Guest Post: Brazil offers deforestation get-out-of-jail-free card

Yes folks, another one from the always reliable and brilliant Quasecarioca. Your go-to source for Brazil natural resource messes.

Trucks laden with Amazon lumber

Trucks laden with felled trees from the Amazon rain forest wait to cross the Peru-Brazil border, March 2011. I admit, not necessarily the best photo, as these trees were cut in Peru, not Brazil. But don't worry, the trees don't know what country they are in.

After a prolonged campaign to reduce deforestation in the Amazon, Brazilian authorities were surprised to see it jump almost 500 percent in March and April from the year earlier. Is it a coincidence that this took place as Congress debated legislation that would provide amnesty for farmers and ranchers that spent years clear-cutting trees? Activists – and even some government authorities – don’t think so.

The proposed revamp to Brazil’s Forest code has been promoted as a long-overdue correction to regulations originally written in 1965, before Brazil’s farm belt had become the hugely profitable behemoth it is today. The changes, scheduled to be voted this week after repeated delays, would reduce the required minimum of forest cover on farms and ranches, allow farmers to clear land close to rivers and on hilltops, and would exonerate illegal deforestation committed up to 2008. Though regulations have been in place for decades, farmers have been systematically ignoring them while environmental authorities turned a blind eye. Now the farm lobby is arguing it should be given a chance to start from scratch, this time with the rules that will be respected from here on out.

The proposal has drawn fire. The provision to loosen protection of forests near waterways has sparked a huge and appropriate outcry. Removing vegetation next to rivers causes them to silt up and become useless for the farmers that needed the water in the first place. Clearing hilltops spurs soil erosion that harms the surrounding environment. (The bill has changed so many times that these provisions look different by the time it goes to the floor.)

But it’s the amnesty factor that’s causing the most fuss. Not only would it enrage the people that did play by the rules from the beginning, it allows people to believe a future government will pardon them for deforestation carried out today. This may have been the logic of those who knocked down forests earlier this year in the center-west farming state of Mato Grosso, where recent deforestation was concentrated.

Supporters of amnesty point to the plight of the small farmer, and to some extent they’ve got a point. A lot of farmers with little area under cultivation would have to plow under their fields and replant them with native species if the bill went through without an amnesty provision. And even though the big agri-business lobby of Mato Grosso is an easy target, it’s hard to know where the buck really should stop when it comes to deforestation in that area. Brazil’s military dictatorship during the 1960s and 1970s, paranoid about a foreign incursion into the isolated jungle regions, recruited farmers from the south of the country to settle the region. In that era, they were required to show the government they had cleared the forest in order to receive title to land. Of course times have changed, and the government does keep closer tabs on the industry than it once did.

But with prices for soy, corn and beef soaring with the commodities boom, the virgin edges of the Amazon are starting to look more enticing to those looking for a quick buck. Probably even more so if they think they can get away with it.

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