This past week I could have sworn I was back in the 1980s, based on the news coming out of Brazil.
Brazil's powerful agriculture caucus (bancada ruralista) and Communist Party led the charge in the House of Representatives to pass a bill that, if enacted, would essentially legalize deforestation in vast amounts of land.
And three activists who worked for years to protect forests from illegal logging were killed for their efforts.
Then, yesterday, the Brazilian environmental agency approved the Belo Monte dam – a hydroelectric project so controversial and flawed that the Federal Attorney General's office brought a series of lawsuits against it, most of which have not been judged, and recommended that it not be licensed.
As someone who works with indigenous and environmental groups in Brazil and has been active in tropical forest policy for years, I find this series of events deeply troubling, and reminiscent of the Brazilian Amazon's dark past. And these events come at a time when, because of strong pressure on land use from increasing commodity prices, and an expectation that the Congress would revise the 1965 Forest Code, the clearing of trees for expanding farms and cattle ranching in the Amazon rainforest is on the rise, possibly up 30% over last year.
Brazil's government is at a crossroads – either it can go back to a future of rampant deforestation and frontier chaos, or ahead, to the future of a sustainable and equitable green economy leader, with rule of law, good governance and a secure natural and investment environment. Senate action on the Forest Code over the next few months could spell the difference.
Is Brazil going backward or forward?
This series of events recalls the former status-quo, business-as-usual days when deforestation was accepted – even promoted – as a necessary corollary to development and prosperity.
Those were the days when Brazil was the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, with about 70% of its emissions caused by clearing forests. At the height of deforestation, the Amazon was losing more than 21,000 km2 – more than 8,000 square miles, about twice the size of Connecticut – of forest a year.
Those were also the days when grassroots environmental and union leaders were killed for working to protect the forest and forest peoples' rights; prominent activists like rubber tapper and union leader Chico Mendes and Roman Catholic Sister Dorothy Stang were both slain for their efforts to keep forests standing for the sake of communities' livelihoods and the environment.
Brazil has come a long way since then, particularly in reducing deforestation and altering public perception of it.
Reducing deforestation: Brazil has experienced seven years of almost uninterrupted decreases in deforestation, establishing it as the world leader in greenhouse gas pollution reductions. Between 2006 and 2010, Brazil has reduced Amazon deforestation about two-thirds below the annual average from 1996–2005, reducing about 1 billion tons of greenhouse gas pollution. This was due largely to the 2003 National Plan to Prevent and Control Amazon Deforestation and the subsequent 2009 National Climate Change Policy, in which Brazil committed to reducing deforestation 80% below the 1996–2005 average by 2020.
Social shift against deforestation: Popular opinion on the Amazon has clearly changed – most people want deforestation to stop. Most people also think that murders for hire in land conflicts should be punished – and in cases when international spotlights shone on Amazon assassinations, like Chico Mendes and Sister Dorothy Stang, it seemed as though the rule of law could be taking hold.
But despite these encouraging environmental strides, and even aside from the passage of the explicitly anti-environment bill, three disturbing themes of the past couple weeks are calling into question just how permanent Brazil's environmental progress is:
1. Lethal intolerance of activists who protect forests
José Claudio Ribeiro da Silva, a Brazil nut gatherer and forest defender, was slain the morning of the Forest Code vote with his wife Maria do Espírito Santo in Nova Ipixuna, in Pará state in the Brazilian Amazon. The couple had long resisted illegal logging and forest clearing for smelters for pig iron (made from iron ore and charcoal and used for manufacturing steel) and had received numerous death threats. In a public lecture in November 2010 José Claudio said, recalling slain grassroots environmental leaders Chico Mendes (1988) and Sister Dorothy Stang (2005), "What they did to Chico Mendes and Sister Dorothy, they want to do to me."
Then, on Friday, May 27th small-scale farmer leader Adelino Ramos was shot dead in Vista Alegre do Abunã, in Rondonia state. Ramos had received death threats for denouncing illegal logging in the region.
And on Saturday May 28th, the body of a small-scale farmer Eremilton Pereira dos Santos, was found shot to death about 7 km away from where José Claudio and Maria were killed. Police say they do not know whether these three killings are related, but representatives of the Pastoral Land Commission surmise that Eremilton may have witnessed the earlier killings.
2. Heavy influence of the Agriculture Caucus on Congress's Forest Code debate
Listening to the Forest Code debate in the Brazilian Congress so far is about as informative and edifying as listening to the U.S. Congress talk about climate change – that is, to say, not very.
It is commonly agreed within Brazil that the 1965 Forest Code needs revision and updating. But Communist Party representative and author of the just-passed bill Aldo Rebelo didn't focus on looking at other solutions, like using taxes, credit or a carbon market to incentivize farmers to keep forests standing or restore past deforestation.
The Rebelo proposal instead falsely supposes that forests are inherently, as Márcio Santilli of the Instituto Socioambiental put it, "nothing more than 'anti-food'" – that more forest means less agriculture, less growth and less development. Rebelo's bill, and its ultimate success, capitalized on the erroneous, purely ideological notion that environmental regulation is a foreign plot designed to keep Brazilian agriculture from competing with U.S. agriculture.
The agriculture caucus leadership has a sense of entitlement and cronyism about it that can get ugly. During the discussion before the vote on Tuesday, former Environment Minister and current Congressman José Sarney Filho made a motion in the House to ask for the federal police to investigate the killing of Ribeiro and his wife – and was met with boos from the agriculture caucus.
Brazil's farmers deserve better political representation than this. I've met farmers and ranchers across the Amazon who have worked hard to build productive, competitive businesses, and are proud that they're in compliance with the current law. These voices are not being heard in this debate, and if the Rebelo bill is enacted, they will be penalized for their efforts, while the scofflaws will be rewarded.
3. Surge in deforestation
In mid-May, we learned that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon in March and April may have spiked dramatically over those same months last year, and Brazil's Environment Ministry and many researchers hold that expectations that the Congress would weaken forest protection requirements in the Forest Code are contributing to the increase. Preliminary reports from Brazil's National Space Research Agency (INPE) now suggest that deforestation has increased about 30% from last year, which is also widely attributed to the anticipation of the approval of the new Forest Code.
So, what does all this mean for Brazil?
EDF believes that the brutal killings, the influence of the agriculture caucus, the rapidly increasing deforestation, and the House vote to cripple Brazil's environmental legislation, must be met with a solid government response for Brazil to maintain its international leadership on the environment. And we're not the only ones calling for action at this critical juncture.
The Forest Code changes were opposed by Brazil's major national scientific associations – the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science – as well as numerous forestry sector trade associations and ten former Environment Ministers. The Ministers wrote in a letter to President Dilma Rousseff:
"We understand… that history has reserved for our times… above all, the opportunity to lead a great collective effort for Brazil to proceed on its pathway as a nation that develops with social justice and environmental sustainability."
And the range of interests that came together to support forest protect protection – the scientific community, the National Council of Brazilian Bishops, the national association of attorneys, small farmers' organizations and environmentalists — are coming together to provide the efforts needed to produce balanced and fair revisions to the Forest Code.
If enacted, the House language would open up wholesale entire categories of land that are now protected, and could completely roll back the progress Brazil has made in the last seven years by:
- Giving amnesty for past illegal deforestation
- Opening up to deforestation hundreds of thousands of acres of currently protected forests along watercourses, on steep slopes and hilltops and mangrove swamps
- Making virtually any regulation against forest clearance unenforceable, by inter alia, allowing illegal deforestation to be compensated with replanting over a twenty year period.
Justification for change in Forest Code "patently false"
The most common justification for Congressional support for the bill – that environmental regulation has shackled Brazil's development and growth of agriculture – is patently false. The Communist Party's Rebelo and his large landholder and rancher allies also justified the measure in the name of small farmers burdened with environmental restrictions.
The fact is, since 2003, Brazil's economy has grown steadily and robustly and some 25 million people escaped poverty, all while Amazon deforestation declined two-thirds below the average of the previous decade. In recent years, Brazil has become the world's largest exporter of beef, chicken and sugar, and the second biggest exporter of soy.
And major small farmers' organizations actually opposed the bill. The Amazon has enormous potential for growth through intensification – some 80% of the deforested land in the Amazon is extremely low-yield cattle pasture (less than one head per hectare). Small farmers are poor because they lack access to credit, technology and technical assistance, not because of environmental regulation, as Rebelo claims.
World watching Brazil as Forest Code moves to Senate, President
The House passage of the Forest Code is certainly not the end of this story.
The bill now goes to Brazil's Senate, which could spend months debating it. (Before last week's passage of the bill, the House had been debating the Forest Code since 2009). The rapporteur for the bill, Senator Jorge Viana, has an outstanding record on forest protection and sustainable development as former governor of Acre state. If the Senate makes any changes, the bill goes back to the House, and so on, until the bill's language is agreed. The bill is then sent to President Rousseff, who has the option to veto portions of the bill or the entire bill.
During Rousseff's presidential campaign last fall, she pledged to reduce deforestation in the Amazon by 80 percent and to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 39 percent by 2020. Reuters quotes the then-candidate saying, in regards to these pledges from her environmental platform:
"I will keep those promises.”
President Rousseff and the Senate have — and should grab — the opportunity to preserve Brazil's leadership on sustainable development and signal investors that they can count on rule of law and a stable investment environment in a plethora of sustainable, green economy alternatives from biofuels, to sustainable forestry and forest carbon credits.
However, if the bill should pass the Senate and be enacted as currently written, it could, over time, erase Brazil's gains in controlling Amazon deforestation, undermine the considerable international stature the country gained through its environmental leadership, and foreclose Brazil's enormous green growth potential.
With Brazil set to host the Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development next year, the world will be watching the Senate and President closely.