Brazil Rewrites Amazon Protections While Seeking to Slash Carbon Emissions

Brazil’s Senate approved legislation yesterday that the government says will help the nation reach its carbon emissions target by strengthening protections against deforestation in the Amazon.

Brazil is seeking to cut its net greenhouse gas emissions after loggers and ranchers cleared since 1990 a Germany-sized tract of the world’s biggest rainforest. The changes to Brazil’s 46-year-old forestry code passed yesterday in a 58-8 vote would strengthen an earlier lower house version by demanding property owners and small farmers replant 24 million hectares (59.3 million acres) or pay a fine.

That’s an area about the size of the U.K. and sufficient to comply with Brazil’s carbon targets three times over, according to the Environment Ministry’s forest department. Brazil, which will host the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro next year, set a voluntary target during 2009 climate talks to cut deforestation in its Amazon region by 80 percent and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 39 percent by 2020.

“If the code’s provisions are met, you’re going to see an immense reforestation drive in Brazil,” Senator Rodrigo Rollemberg, head of the Environment Committee, said in an interview yesterday. “It will be a huge carbon-capturing program.”

Deforestation Slowing

About 347,000 square kilometers of Amazonian rainforest were cleared between 1990 and 2010, according to the National Institute for Space Research. While that’s an area almost as big as Germany, the government has pointed to a recent slowdown in the pace of deforestation as evidence that Latin America’s biggest economy can grow faster without hurting the environment.

Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon fell to 6,238 square kilometers in the period from August 2010 through July 2011, the lowest since the government started monitoring the region in 1988, Gilberto Camara, head of the space agency, told reporters this week in Brasilia.

The bill, which now goes back to the lower house, limits the use of protected land known as Areas of Permanent Preservation, or APPs, to tracts that meet certain criteria for social interest, public use and a low impact on the environment, Joao de Deus Medeiros, director of the Environment Ministry’s forestry department, said in an interview from Brasilia.

The house version “effectively did away with APPs,” which comprise about 140 million hectares of protected land including riversides, mountaintops and hill slopes, Medeiros said.

Amnesty

Environmental groups, while pleased with the Senate’s changes, expressed concern over another provision of the bill that would provide an amnesty for small land owners who illegally cleared forest before July 2008.

“The lower house bill was a catastrophe,” Andre Lima, adviser for public policy at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, said in a telephone interview from Brasilia. “The Senate improved it a bit, but it’s still far from being a law that protects the forest.”

Rural groups opposed the Senate changes, saying they will discourage investment in Brazil’s agricultural industry, a major source of export revenue. Senator Katia Abreu, who also heads the National Confederation of Agriculture, said Brazil would lose $40 billion in revenue as farmland is reduced.

“This bill is bad for productivity, bad for employment, bad for profits and bad for Brazil,” Abreu said before passage of the bill.

Impunity

Letting off those who illegally cut down the rainforest will fuel impunity amongst ranchers and not necessarily help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, Lima said.

The Washington-based environmental group World Wildlife Fund Inc. estimates that 76.5 million hectares of land will be deforested or left unplanted as a result of the bill, Claudio Maretti, leader of the organization’s Living Amazon Initiative, said in a telephone interview.

“If you don’t enforce the law for past transgressions, you create the impression people can get away with certain activities in the future,” Alfredo Sirkis, a Green Party Congressman for Rio de Janeiro and former presidential candidate, said in a Dec. 3 interview in Durban, South Africa.

Environmentalists also criticized the lower house bill because it would give state governments susceptible to political and business influence authority to enforce some environmental rules.

In contrast, the Senate version strengthens federal regulatory bodies such as the Ibama environmental agency by giving them more power to verify that lumber, palm trees and endangered species are transported in accordance with the law and not being illegally smuggled.

The lower house probably won’t make important changes to the Senate text because many deputies helped work on it, Candido Vaccarezza, leader of the government coalition for the lower house, said Dec. 5 in a telephone interview.

The bill still needs approval by President Dilma Rousseff, who said in May she’d veto any bill that pardons those responsible for illegally clearing forests. The president’s office declined to comment on whether she would sign a bill resembling the Senate version, according to an official who asked not to be identified because of government policy.

To contact the reporters on this story: Stephan Nielsen in Sao Paulo at snielsen8@bloomberg.net; Maria Luiza Rabello in Brasilia at mrabello@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Joshua Goodman at jgoodman19@bloomberg.net

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