toll.
In a vain attempt bring scientific rationale into the debate, a joint study7 conducted by the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and the Society for the Advancement of Science, insisted upon the importance of reversing environmental degradation to, and maintaining, native vegetation around rivers and on hillsides in order control erosion. This important work was ignored by the Deputy Rapporteur of the project, who carelessly claimed8 that it had been financed by « the environmental lobby formed by Greenpeace and the WWF. » To make matters worse, not only does the new regulation draft reduce the size of the area under protection, it also makes it easier to obtain licenses that will lead to more deforestation.
The Sub-Attourney General was also ignored when he pointed out that these changes prevent Brazil from meeting its obligations under international environmental agreements during a senate public hearing held on September 13th. If Brazil is to comply with international agreements, it must not only maintain current levels of protection, but reverse environmental damage in areas that are currently protected by the Forest Code. President Dilma Roussef has promised to veto any provisions that prevent Brazil from meeting its goals and commitments concerning climate stabilization.
ABC/SBPC’s study cites illegally deforested Legal Reserve Areas (ARL, Portuguese Acronym) as the most grave example of environmental damage to the Brazilian Countryside. These areas require that a certain percentage of native vegetation be preserved on farms, which connects remaining forested areas and facilitates the dispersal of, and even distribution of, species throughout the territory. This kind of species management is not only possible, but economically productive, as it can contribute to the diversification of rural production activities. Although legislation imposes the reforestation of these ARL, this has not yet occurred. The new bill does not reduce current percentages, but exempts those who have removed the vegetation from the obligation of replenishing it. The institute of Applied Economic Research -IPEA9 calculated that, based on the required vegetation percentages of legal reserve indicated in the current Forest Code, the entire area of rural properties in Brazil should include a total area of 258.2 million hectares of legal reserve. And, with the help of the deforestation index, they estimated that the current legal reserve only amounts to 61.7 percent of that currently provided for by the law. This is the total forested area that farmers would be exempt from restoring under the new bill.
Other environmental laws are also being modified to promote the interests of export plantations. The Brazilian Parliament is looking at several legislative initiatives that will limit environmental protection, by easing environmental licensing procedures for large infrastructure works and/or transferring the power to create protected areas from the President and Governors to National and State Parliaments. In June 2009, Brazilian civil society published a manifesto10 decrying these initiatives. Two months later, in a climate of great animosity, the Parliament set up a special commission to discuss modifications to the Forest Code. The Commission was principally composed of agribusiness representatives, and, whenever possible, it prevented members of civil society from observing the debates11.
In spite of harsh criticism, the Commission’s text was approved by the Chamber of Deputies. During the voting session, an announcement concerning the murder of a forest worker and his wife was greeted with boos; this rather macabre reaction seemed to indicate the ultimate triumph of the archaic plantation model in Brazil. These two crimes were followed by two more murders in one week. On june 14th of this year, six forest workers were already dead in Northern Brazil– five in the state of Para12 alone.
The responsibility of confronting this issue was left to the Senate, which has taken a more reasonable approach. They have consulted scientists, legal experts, and ten former environmental ministers, all of whom have harshly criticized the bill. The Senate’s powers are however relatively limited; any modifications that they make must be approved by the same Chamber of Deputies that approved the bill to modify the forest code. Moreover, the veto must be assessed in a joint session in both houses of the Brazilian Parliament, which can then adopt the law anyways. This leaves those that oppose the law with only one option: to bring the law to the supreme court, which will judge its conformity with the constitution.
The fact is that the new text privileges the interests of archaic plantations over those of most people in the country–and the planet. The Brazilian Constitution, and the fundamental right to a balanced environment, are being disregarded in the name of ‘legal certainty for farmers.’ The text also encourages rural depopulation and urban marginalization by threatening the livelihoods of people living in Brazilian Forests. Rather than establishing viable forest policies, the new forest code will focus solely on regulating deforestation in accordance with the interests of plantation agriculture. In many countries, natural resource conservation is an issue that transcends political differences. In Brazil, however, ‘environmentalists’ are opposed to commercial farmers. More than thirty years after the Brundtland report, important sectors of the population remain unconvinced of the necessity (and possibility) of reconciling economic development with environmental preservation.
The Atlantic Forest was the second largest rainforest in Brazil, covering the entire coastline of the country. Monocultures, mainly sugar cane and coffee, urbanization and population growth on the coast, reduced the original area 13 is now reduced to 34 percent of its original surface area and loses about three million hectares per tear to pasture and soy plantations. The Amazon has lost 18 percent of its original surface area,14 and although efforts have been made to reduce deforestation in the recent past, it has spiked again15.
« The Amazon is ours! » cry out many Brazilians when they hear foreign protests in defense of the forest. Yes, indeed, it is ours, a part of our territory, and subject to our laws. Proposals to ‘internationalize the Amazon’ are absurd; this would be akin to demanding that the Normandy or Provence regions of France be placed under the control of the United Nations. Why must we defend our control over Brazilian forests? To give Brazil a unique competitive advantage and to promote the sustainable use of their wealth for the well-being of its people? Or to uphold our exclusive right to burn the forests and kill their inhabitants?
English version of an article written in October 2011 by Ludmila Caminha Barros. (final edition, Jesse Rafert)
2In the introduction of the White Paper on Illegal land Appropriation (MDA/Incra:1999): “ in the whole country, the total area of land suspected to be under illegal possession is about 100 million hectares - four times the area of the State of São Paulo or the combined area of Central America Central plus Mexico”
7Forest Code and Science – a contribution for the dialogue www.abc.org.br/IMG/pdf/doc-547.pdf
9IPEA communication nº 96 Implications of Law Bill 1876/99 for Legal Reserve Areas – June 8th, 2011.
11In Brazil, the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate divide into thematic commissions to analyse and draft law bills. Usually these debates are open to the public, any citizen may attend. Nonetheless, people who tried to attend to the presentation of the Commission’s Report about the Forest Code were subject to prior registration and their entry in the room was controlled by the Legislative Police.
13www.educared.org/educa/index.cfm?pg=oassuntoe.interna&id_tema=6&id_subtema=7]] from 1,3 million km2 to 50,000 km2 only, 7 percent of the original forest area. The Cerrado (Brazilian savanna)[[www.conservation.org.br/arquivos/RelatDesmatamCerrado.pdf