Brazil: New Forestry Code = The Right to Deforestation?

This post is part of our special coverage Forest Focus: Amazon.

Proposed changes to Brazil’s Forestry Code – progressive environment legislation that helps protect native Brazilian forests, including the Amazon – have been passed in a special vote by the Congress’s Special Committee on Forestry Law Changes, sparking fury among scientists and environmental NGOs and making this an increasingly important topic of discussion for Brazilians. The issue centers on whether the preserved areas obstruct agricultural development or not, while specialists warn that there will be an ecological catastrophe if the ecosystem is put at risk.

The text-base of the reform has many controversial points, such as the decrease in sizes of protected areas, called Permanent Preservation Areas (Área de Preservação Permanente (APPs) in Portuguese). This has been shown to have direct links with urban tragedies, as Raquel Rolnik, urbanist and special United Nations rapporteur on rights for adequate housing, points out in her blog [pt]:

Outra mudança foi a redução para 15m – e não 7,5m como estava previsto – das faixas de mata ciliar ao longo dos rios de menos de 5m de largura. O texto atual do código define esta área em 30m.

Nas áreas urbanas, as tragédias que vimos em abril deste ano no Rio de Janeiro e, agora, em Pernambuco e Alagoas, continuarão acontecendo se as matas das APP não forem pensadas de forma a preservar a qualidade e volume dos mananciais e assim prevenir inundações e enchentes e evitar riscos para a vida das pessoas. Além disso, como eu já falei aqui, as APP precisam ser pensadas em suas diversas funções e contextos – tanto rurais quanto urbanos.

Another change is the reduction to 15 meters – instead of 7.5 meters as previously stated [in the draft bill] – of riparian forest areas adjacent to rivers that are narrower than 5 meters. The current code sets the protected area to 30 meters.
In urban areas, the disasters we saw in April this year in Rio de Janeiro, and more recently in Pernambuco and Alagoas, will keep occurring if woods in Permanent Preservation Areas are not regarded as a way of maintaining the quality and volume of springs, so as to prevent floods and avoid the risk to people’s lives. Moreover, as I have already said here, Permanent Preservation Areas need to be seen in terms of their many rural and urban roles and contexts.

The lack of riparian forests can cause landslides like those that occurred in Rio de Janeiro. See the video above by YouTube user 3333marcio1.

NGOs and environmental institutions have joined forces to set up the website SOS Florestas [pt] in order to call for a debate about the new forestry code. In partnership with Avaaz, they have also set up an online petition urging Brazilian MPs to reject any attempt to alter or weaken the code, which would “dramatically reduce the size of protected land and give complete amnesty to environmental crimes”. The target is 200,000 signatures, and there are already over 146,000.

They are arguing against a key point in the new forestry code bill: according to the new code, areas known as legal reserves – a percentage of native areas that must be left untouched by private business – will be reduced from 80% to 50% of the total area of properties in the Amazon rainforest. In the Atlantic forest the figure is already 20%. As CooperadaMente [pt] writes, each ecosystem has its own needs:

A função da Reserva Legal é de manter dentro de cada propriedade, uma percentagem mínima de vegetação nativa, que cumpre uma importante função ecológica como habitat para a biodiversidade e fornece diversos serviços ambientais como o estoque de produtos florestais, controle de pragas e incêndios, melhoria da produção de água; na proteção do solo e corpos d’água evitando erosão e assoreamento; e captação de carbono da atmosfera; (…)

A grande maioria das propriedades rurais brasileiras não possui as áreas de preservação permanente (APPs) e de reserva legal (RL), conforme determina o código florestal. O PL 6424 é uma tentativa de estimular os proprietários rurais a regularizarem sua situação perante o código florestal. A legislação brasileira atual já prevê, em alguns casos específicos, mecanismos de compensação, onde o proprietário compensa o dano ambiental causado em sua propriedade por meio de aquisição direta de uma área com vegetação nativa em região próxima à sua propriedade ou através de cotas de reserva florestal.

The role of the Legal Reserve is to keep – within each individual property – a minimum percentage of native vegetation, which plays an important ecological role as a habitat for biodiversity as well as providing several environmental services such as maintaining the stock of forest products, providing pest and fire control, improving water production, protecting soil and water in order to avoid erosion and siltation, and capturing carbon from the atmosphere […].
The great majority of Brazilian farms do not have permanent preservation areas (PPAs) and Legal Reserves (RL) as determined by the forestry code. Bill no. 6424 is an attempt to encourage landowners to bring their situation in line with the forestry code. In certain cases, current Brazilian legislation already allows for a kind of compensation in which the owner compensates for environmental damage on their property by purchasing a new area with native vegetation in an area adjacent to their property or by buying shares of forest reservoir.

On the other hand, there are people who disagree with the argument that private business should maintain areas for preservation. Despite agreeing with the need for APPs, the agronomist Ciro Siqueira [pt] dismisses the need for farmers to keep Legal Reserves:

Função social de propriedade é produzir (…)
Quem tem que preservar florestas a bem social é o Estado. É para isso que existe o Estado. Produtores rurais privados têm que produzir alimentos da forma menos impactante possível, usando eficientemente recursos como adubos, herbicidas, mão de obra, conservando solo, etc. Esse ator econômico presta função social relevante ao fazer esse papel. Quem tem que preservar florestas socialmente importantes é o Estado. Caso haja propriedades em regiões ecologicamente importantes onde a preservação conflita com a produção, não deve haver produtores nessa região e o Estado deve removê-los completamente.

The purpose of rural property [in society] is production […]
It is up to the State to preserve forest as a patrimony for society. That’s why the State exists. Private rural producers have to grow food with the least possible impact and using the most efficient resources, such as fertilizers, herbicides, manual work, soil protection, etc. In doing so it fulfils its social role as an economic actor. It is up to the State to preserve forests that are important for society. If there is property within important ecological regions where preservation clashes with rural production, there should not be producers in these regions and the State should remove them altogether.
Deforested area cleared for soya crops in the Amazon rainforest, Santarem town, Pará State, Brazil

Deforested area cleared for soya crops in the Amazon rainforest, Santarem town, Pará State, Brazil. Photo: leoffreitas, available on Flickr with a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Creative Commons License

The text-base of the reform also provides for two other controversial points. One is amnesty for those who have already committed environmental crimes and would have been made to pay the government in the long-run – the amnesty will cost around R$10 billion (approximately US$ 5 billion) to the treasury. The second issue is exempting small properties – ranging from 20 to 44 hectares – from having any preserved areas at all. This could lead to large properties being falsely divided into small parts and registered as such in order to take advantage of the law.

Lou Gold, an American environmentalist based in the state of Acre in Brazil, analyzes how the Brazilian situation resembles that in other countries such as the US, where “development has already destroyed 90% of its original primary forestland”. Gold explains how an ad campaign in the US has influenced the effort to dilute Brazil's forestry code:

Unfortunately, an NGO-inspired ad campaign targeting US farm support for REDD payments in the energy (“climate change”) bill claimed that an end to tropical deforestation would mean more profits in the US. The ad stupidly said, “Farms Here, Forests There” and this was used in Brazil to mobilize support for WEAKENING the Forest code. Avoided Deforestation Partners scurried to produce a second report claiming that halting deforestation would also benefit Brazilian farmers but the damage was done. […]
I must caution readers not to think that loss of the primary Brazilian forest is somehow a result of unenlightened attitudes of Brazilians in comparison with North Americans. Here are the facts: Brazil has about 80% standing forest in the Amazon with about 30% with some level of fragmentation and 50% as relatively pristine. On the other hand, the U.S. has less than 10% of its historical primary forest standing and it still has not been able to pass a law ending the logging of old-growth trees. Actually, the comparable situation in Brazil is in the Atlantic Rainforest (near the economically developed population centers) which is also reduced to near 10%. In other words, development seems to have destroyed forests equally in BOTH places.

According to the SOS Floresta website, today the Atlantic forest covers less than 7% of its original area, whereas the Amazon Forest has 80% of native vegetation

According to the SOS Floresta website, today the Atlantic forest covers less than 7% of its original area, whereas the Amazon Forest has 80% of native vegetation. Photo: Luiz Felipe Castro. Available on Flickr with a Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic Creative Commons.


The rapporteur of the bill by the Special Commission in the Lower House of Congress, the Brazilian Communist Party federal deputy Aldo Rebelo, has claimed that the new law will regulate areas that have already been devastated at the same time as it will forbid deforestation for five years to come. However, the new forestry code has been pushed by a bloc of Brazilian legislature known as the ‘ruralistas’ due to their ties to agribusiness, and praised by its leader, Democrat Party senator Kátia Abreu.

On the other hand, Mr. Rebelo came in for criticism by environmentalists and scholars, including the coordinator of the Program for Native People Studies at the University of Rio de Janeiro, Professor José Ribamar Bessa Freire. In his Taqui Pra Ti (TQPT) blog, Bessa wrote a story in which he “interviewed” Curupira, the supernatural guardian of the forest and woodlands, who “claimed” that Deputy Aldo Rebelo “assaulted me, hit my body with a club, ripped my shirt off, and tried to get rid of me following orders given by Senator Abreu”:

Curupira portrayed by the actor Erick Krominski in photo essay by Vini Manià.

Curupira portrayed by the actor Erick Krominski in photo essay by Vini Manià. Used with permission.

TQPT – Doutor Curupira, o meritíssimo já encontrou com o Aldo lá na floresta? Porque se ele fala tanto, é porque deve ter andado por lá…

C – O Aldo é um urbanóide, nunca colocou o pé na floresta. Por isso, acha que a mata é hostil. É hostil lá pra ele e pras negas dele, não para os povos que fizeram da floresta sua morada. Aldo fala em ‘choças insalubres’, mas o arquiteto Severiano Porto elogia a construção de malocas, confessa que aprendeu arquitetura com os índios. Aldo desconsidera mudanças e revoluções ocorridas nas sociedades amazônicas, registradas pelos arqueólogos. Ignora a arte, a música, a literatura, os conhecimentos na área de botânica, zoologia, astronomia, medicina, produzidos pelos índios. Nem suspeita que os índios criaram um código florestal oral. Ele afirma que “a conquista da Amazônia se deu com a expedição de Pedro Teixeira (1637-1639)”, como se a história começasse com os portugueses. Ignora que a Amazônia foi ‘conquistada’ pelos índios, que 5.000 a.C já desenvolviam agricultura sofisticada, com a domesticação da mandioca e de outras plantas. Aldo vê o saci e o curupira como ‘folclore’, não como expressão de culturas vivas e refinadas.

TQPT – Se for aprovado, o projeto do Aldo prejudica todo mundo, até mesmo os descendentes dos ruralistas.

C – É o que estou dizendo há alguns milênios. Lembra o que aconteceu em Santa Catarina? Lá, o Governo reduziu as margens de mata ciliar ao longo dos rios e todo mundo viu a tragédia ocasionada pelas últimas chuvas. Se o projeto for aprovado, vai provocar impactos ambientais irreversíveis e a emissão de 25 bilhões a 31 bilhões de toneladas de gás carbônico só na Amazônia, segundo os especialistas. É preciso protestar. No Rio de Janeiro, nessa semana, já houve uma primeira manifestação de rua, com a participação de duzentos ativistas e lideranças de organizações ambientalistas. Nos outros países existem também curupiras. Eles vão boicotar o produto brasileiro em decorrência do desmatamento que o Código vai permitir.

TQPT –Doctor Curupira, did you happen to meet Aldo [Rebelo] in the forest? He talks so much about it that he must have been there…

C: Aldo is an urbanite – he has never set foot in the forest. That's why he thinks the forest is hostile. It is hostile to him and his lackeys, not to the people who have made it their home. Aldo talks about ‘unhealthy huts’, but the architect Severiano Porto praises the construction of malocas, and admits that he has learned more about architecture from the indigenous people. Aldo dismisses the changes and revolutions that have taken place in Amazonian society, as recorded by archaeologists. He ignores the art, music, literature and knowledge of botany, zoology, astronomy, medicine demonstrated by these people. He doesn’t realize that the indigenous people have already created an oral forestry code. He claims that “the conquest of the Amazon took place during Pedro Teixeira's expedition (1637-1639),” as if their history only started with the Portuguese. He dismisses the fact that the Amazon was ‘conquered’ by the indigenous people, who had developed sophisticated agricultural techniques by 5,000BC such as the domestication of manioc and other crops. Aldo sees the saci and Curupira as characters in folklore, not as expressions of living, sophisticated cultures.

TQPT: If approved, Aldo's project will harm everyone, including the descendants of the ruralistas.

C: I have been saying this for millennia. Do you remember what happened in Santa Catarina? There, the government reduced the riparian vegetation along rivers and everyone witnessed the tragedy caused by rains. If the bill is passed, according to experts it will cause irreversible environmental damage and result in the emission of 25 billion to 31 billion tons of carbon dioxide in the Amazon alone. We need to protest […]. There are Curupiras in other countries too. They will boycott Brazilian products as the result of the deforestation that will be allowed according to the code.

The amendment will be voted on by the Brazilian Congress, and if it is passed the President will veto it or sign it into law.

This post is part of our special coverage Forest Focus: Amazon.

This article was proofread by Maisie Fitzpatrick.


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