Brazil's Wild West Gets a Law That Makes Everyone Unhappy

Why can’t Brazil sort out the Amazon? This question was put to a Brazilian diplomat at a social event a few years ago.

“Have you been there?” was his response. “It’s a terrible place. Nobody wants to go there. And more than 20 million people live there.”

As environmentalists around the world come to grips with President Dilma Rousseff’s last-minute veto of parts of the country’s revised environmental protection laws, the diplomat's answer sheds light on the challenge of regulating the region from the Brazilian point of view. For many outside the country, the Amazon is the primeval paradise idealized in James Cameron’s film Avatar. For many in Brazil, it’s the Wild West: a dangerous, hostile place, where the gun is the law and the government has limited control.

Legislators have been working for 11 years trying to update the Forest Code, a powerful law introduced in 1965. The code deals with all of Brazil, but its effects on the Amazon are what galvanized public opinion. The Senate approved a version somewhat more green than the original. But under the influence of a powerful farming lobby, the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house of Congress, passed a version more friendly to agricultural interests, which include big producers that illegally deforest to produce soy and cattle but also millions of smallholders who scratch out a living.

With the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro just weeks away, Rousseff faced potential embarrassment over the law once world leaders gathered in her country to discuss related issues.  Responding on the last day available to her, she vetoed 12 elements of the law May 25, publishing the details along with 32 modifications three days later. International media largely painted her move as a disaster for the environment. Brazilian media saw a compromise that was designed to appease both environmentalists and farmers but that would probably please neither.

An article on the World Wildlife Fund’s Brazil site May 28 by Aldem Bourscheit lamented:

Legislation published today reversed and worsened the 1965 Forest Code, reduced the protection of Brazilian natural heritage, gave amnesty to illegal loggers, stimulated more deforestation with impunity and removed incentives for the restoration of Areas for Permanent Preservation.

In a statement, Greenpeace Brazil said, "The new environmental legislation has everything that the ruralists always dreamed of.”

The farmers and ranchers disagreed -- so much so that the farm lobby said it would challenge Rousseff’s changes in court. “There's great confusion in society, which still does not understand that the new code only seeks to regularize what has already been deforested,” not encourage more deforestation, wrote Glauber Silveira, president of Aprosoja Brasil, the Brazilian Association of Soybean Producers, on the Portal Dia de Campo website.

Brazil needs food and food comes from the countryside, Silveira argued. “We all want trees and food, but what we need is to give balance to the discussion, since we are not herbivores.” He added: “You can't look to the future thinking that everything in the past was wrong or criminal."

Much of the controversy around the code revision has centered on an amnesty for farmers who illegally deforested land before July 2008. Rousseff vetoed the amnesty clause  but replaced it with new formulas that require less preservation and reforestation. Riverbanks in Areas of Permanent Preservation designated for reforestation were reduced. Smaller producers were no longer required to maintain 80 percent of land in the Amazon as forest or reforest to that level. The percentages were smaller in other parts of Brazil.

Writing on the Folha de Sao Paulo newspaper website, reporter Claudio Angelo said the new Forest Code was seen as a "disaster" because of all the "banana skins" in it that loosened environmental protections. Yet what was most important, he argued, was the maintenance of a legal principle. The Senate version, like the original law, he said, enshrined “the protection of Brazilian forests” as “goods for the common use of all” and “imposed a limitation on the right of ownership.” The Chamber of Deputies code just identified “areas of permanent preservation and legal reserve.” Rousseff's version restored the principle, recognizing "the existing forests in national territory and other forms of native vegetation as goods of common interest to all the inhabitants of the country” and affirming the "sovereign commitment of Brazil over the preservation of its forests."  This, wrote Angelo, was “everything.” He said: "In the wonderful world of lawyers, principle has precedence over the law itself.”

On the other hand, as Kenzo Ferreira, a public policy specialist for the World Wildlife Federation, said in Bourscheit's article: “The whole world needs to know the gap between talk and practice in Brazil.” Similarly, Claudio Angelo asked whether anyone would take notice of these laws, least of all in the Amazon where not even the murderers of land activists are punished. He wrote:

None of this is important, for a simple reason: in Brazil no one paid fines or rebuilt the forests. I bet an ox that no one will pay a fine or rebuild the forest under the new rules.

He had nailed the problem: the Forest Code, in the Brazilian Wild West that is the Amazon, will be purely academic for the many who act with impunity. They will simply ignore it, as they already ignore existing laws.

(Dom Phillips is the Rio de Janeiro correspondent for World View. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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