Just a few months ago, Rio de Janeiro seemed the perfect backdrop for the upcoming UN Conference on Sustainable Development (aka Rio+20). In the past decade, Brazil has made huge progress in slashing deforestation, helping conserve species and save the planet from climate change – well and truly putting the ‘developed world’ to shame.
Which is why the recent decision to drastically weaken the world’s strictest piece of forest legislation – Brazil’s Forest Code – has left so many of us downright confused.
How can a country that is paving the way for low-carbon economic development turn so quickly on its heels and give the thumbs up to releasing 28 billion tons of CO2 – or, in more cynical techy terms, four times the global target for emissions cuts under the Kyoto Protocol?*
There’s some frustratingly complicated politics behind all of this. And as a non-Brazilian, I can’t claim to understand even the half of it. But, after nearly 18 months of following this issue, I’ve started to pick up some answers.
First off, there seems to be a pretty deep rift between the executive branch of Brazil’s government (led by President Dilma Rousseff) and the legislature (Congress). It’s clear that, as Dilma and her predecessor President Lula wowed the world with their environmental commitments at every opportunity, the wagon of Congress remained decidedly unhitched.
Representation in Congress seems to be skewed towards the rural agricultural regions of the Brazilian countryside with many congressmen being wealthy landowners themselves. Admittedly that picture isn’t exactly unfamiliar, but it does go some way to explaining the surprising mismatch between public opinion (80% opposed to the Forest Code changes)** and the pattern of voting in Congress (majority in favour).
Significant as that is, it would be unfair to blame the system alone. The fact is thatBrazil’s Forest Code was for a long time a green oasis in a desert of deforestation policies.
Written into law in 1965, the Forest Code popped up almost in chorus with a huge-scale national colonisation plan, where the Brazilian government dished out land in the Amazon rainforest to anyone who agreed to put their plot under the plough.
For a long time, government subsidies encouraged deforestation while national law penalised it. And it means, as the agribusiness lobby rightly point out, that when the law started being enforced more strictly (about 10 years ago) many farmers were punished for doing exactly what the government had historically encouraged them to do.
Having said this, the use of small-scale farmers as the poster boys and girls of the Forest Code changes smacks to me of political manipulation. The reality is that many small-scale farmers are concerned that the forest law changes will give more power to large agribusinesses, who’ve earned a bad reputation for land-grabbing and forced labour in the past.
And the fact that the rural landless movement, Movimento Sem Terra and the international peasant movement Via Campesina are also calling for a full veto of the Forest Code changes at a demonstration this Sunday is a testament to this.
Today the voices of environmentalists and rural workers are often calling in harmony for a new model of economic development that protects the forests people rely on, instead of destroying them for short-term economic gain by the powerful minority.
This new future can only be achieved by building on and strengthening forest laws – not by weakening them.
Which brings us back to where we started.Brazilhas grown to be the sixth largest economy in the world at the same time as stopping the chainsaws, saving wildlife and giving the world hope in the face of impending global catastrophe.
Let’s remind President Dilma that Brazil need only follow its own example as one of the most progressive economic powers in the world. Now’s not the time to go backwards.
* Figures from a 2011 study by Brazil’s government-led research organisation IPEA (Institute of Applied Economic Research)
** Based on an opinion poll by Datafolha