Archives: sschwartzman

Who deserves credit for protecting Brazil's Amazon rainforest? It's not even close.

Who’s responsible for the 70% reduction in Amazon deforestation that’s made Brazil the world leader in reducing greenhouse gas pollution, keeping 3.5 billion tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere since 2005?

Who, if anyone, is responsible for the 29% increase in deforestation from 2012 – 2103 (which looks to repeat in 2014)?

Simon Romero’s New York Times story, Clashing Visions of Conservation Shake Brazil’s Presidential Vote, asks these questions from the vantage of wild-west frontier town Novo Progresso, Pará.

Terra do Meio_Brazil_map

The shaded area shows the indigenous territories and protected areas of the Terra do Meio region, whose 7 million hectares of protected forests Marina Silva created as environment minister.

Part of the answer lies just up the BR-163 highway from Novo Progresso, in the indigenous territories and protected areas of the Terra do Meio region of the Xingu River basin. When Marina Silva took over as environment minister in 2003, the Terra do Meio was overrun with gunmen working for land grabbers busy threatening forest communities, opening roads and clearing forest.

After Marina put together the national Plan to Prevent and Control Amazon Deforestation – and after American nun Sister Dorothy Stang was murdered nearby in 2005 – the government created about 7 million hectares of protected areas in the previously lawless Terra do Meio. The land grabbers and their hired guns left, because they knew they weren’t getting land titles in officially recognized indigenous territories and protected areas – and deforestation stopped.

This illustrates why legally recognizing indigenous territories and creating protected areas have been so effective in reducing deforestation on the Amazon frontier. Public lands not designated for any specific use (e.g., park, indigenous territory, national forest), like the Terra do Meio before 2005, are historically subject to invasion by land grabbers, who clear forest in order to claim the land. Once government declares land a park or reserve, it can’t be treated like no man’s land anymore, and the incentive to drive out local communities and clear forest goes away.

The science on how and why Brazil reduced Amazon deforestation agrees across the board that while various factors are in play (consumer and government pressure through commodity supply chains, law enforcement, increasing agriculture yields on cleared lands), creating protected areas and particularly legally recognizing indigenous lands is a very important part of the answer. (For more, see Nepstad et al, 2014; Soares Filho et al, 2010; Assunção, Gandour and Rocha, 2012; and Busch and Ferretti-Gallon, 2014.)

Going back to the question of who can claim credit for stopping deforestation, it is then notable that President Rouseff protected just 5% of the forest in indigenous territories and protected areas that her predecessor Lula did – with the large majority of Lula’s gains coming under minister Marina.

At a conservative estimate, Marina, not Dilma, protected an area of forests nearly the size of France on the Amazon frontier.

Indigenous Territories and Amazon Protected Areas Officially Designated 1995 – 2014
GovernmentIndigenous Territories Officially Designated (#)Indigenous Territories Officially Designated (Million Hectares)Amazon Protected Areas Created (#)Amazon Protected Areas Created (Million Hectares)MILLION HECTARES — TOTAL
Dilma Rouseff (2010 – 2014)2135N/A3
Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003 – 2010)168324926.358.3
Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995 – 2003)263773814.891.8
Source: Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) (Note: The table does not include the five Amazon protected areas Dilma created in the last leg of the election campaign, but they wouldn’t change the picture much.)


It’s too bad that in his otherwise very good story on Amazon deforestation today, Simon Romero didn’t point out this huge disparity.

As for why deforestation was up in 2013, and likely will be again in 2014, Beto Veríssimo of Imazon put it well in the Times:

We’re witnessing an increase in speculative deforestation and forest destruction for the government’s own infrastructure projects… There’s been a rearrangement of priorities

It doesn’t have to be this way.  If Brazil improved average pasture yields from the current 30% of sustainable potential to 50%, it could meet all the demand for agriculture commodities until 2040 with no more deforestation. Unilever, Nestle, and Cargill are only a few of long list of major consumer goods companies that have committed to zero-deforestation supply chains in recent years.

Brazil could be the go-to source for zero-deforestation commodities in emerging low-carbon, high-environmental quality markets – if it can avoid backsliding into business as usual on the Amazon frontier.

Posted in Brazil, Deforestation, News|: | 3 Responses

NY Times forests oped is out on a limb: protecting trees still key to solving climate change

In an oped in Saturday's New York Times (To Save the Planet, Don't Plant Trees), Nadine Unger argues that reducing deforestation and planting trees won't help fix climate change but will rather make it worse. One might ask how the 2,000-plus scientists and experts on Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) got this one wrong – they found tropical deforestation a major source that must be reduced to control climate change – but in fact it's Unger who's way out on a limb here.

Steve Schwartzman, Director of Tropical Forest Policy

Steve Schwartzman, Director of Tropical Forest Policy

When trees grow, they absorb carbon dioxide (CO₂) from the atmosphere and store it as carbon in their trunks, branches, leaves and roots. When people cut the trees down and burn them to clear forest for cattle pasture or crops, as they have at a rate of 13 million hectares of forest per year in the tropics over the last decade, this releases CO₂ back into the atmosphere.

Unger argues that forests absorb more sunlight than crops or grassland, which reflect more sunlight back into space and cool the earth. But that's not true in the tropics. In tropical forests like the Amazon, where deforestation is happening and thus where the Climate Summit's attention is focused, trees take up water from rainfall and evaporate it through their leaves, and create cloud cover. These clouds reflect even more sunlight than grasslands or bare earth, thus cooling the earth more. This is why large-scale deforestation disrupts rainfall regimes – and why deforestation in the Amazon, if unchecked, may reduce rainfall in California.

Emissions from tropical deforestation are, from the perspective of the atmosphere, just the same as emissions from burning fossil fuels – carbon that was wood, coal, oil or gas is turned into CO₂ and released to the atmosphere. In a living forest, trees do die and, over time release CO₂ to the atmosphere. But then new trees grow, and absorb that CO₂ again – not the case when forests that have stored carbon for centuries are replaced by grass to feed cattle or oil palm plantations.

Contrary to Unger’s claims, the "high risk" is to ignore the 200 billion tons of at-risk carbon stocks in the world’s tropical forests. In fact, as the IPCC has concluded, stopping tropical deforestation is a critical priority for controlling climate change.

Posted in Deforestation, News|: | 5 Responses

Does the future of the Amazon rainforest lie in California?

Derek and CA delegation Jan 2014

From left to right: Lubenay, Juan Carlos Jintiach, Derek Walker and Megaron Txucarramae (a leader of Brazil’s indigenous Kayapo tribe).

This post was co-authored by Steve Schwartzman, EDF's director of tropical forest policy, and originally appeared on EDF Voices.

Over the past year, California’s new carbon market has held five auctions, generating $530 million for projects that reduce climate pollution in the state. This is just the start, however, as we believe the program has potential to achieve substantial environmental benefits half a world away in the Amazon rainforest.

We are working with community partners, scientific and business leaders, and California policy makers to craft a rule that permits credits from REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) to be used in California’s carbon market, rewarding indigenous and forest-dwelling communities with incentives for ecosystem protection.

California is leading the way

Using California’s new carbon market to reward rainforest protection would be a powerful signal to Brazil, Mexico, and other tropical countries—and to the world—that leaving forests standing is more profitable than cutting them down.

With the right rules in place, California could create an international gold standard for REDD credits that could be adopted by emerging carbon markets in China, Mexico and beyond.

The right technology

There’s a misperception about how hard it is to measure whether forests are being destroyed or protected. Current technology makes it possible, right now. Satellite and airplane-based sensors are already capable of recording what’s going on with high accuracy. This technology enables us to measure emissions reductions across whole states or countries, the best way to ensure that the reductions are real.

The right partners

We need to help pull together the best policy experts, scientists, and environmental organizations to help California government officials write model rules for REDD that can create a race-to-the-top for forest protection around the world. We need to show that trailblazing states – like Acre in Brazil and Chiapas in Mexico – are ready to be partners with California and can deliver the rigorous level of enforcement and program implementation that California requires.

The right time

There’s real urgency to linking California’s carbon market with REDD. Even though Brazil, home to the world’s largest tracts of tropical forests, has cut deforestation by about 75% from its 1996-2005 levels and consequently become the world leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, that progress is fragile. Over the past year, agribusiness has been pushing back hard against law enforcement and the creation of protected reserves, and deforestation increased nearly 30%. If we want Brazil to continue reducing its deforestation towards zero, we must provide economic incentives to protect the Amazon, and California can be an important catalyst in doing that.

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25 years after assassination, activist Chico Mendes' vision for change lives on


Chico Mendes and Steve Schwartzman in the late 1980s at the Nazare rubber estate (in Xapuri, Acre), where they were accompanying American journalists doing a story on the Amazon. (Photo credit: J. B. Forbes)

On December 22nd, it will be 25 years since rubber tapper and environmental leader Chico Mendes was assassinated in his home in Xapuri, Acre in the Brazilian Amazon.

I had met Chico three years before, and on repeated trips to Acre and Xapuri learned from him about the lives of the rubber tappers – workers who collect latex from cuts they make in the trunks of rubber trees – and their struggle to save the forest and their livelihoods from ranchers’ hired guns and chainsaws. It totally changed how I thought about environmentalism and tropical forests.

I organized his two trips to the United States, in 1987 and 1988, set up meetings and interviews, translated for him and generally did whatever I could think of to get the media, policy makers, environmentalists and the public to understand that Chico Mendes’ story and ideas held the key to the future of the biggest remaining rainforest in the world.

No one at the time imagined how profound and far-reaching the consequences of Chico’s life and death would prove to be – but we were friends and I still miss him.

Chico’s life

Chico led rubber tappers in stopping ranchers from cutting down the forest from which local communities lived, as well as resisting and denouncing hired gunmen who threatened leaders of the rubber tappers’ union and drove families from their homes.

After I met Chico in 1985, he worked with EDF and other environmental groups and researchers to hold up and reformulate an internationally financed road-paving project that he feared would exacerbate deforestation and conflicts, and to develop the concept of “extractive reserves” – protected forest areas where government would secure local communities’ land rights, provide health care, education, and invest in sustainable alternatives for generating income.

He was killed by a rancher after stopping him from clearing forest where he and the local community wanted government to create one of the first extractive reserves.

Chico at times sounded hyper-idealistic, but he was politically brilliant.

On learning what scientists and environmental organizations were saying about tropical forests – that they were central to creating the rain that agriculture depends on, stabilized the global climate, and that their destruction was causing the extinction of more plants and animals than at any time in the last 60 million years – he was immediately able to see the global implications of the rubber tappers’ local struggle, and the potential for the local struggle of the global environmental movement. He formulated a vision that brought together unlikely allies for transformative change.

Social activists and environmentalists have both claimed Chico, and sometimes have acted as if he could only have been one of those things. They are wrong.

He clearly understood the political advantages of environmentalism in the rubber tappers’ fight to the death for the forest, but also the importance of the rubber tappers’ fight for environmentalism and the future of the forest as a global good, as environmental historian Jose Augusto Padua has recently noted.

Chico told an interviewer shortly before he was killed:

Our biggest assets are the international environmental lobby and the international press… It was only after international recognition and pressure that we started to get support from the rest of Brazil. (p.51)

He told the same interviewer:

We realized that to guarantee the future of the Amazon, we had to find a way to preserve the forest while at the same time developing the region’s economy… we knew it was important to stop the deforestation that is threatening the Amazon and all human life on the planet… So we came up with the idea of the extractive reserve. (p.41)

Chico’s legacy

The extractive reserve was an idea that Chico launched and is now flourishing. The idea of the extractive reserve comes down to making the forest worth more alive than dead, in the first instance for the people who live in it, and this idea is very much alive.

Chico died, but his vision for transformative change won anyway.

Before Chico, people in Brazil, if they thought about it at all, thought that slashing and burning the Amazon forest was the price of progress. Today, not even the head of the agribusiness caucus of the Brazilian Congress – who fought very hard to relax legal restrictions on forest clearing – will say that Brazil needs to cut down more forest to grow, and the overwhelming majority thinks that deforestation has to stop.

Chico would be heartened by the good news about Amazonian deforestation. It is down, about 75% below the 1996–2005 average, in large part because of the policies designed and put into practice by Chico’s close friend and colleague, former Environment Minister Marina Silva. Agricultural production is up over the same period.

Because of this, Brazil is the world leader in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, at over three billion tons of carbon. Creating more extractive reserves and other protected areas, and recognizing indigenous territories was central to the plan.

In Acre, Chico’s colleagues, politically marginal during his lifetime, came to power ten years after his death. They have stayed in power ever since, and made the state a sustainable development leader in the Amazon and the world, reducing deforestation, increasing GDP, agricultural production and greatly improving healthcare and education for the population.

Just last month, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change approved rules for countries and states that reduce their deforestation below historical levels to sell those emissions reductions in carbon markets or to public sector donors.

The fight for the forest in the Amazon, and elsewhere, is far from over, and there has been huge pushback against environmental law enforcement, forest protection and indigenous land rights.

Chico believed that out of conflict and struggle could come transformative change, and so it has, even if not just as he thought. We should believe it too, and keep Chico’s vision and ideas alive.


For more information:

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A blueprint for advancing California's strong leadership on global climate change

A key reason California has become a global leader on climate change is its ability to successfully adopt the Global Warming Solutions Act, the state’s climate law that uses market-based tools to significantly reduce the state’s greenhouse gas emission levels.

A group of leading tropical forest experts has presented a blueprint for how California can significantly reduce global warming pollution while keeping pollution control costs down and helping stop tropical deforestation. (image source: Wikimedia Commons)

A group of tropical forest experts has now presented a blueprint for how California can secure significantly more reductions in global warming pollution than the law requires, while keeping pollution control costs down and helping stop the catastrophe of tropical deforestation.

California is widely recognized as the major first mover in the United States on climate change, but tropical states and countries are making strong progress in stopping climate change, too. Brazil and Amazon states have reduced emissions from cutting and burning the Amazon forest by about 2.2 billion tons of carbon since 2005, making Brazil the world leader in curbing climate change pollution.

Research has shown that government policies played a big role in this major achievement. But so far this success in reducing deforestation has been entirely from government “command-and-control;” promised economic incentives for reducing deforestation haven’t materialized.  Pushback from ranchers against environmental law enforcement and the officially recognized indigenous territories and protected areas that cover an area four times the size of California have weakened critical environmental legislation.

Brazil and the Amazon states will continue to reach their ambitious deforestation reduction targets, at least for the next few years, but deforestation rates recently appear to be edging upward.

California now has an opportunity to send a powerful signal that forests in the Amazon – and ultimately elsewhere – can be worth more alive than dead by partnering with sustainable development leaders outside the United States.

Since state-wide, or “jurisdictional,” reductions in deforestation and forest degradation are large in scale and relatively low-cost, it’s critical that well-governed and effective pollution control programs from early movers, like the state of Acre, Brazil, are recognized by California’s carbon market. Ultimately, this can help California control costs, while giving these environmental leaders the sign they need to keep deforestation under control.

REDD Offsets Working Group report

The REDD Offsets Working Group (ROW), along with observers from the governments of California, Acre and Chiapas, Mexico, calls for the Golden State to allow limited amounts of carbon credits from Reducing Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) into its carbon market, but only from states that can show that they have reduced deforestation state-wide and below historical levels.

The ROW report: Recommendations to Conserve Tropical Rainforests, Protect Local Communities, and Reduce State-Wide Greenhouse Gas Emissions" recommends:

  • Partner states receive credit for a part of their demonstrated reductions only after showing they have succeeded in halting deforestation through their own efforts.
  • Free, prior and informed consent for local communities in REDD+ programs.
  • Adherence to internationally recognized standards for protection of indigenous and local peoples’ rights and participation in policy design in partner-state REDD+ programs.

REDD+ programs are especially important for indigenous and forest-based communities because these groups have historically protected forests, and typically want to continue doing so, but they have largely lacked access to markets, modern technology, quality health care and social services that REDD+ could help deliver. With California’s help, forest communities can achieve better economic opportunities and forest conservation.

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California’s carbon market: a potential game-changer in slowing the Amazon’s deforestation

(Cross-posted from EDF's California Dream 2.0 blog)

California moved into the fast lane on the low-carbon development highway when it launched its carbon market this month. Now it has the opportunity to do even more to stop dangerous climate change while cutting the costs of controlling global warming pollution.  Recommendations from a group of experts on how Reducing Emissions from tropical Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+) can come into California’s market show how.

Deforestation accounts for about 15% of global greenhouse gas emissions, but new recommendations from international experts show how California's new carbon market can help stop dangerous climate change and preserve tropical rainforests.

In the world of greenhouse gas emissions, tropical deforestation is huge. Accounting for about 15% of these emissions globally, deforestation emits more than all cars, trucks, buses, trains and airplanes on the planet — combined.

When California launched its cap-and-trade program Jan.1, it created the second largest carbon market in the world. With REDD+, the Golden State now has another golden opportunity to expand its global environmental leadership even further.

The REDD+ Offsets Working Group (ROW) convened by California, the Brazilian state of Acre, and the Mexican state of Chiapas, has released recommendations for how California can bring REDD+ into its carbon market.  The ROW, in accordance with California’s Global Warming Solutions Act’s (AB32) guidance, recommends that California allow states or countries that reduce their total emissions from deforestation below an historical average, while maintaining or increasing the output of commodities like cattle and soy that drive deforestation, to generate compliance credit in California.

This “jurisdictional” approach is much like what California is doing – reducing state-wide emissions below a clearly measurable historical level.

The ROW also recommends requiring states to show that they have made their own efforts to reduce deforestation, beyond any reductions that they seek credit for and ensuring that local –particularly indigenous — communities participate in policy design, have a choice about whether or not to participate in programs, and benefit directly if they do.

Tropical states such as Acre and Chiapas that are moving forward on their own to reduce deforestation know that California’s market for international offsets is very limited, and don’t expect to get paid for most of the reductions they’ve made or can make.

But they need a signal, and California’s carbon market may now hold the key to the future of the forest.

Until recently, rampant deforestation in the Amazon was a big part of the global warming problem – and a disaster for the millions of species of plants and animals and thousands of indigenous groups that live in the forests.  But when Brazil and Amazon states adopted new policies in 2005, all that began to change.

They ramped up law enforcement and started making large-scale reductions in Amazon deforestation, reducing their deforestation about 76% below the 1996 – 2005 average by 2012 (about 2.2 billion tons CO2) while increasing agricultural production and cattle herd. This came very close to the national target Brazil adopted — 80% reduction by 2020 — making it the world leader in emissions reductions.

Despite that progress – or maybe because of it – the Agriculture Caucus of the Brazilian Congress recently pushed for and won legislation weakening forest protection laws. The result? Although 2012 recorded the lowest deforestation on record, reports now say deforestation in the last five months has actually gone up in relation to 2011.

Creating demand for real, verifiable, additional REDD+ from jurisdictions that have solid social and environmental safeguards could be the sign the Amazon – and tropical jurisdictions around the world – need to know that REDD+ is real. Bringing it into California’s carbon market is an effective path to making that happen.

Posted in Brazil, Deforestation, REDD|: | 8 Responses

State-level REDD+ offers huge climate benefits

Carbon markets are taking giant steps toward becoming a reality, with forests and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) central to the process. Many environmentalists support REDD+, but a few want to obstruct it.

Many states around the world are already curbing their greenhouse gas emissions, including by reducing deforestation. Photo credit

A few weeks ago in Chiapas, Mexico, the 17 states and provinces from  the U.S., Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico and Nigeria that make up the Governors’ Climate and Forests Task Force (GCF) met to discuss ways to collaborate on reducing their greenhouse gas emissions, mostly from cutting down and burning tropical forests. Several states are already reducing emissions, on a larger scale than is often recognized.

With California poised to start the first state-wide mandatory emissions reductions program in North America next month, you’d think that environmentalists would welcome more states’ leadership.

But instead, Greenpeace put out a document slamming the GCF for proposing state-level plans to reduce deforestation instead of waiting for national programs. Never mind that a number of the GCF states are larger and have more emissions than many countries. This sounds oddly reminiscent of oil company lobbyists’ arguments that California is wasting its time and its consumers’ money by starting to address the global problem of climate change by itself – or that the U.S. shouldn't act until China and the rest of the world do.

The world needs to start reducing emissions wherever possible, and there are real, practical, effective ways for states to do this now.

In a commentary piece for Carbon Market North America, I describe what I think is the forest that Greenpeace missed (actually, the trees too).

You can read the commentary here: Huge climate benefits from state, local REDD+.

Posted in Brazil, Deforestation, Indigenous peoples, Mexico, REDD|: | 2 Responses

In Brazil, attorneys and scientists join calls for President Dilma Rousseff to veto Forest Code

Update (May 14): President Dilma Rousseff has until Friday, May 25 to either sign the bill or veto some or all of it.

Leading environmental law experts this week issued a paper detailing why President Dilma Rousseff should veto the law (1876/99) passed by Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies last week that would replace the country’s core forest protection legislation, the Forest Code. (View English translation of the paper.) The attorneys' paper follows a late-April statement from some of Brazil's top scientific organizations also repudiating the legislation.

A protester in Brazil marches with a sign calling for Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff to "veta," or veto, the Forest Code legislation. The legislation could reverse the major gains Brazil has made in reducing deforestation in the Amazon by opening up hundreds of millions of acres of forests to deforestation. Photo thanks and credit to Flickr user Stefanny Silva.

With the Rio+20 environment and development conference, hosted by Brazil, only weeks away, many in Brazilian government are concerned that weakening the Forest Code would draw international criticism.

In recent years, Brazil has made major gains in reducing Amazon deforestation, but the new law could reverse the trend.

The revised Forest Code, passed with support of the large ranchers and farmers’ caucus of the Congress (or ruralistas), would exempt farmers from penalties for illegal deforestation before 2008.

The legislation would also open up hundreds of millions of acres of currently protected forest to deforestation, including more than 98 million acres of critical wetlands, according to Brazil’s National Space Research Agency. President Rousseff has maintained since last year’s electoral campaign that she would not sign a law that gave amnesty for illegal deforestation.

The paper’s authors call for President Rousseff to veto the entire bill passed in the Chamber, rather than vetoing parts of it (she can choose to do either). Partial vetoes would introduce ambiguities and lacunae into the law and could make it unenforceable. For example, the Chamber bill changes the way that required forest buffers along streams and rivers are measured, allowing tens of millions of acres of new forest to be legally cleared. Vetoing this paragraph would leave undefined the key question of how riparian forest buffers are measured.

The new paper follows a statement by a working group of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC) and the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC), the country’s two principal scientific organizations, repudiating the bill passed by the Chamber. The scientists argue that special interests pushed through changes detrimental to the national interest and will not provide a basis for environmentally sustainable growth of the agriculture sector.

President Rousseff should respect the wishes of the vast majority of the Brazilian public that wants an end to Amazon deforestation and veto this dangerous law in its entirety.

For more information:

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Brazil's president and Congress could avoid backslide for Amazon protection

Whether Brazil continues to reduce its deforestation could depend on the outcome of a vote on its forest protection law in Brazil's lower house in March and sign-off from the president. Above: the home of Brazil's Congress, Congresso Nacional do Brasil (Photo credit and thanks to Flickr user JorgeBRAZIL)

Brazil has made great strides in reducing Amazon deforestation in recent years, bringing rates down about 80% over the last six years. But President Dilma Rousseff is already showing signs of backsliding on her environmental commitments in just her first year in office.

It’s a trend environmental groups have been following since Rousseff was sworn in last January, and one New York Times reporter Alexei Barrionuevo captures well in his recent story, "In Brazil, Fears of a Slide Back for Amazon Protection."

With global emissions from deforestation contributing about 15% of greenhouse gas emissions – as much as all the world’s cars, trucks, ships and airplanes combined – a lot is at stake in next month’s vote on a forest protection law in Brazil’s House of Representatives.

Whether Brazil, home to about 40% of the world’s remaining tropical forests, continues to reduce deforestation or not could depend on the outcome of the vote, and President Rousseff’s sign-off.

Forest Code enforcement and new protected areas slashed deforestation in 2000s under Marina Silva

Brazil’s law regulating deforestation on private land, the Forest Code, has been around since 1965; until relatively recently, it was hardly enforced and rarely obeyed.

That changed under former Environment Minister Silva. In 2003 she launched a national Plan for the Prevention and Control of Amazon Deforestation that ramped up law enforcement and established 600,000 square kilometers – an area the size of France – of new protected areas. These indigenous lands, parks, and forest-land reserves were located in the areas most affected by the expansion of agriculture.

Coupled with a temporary decline in agriculture commodity prices, the Plan brought deforestation way down, and persuaded policy makers that Brazil could commit not only to a national deforestation target, but to an overall national emissions reduction target as well.

Brazil made just such a commitment at the 2009 Copenhagen climate conference, pledging to reduce its emissions 36–39% below business-as-usual emissions by 2020 — the first emissions reductions target taken by any major developing country.  And Brazil is ahead of schedule to meet this 2020 target, having already reduced about 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide below its 1996–2005 baseline – on the order of what the EU has pledged to do by 2020.

However, while the deforestation plan was supposed to have a carrot (positive incentives for conservation) in addition to the stick (cracking down on illegal deforestation), so far it’s pretty much been all stick and no carrot: lots of law enforcement, but no incentives to keep the forests standing.

Farmers lash back

Many large-scale farmers in Brazil historically had railed against the Forest Code as being too restrictive, but were too busy cutting down trees to plant cattle pasture and soybeans to do much about it. Since the Code was rarely enforced, they didn’t much care.

An aerial view of Mato Grosso shows the stark distinctions between protected forests and land that has been cleared for cattle pasture or agriculture.

But they started to take notice when government, under Minister Marina Silva, began enforcing the Code and fining them for violations.

They also noticed when the environmental group Greenpeace mobilized big European soy importers to declare a moratorium on soy imports from land deforested after 2006, and when national supermarket chains, prodded by Brazil’s Attorney General, called for deforestation-free beef in 2009. Most people in urban Brazil agree that Amazon deforestation should stop, and support such measures.

For many of the large-scale farmers in Brazil and their powerful block of congressional representatives – the “ruralistas” – the solution to their not being in compliance with the law when government started enforcing it was to weaken the law.

So for the past two years, the ruralistas have been making a concerted push to radically weaken the Forest Code.

Last June, the ruralistas pushed a revised Forest Code through the lower house of Congress that amounted to a license to deforest. The bill, sponsored by a ruralista-friendly member of the Communist party, would fix the ruralistas’ problem by giving an amnesty for past illegal deforestation, and could open up new land for clearance.

Environmentalists and the Brazilian scientific community strongly contested the House bill. President Rousseff had promised during the presidential campaign to veto a new Forest Code that would increase deforestation or amnesty past illegal deforestation, but her administration was a belated and ineffective participant in the House debate.

In December, the Senate passed somewhat improved amendments to the Code, which, however, still includes an amnesty for some past illegal deforestation.

This bill now returns to the House for a final vote in March.

The amnesty for deforestation that has plagued these bills is unfair to the few farmers who made the effort to comply with the law, and could give all farmers the bad idea that if one new law granting amnesty for illegal deforestation is good, two – or more – are better. If farmers think that an amnesty now means that future illegal deforestation will eventually be amnestied too, they will take the new Code as a license to deforest. Penalties for scofflaws, and a clear pathway to legality with positive incentives, especially for small famers, would be much better.

Environmentalists are calling on Dilma to keep her campaign promise and veto the amnesty.

Deforestation: the price of progress? Not really.

For years, the ruralistas have insisted with increasing vehemence that the current Forest Code is an enormous, unfair obstacle to the growth of Brazilian agriculture. (They also often claim that environmentalists who support the Forest Code are no more than a front for foreign agriculture interests trying to protect themselves against Brazilian competition).

But there is solid evidence that while deforestation rates were falling to the lowest levels on record, Brazil and Amazon states were getting richer and agriculture production was growing to record levels.

A vivid example is Brazil’s biggest agricultural state, Mato Grosso.

Deforestation (red line in Fig. 1 above) in Brazil's state of Mato Grosso plummeted as production of soybeans (green) and cattle (blue) increased substantially from 2001-2010. (PNAS)

The state had the highest deforestation rate in the Amazon from 2000–2005, but over the next five years (2006-2010) saw deforestation fall more than 70% below historic levels. At the same time, agriculture production reached an all-time high, according to a recent article in the leading scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In “Decoupling of deforestation and soy production in the southern Amazon during the late 2000s,” Marcia Macedo, Ruth DeFries and others also show in great detail that in recent years, while soy prices and production picked up substantially, deforestation kept going down.

Ruralista rhetoric to the contrary, Brazil and Amazon states have shown decisively that, so far, they have the wherewithal to reduce deforestation substantially while they grow their economies and their agriculture sectors.

Brazil should encourage – not undercut – global action against climate change

However, as the Times story correctly notes, Forest Code amendments threaten to usher in open season on forests. The government has watered down environmental licensing for big infrastructure projects like dams and roads and has rolled back protected areas in the Amazon by a form of executive fiat. Brazil’s Congress is also considering a bill that would give it a veto over recognizing new indigenous lands.

Brazil is home to about 40% of the world's tropical forests and a pioneer in policies to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+), which could provide the positive economic incentives needed to maintain Brazil's progress in continuing to curb deforestation.

Perhaps most critically, there has been little progress on providing the carrot – positive economic incentives to keep deforestation going down and to restore degraded forests – that Brazil needs in order to sustain the progress it made during the last decade into the future.

One candidate for the carrot is Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD)  – the concept that reducing deforestation is good for the atmosphere and needs international compensation. Brazil was one of the pioneers of this idea in the international climate talks, and consequently created the Amazon Fund, to which Norway has committed $1 billion if the country continues to meet its 2020 target.

Brazil’s National Climate Change Policy also calls for the creation of a Brazilian emissions reductions market. But the federal government has made little headway on creating its own carbon market and has been reluctant to look at linking up with international carbon markets to pay for reducing deforestation. Both could go a long way to creating the incentives needed to grow the economy and sustainably expand agriculture and forestry, while stopping deforestation and restoring degraded forests.

What all of this means is that Brazil still leads the world in reducing carbon emissions because of its success in reducing Amazon deforestation – but risks reversing the trend if it approves a general amnesty for illegal deforestation. President Rousseff should listen carefully to Brazil’s world-class scientific community on how to balance environmental protection and development priorities, in the Forest Code and more broadly.

As Brazil prepares to host the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, it will find no lack of major developed countries to criticize for foot-dragging, omission, or outright obstruction on global environmental issues.  Ambitious new commitments on environment and development are unlikely under the specter of economic crisis in the EU and anemic growth in the U.S. Blaming richer countries for tepid results is one possible outcome.

But if President Rousseff  musters the political will to kill the deforestation amnesty and save the Forest Code, Brazil could do much better in Rio+ 20. It might find ways to use its world-leading achievement in reducing emissions from deforestation to chart the way to both more ambitious commitments and effective actions from other major economies going forward, and for funding for a sustainable low-carbon development strategy.

Posted in Brazil, Deforestation, REDD|: | 7 Responses

Brazil at the crossroads – House of Representatives vote to roll back environmental regulation, slew of killings troubling reminders of dark past

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?

Forests are slashed and burned in Brazil primarily to expand cattle ranching and agriculture. Above: Cows graze in a pasture where lush forests -- still visible in the distance -- once stood in Mato Grosso, Brazil.

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.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon in March and April may have increased dramatically over last year. Above: Deforestation has replaced tropical forest with cattle pasture in Mato Grosso, Brazil.

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

An aerial view of deforestation in Mato Grosso, Brazil.

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.

Read EDF's press release: Brazil's Forest Code vote would cripple environmental regulation, call into question country’s environmental leadership

Learn more about EDF's work in Brazil and the Amazon.

Posted in Deforestation, News|: | 1 Response