Forest Law: mobilization can block retrogression

25 maio 2011    
Aldem Bourscheit e Warner Bento Filho

The expectation of an amnesty for deforestation offenders implicit in the vote of approval given to the draft Forest Law reform by the Brazilian House of Representatives this Tuesday (May 24) provides the excuse for increase in deforestation similar to the one that has occurred in the last few months, especially in the state of Mato Grosso. However, the changes foreseen in the amendment have not yet come into force.

This parliamentary vote in favour is just one step of the reform proposed by Representative for São Paulo Aldo Rabelo (Communist Party of Brazil - PC do B). The draft legislation will now go before the Senate and, should it suffer any alterations there, it will return to the House of Representatives once more. Even after that the President of the Republic is empowered to veto specific points of it or even the entire text and the Justice Branch can also modify the text should it consider that any part of it affronts the provisions of the Constitution.

"This process is only at the beginning. That is why it is so important for people join in and keep up the mobilisation against this blatant retrogression. The SOS Forests movement is proposing a series of demonstrations such as the one that gave 'voice' to the trees. This and other actions will be decisive in the bid to transmit society's message of protest against this melt down of the Forest Law to the parliamentarians," says WWF-Brazil's Conservation Director Carlos Alberto de Mattos Scaramuzza.

According to Scaramuzza, even the final approval of the version that was voted on by the House does not guarantee that offending rural producers will become 'legalised' although the obligations to protect forest areas may be considerably reduced. "This is a 'worst hypothesis' scenario because the strictness of the requirements has been relaxed without any assurances in place to guarantee the implementation of the law or to ensure that rural producers will receive the support they need to regularise their environmental situations", he explained.

"The approval of the current Forest Law reform proposal represents the loss of a great opportunity to guarantee that Brazilian agricultural production will be founded on more sustainable bases. That, in itself, would endow our products with a differential quality that would enhance their acceptability in the international markets. If on the other hand, they are going to be associated to increased deforestation and an intensification of global warming we are liable to lose access to those markets," warns the WWF Director.

"The House of Representatives cast its vote with an eye on the rear-view mirror, thinking in terms of the past instead of envisioning the future. We need to look ahead to the promising 'green' market and a low carbon economy," Scaramuzza added.


The approval of the text in the House of Representatives enjoyed the support of the opposition and of parties that make up the government's parliamentary support base, alike. Only the PSOL and the PV voted vehemently against a text that favours the interests of the 'ruralists' prepared by Representative Aldo Rabelo (Communist Party of Brazil - PC do B). The leaders of the PT (Labour Party) in the house, Paulo Teixeira (São Paulo), and of the Government Cândido Vacarezza (PT-São Paulo) instructed their fellow party members to vote in favour of the text contradicting the opinion of the President Dilma Roussef who, according to various sources, went so far as to say she would veto the draft legislation.

With or without the backing of the President, a series of meetings took place in the course of the day that resulted in an agreement that made it possible for voting to proceed. The destiny of the Forest Code was already known some hours before it was finally approved because of the declarations made by many parliamentarians belonging to the government's parliamentary base of support of their tendency to favour a 'conciliation'.

The government's leader in the House, representative Vacarezza, declared that President Dilma, "would not hesitate to make use of her constitutional prerogatives to protect the environment".

In practice, however, the government gave up the struggle in the house and insisted that the text could either be improved by the Senate or vetoed by the President herself. "This is a very risky procedure and puts in jeapardy all the positive environmental reputation achieved in the last few years with the reduction of deforestation in the Amazon. It also puts at risk the possibility of playing a leadership role at the Rio +20 conference coming up in 2012," ponders Scaramuzza.

"When all is said and done, the government is reaping the fruits of what it sowed when it allowed the Forest Code Reform proposal to be reported by a representative of the interests of the 'ruralistas' (agribusiness and big landholder interests) thereby stripping the legislation of its historical objectives. Contrary to what is expected of a draft bill reporter, Aldo Rebelo chose to represent the interests of backwards sectors of the agribusiness sector, weaken control mechanisms and make the draft bill almost impossible to implement because it is full of snares, loopholes and provisos that will inevitably lead to further environmental degradation." he declared.

"Now is the moment for the Executive branch to enter the field, free itself from being held hostage by lesser interests and exercise its influence to ensure that the choice of the proposal's reporter in the Senate falls on a person capable of finding the solutions needed and modernising the Forest law," said Scaramuzza.

WWF-Brazil CEO Denise Hamú is confident that a reasonable solution for the impasse will be found.

"The voting process in the House of Representatives was just one stage. WWF-Brazil will remain fully mobilised to take action to influence the Senate where the next stage of the process takes place. We hope the Senate will elect a reporter worthy of the complexity and sensitive nature of the issue and that the he or she will show the necessary competence and impartiality. We will also be mobilising society at large and we are confident that, should it prove necessary, President Dilma will make use of her power of veto to honour the her commitments to the Brazilian society regarding environmental protection and to the international community regarding the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity conservation".


In addition to stimulating more deforestation in the name of expanding the frontiers of agricultural activities and livestock production, the 'ruralista' text for reforming the Forest Law approved yesterday will make it impossible for Brazil to comply with the terms of international agreements it is signatory to, and impossible to maintain its position of global leadership in environmental affairs. It will also jeopardise Brazilian production and exportation. A true all round setback.

The simple possibility of a law being approved that would reduce the protection afforded to Brazilian forests, combined with tthe recent doubling of the profitability of soy bean has led to the deforestation of 477,4 Km2 of Amazon forest in March and April of this year in the state of Mato Grosso alone. In the period from August 2010 until April this year there was an increase of 43% in deforestation in that state. For the entire Amazon, over the same period, the increase in deforestation only amounted to 27% reaching the total of 593 Km2.

Brazil has committed itself before the United Nations, to cut its greenhouse gas emission by around one billion tons by the year 2020. Most of those emissions stem from deforestation. Studies undertaken by the Climate Change Observatory show that more than 25 billion tons of greenhouse gases may be launched into the atmosphere if the alterations approved by the House come into force. That amount is 13 times more than Brazil's total emissions in the year 2007.

A trio made up of high rates of deforestation, unsustainable forms of production and jeopardised climate change goals is a dangerous combination for a country whose economy depends on the sensible use of natural resources and its export trade balance. The great quantities of water available and a favourable climate have endowed the country with tremendous potential in the international commodities markets, especially in the case of meat and soy bean. All of that will be at risk in the medium and long terms if the National Congress passes a Forest Law that is centred on the simplistic formula of clearing more forest in order to produce more. Globalized markets are increasingly demanding certified products that have been produced in sustainable conditions.

Check the main alterations to the current law approved by the House of Representatives:
  1. Rural proprietors who have degraded or deforested Permanent Protection Areas (hilltops, steep slopes and riverside vegetation for example) prior to July 22, 2008 are no longer obliged to recuperate them and are pardoned from any fines due, with certain provisos.
  2. Deforestation can be authorized in areas around springs and headwaters, mangrove swamps, palm swamps, dunes and restinga formations.
  3. Proprietors of areas of up to four fiscal modules, which in some regions can amount to 400 hectares (1,000 acres) are exempted from the obligation to recuperate legal reserve areas that were illegally deforested.
  4. Existing plantations of coffee, apples, grapes or tobacco on hilltops, or slopes steeper than 25º can be maintained.
  5. Those that have undertaken illegal deforestation are no longer obliged to restore gallery forest vegetation in its entirety but need only recuperate half the width formerly required. In practice that will lead to the elimination of the Permanent Protection for vegetation along river banks and around springs.
  6. All fines pending for environmental crimes will automatically be cancelled for those rural proprietors that enlist in the programmes for environmental regularization sponsored by the states and federal district and the time frame for complying with that regularization can be extended indefinitely by State Governors.
  7. Those that have deforested areas greater than permitted in law in the Amazon region are exempted from the obligation to recuperate all the area illegally deforested and need only recuperate sufficient to achieve the equivalent of half the area of their properties.