Category Archives: Brazil

California's carbon market could help stop Amazon deforestation

(This post appeared in Point Carbon North America on Feb. 7)

By Juan Carlos Jintiach, Shuar indigenous leader from the Amazon basin, and Derek Walker, Associate Vice President for the US Climate and Energy Program at Environmental Defense Fund

Credit: Dylan Murray

California has a role to play in keeping Amazon deforestation on the decline and giving indigenous and forest communities the recognition and support they need. Credit: Dylan Murray

A recent article in the Journal of Climate predicts that destroying the Amazon rainforest would cause disastrous drought across California and the western United States. Californians are already no strangers to drought – the state is suffering one of its worst on record.

But the research adds an interesting dimension to what we already know from numerous studies about deforestation: that greenhouse gas pollution in California and around the world makes forests, including the Amazon, drier and more susceptible to widespread fires. California may be thousands of miles away from “the Earth’s lungs,” but how we treat our diverse ecosystems directly affects the one atmosphere we all share.

It is good news for everyone that California’s Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32) – which includes the world’s most comprehensive carbon market – is already helping reduce the state’s greenhouse gas pollution. Amazon states and nations have also greatly reduced their greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation, which collectively accounts for as much greenhouse gas pollution as all the cars, trucks, and buses in the world. California now has a terrific opportunity to show global environmental leadership by helping Amazon states keep deforestation rates headed for zero while helping save money for companies and consumers in the Golden State.

The current world leader in greenhouse gas reductions is Brazil, which has brought Amazon deforestation down about 75% since 2005 and kept almost 3 billion tons of carbon out of the atmosphere. Indigenous peoples and forest communities have played an essential role in this accomplishment. Decades of indigenous peoples’ struggles against corporate miners, loggers, ranchers, and land grabbers and advocacy in defense of their land rights have resulted in the legal protection of 45% of the Amazon basin as indigenous territory and forest reserves – an area more than eight times the size of California.

These dedicated indigenous and forest lands hold about half of the forest carbon of the Amazon, and have proven to be effective barriers against frontier expansion and deforestation. In a real sense, indigenous and forest peoples are providing a huge global environmental service, but that service is almost entirely unrecognized, let alone compensated. And in Brazil, where agribusiness is pushing back hard against law enforcement and reserve creation, deforestation is back on the upswing – increasing nearly 30% last year.

California has a role to play in keeping Amazon deforestation on the decline and giving indigenous and forest communities the recognition and support they need. A program called Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) gives countries or states that commit to reducing deforestation below historic levels “credits” they can sell in carbon cap-and-trade markets. Getting these programs recognized by California’s carbon market would send a powerful signal that forests in the Amazon and around the world are worth more alive than dead, and would also provide real incentives for further reductions.

Forest community and indigenous leaders from Latin America visited California to engage state leaders and policymakers on the issues of deforestation, indigenous and local peoples’ rights, and potential partnership with the state's carbon market. From left: Juan Carlos Jintiach (Shuar indigenous leader), Megaron Txucarramae (Kayapo indigenous leader) and Lubenay (of a Chiapas forest community).

A few weeks ago, indigenous leaders from Brazil, Ecuador, and Mexico were in California engaging state leaders and policymakers on the issues of deforestation, indigenous and local peoples’ rights, and potential partnership with California’s carbon market. California should insist that only jurisdictions that respect indigenous and local peoples’ rights, territory and knowledge, and ensure that they benefit from REDD+ programs get access to its market.

The successful adoption and implementation of AB 32 is proof that California is leading the nation on effective, market-based climate change policies. But it’s time to take that another step forward. By allowing credits from REDD+ to play a role in the AB 32 program, the Golden State can be a world leader on one of the most significant causes of climate change and take action to protect the health and prosperity of a threatened land and its people.

 

Learn more about REDD+ and California:

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

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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.

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Workshop for Indigenous Technicians Kicks Off REDD+ Capacity Building

  • Compass – check
  • Fluorescent orange flagging tape – check
  • Woods Hole Research Center’s Forest Carbon Measuring Field Guide – check
  • Garmin GPS 62sc units –check

Those were all items that  Indigenous field technicians learned to use, and learned to train their fellow Indigenous peoples to use, for measuring forest carbon at a November train-the-trainer workshop.

The workshop included teams of two from Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, and Peru. It was organized by a consortium consisting of the Coordinating Body of the Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA), Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), and Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC). In addition to training, it also covered the basics of climate change and of Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+).

Following this training workshop, each team of technicians has returned to its respective country to hold a series of community workshops over the next six months. The teams have ambitious goals: train leaders from at least 100 communities in their countries; collect 25 measurements of forest carbon from specific locations; and coordinate their work with government authorities, Indigenous organizations, and other organizations involved in REDD activities.

In addition to being a big step forward in actually implementing REDD+ on the ground, this initiative is noteworthy because it marks the first time that IDB has provided direct financing to any indigenous organization to execute a project. Previously, the money would have passed through the government or a northern non-profit such as EDF.  COICA’s capacity to directly receive those funds illustrates the tremendous progress being achieved by indigenous groups in building their institutional capacity.

REDD+ workshop photo

COICA technicians zero in on key coordinates

The workshop was located in Puyo, Ecuador, where many of the Amazon’s tributaries begin. Puyo is  a region where jungle is slowly disappearing as a result of conversion for agriculture.

Drs. Wayne Walker and Alessandro Baccini from WHRC designed a set of activities to build the forest carbon measuring skills. The technicians started practicing navigation using their GPS units to find locations throughout the city, and eventually navigated into denser and more difficult forest. From the forest locations they found with the GPSs, they measured 40 meter by 40 meter plots (about 130 feet by 130 feet), at first in an open grass area and later in a dense forest similar to what they’ll encounter in their countries. Measuring and monitoring of non-carbon forest elements was also discussed.

The technicians will be using similar activities in their two or three-day workshops at the community level. In addition to those practical “field classroom” activities, the curriculum will also include information on REDD+ and climate change that will be taught through adult-oriented learning activities such as participatory mapping and experiential sharing.

EDF and WHRC provided COICA with technical assistance in designing the November training workshop and will support the technicians throughout their six months of holding community workshops and collecting field measurements. While EDF expects the community workshops to be highly beneficial in building Indigenous peoples’ capacity to carry out these activities, we believe this project will also highlight the ability of Indigenous technicians to collect forest carbon measurements on their own and use that data to produce carbon maps and land management plans.

Overall, the ability of Indigenous Peoples to participate in REDD at national levels will visibly be strengthened immensely – a necessity if REDD+ is going to work.

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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+.

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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 Rousseff should veto disastrous Forest Code

EDF joined the chorus of Brazilian and global environmental groups in calling for Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff to veto the revisions of the country's main forest protection legislation passed last night by the House of Representatives that, if signed into law, would severely roll back environmental protection for the Amazon forest and other threatened ecosystems.

Brazil's Congress has sent President Dilma Rousseff the Forest Code, which would essentially legalize deforestation on vast areas of land. Rousseff can veto parts of or all of the law. (Photo credit to Flickr user dilmarousseff)

By giving amnesty for past illegal deforestation and opening up new land for deforestation, the Forest Code would essentially legalize deforestation on vast amounts of land.

This is a big problem, because global emissions from deforestation contribute about 15% of greenhouse gas emissions — as much as all the world’s cars, trucks, ships and airplanes combined – and Brazil is home to about 40% of the world's rain forests.

Brazil's relatively recent success in reducing deforestation in the Amazon has made it a global leader in reducing carbon emissions, but if President Rousseff approves the House-passed law, the country risks reversing that trend.

EDF’s Director of Tropical Forest Policy, Steve Schwartzman said Brazil's historic achievement in reducing deforestation in the Amazon nearly 80% since 2005 is at serious risk:

Brazil’s Forest Code has been instrumental in the country’s success in curbing carbon emissions, but President Rousseff is now faced with a deeply flawed, probably unenforceable law that would offer near-total amnesty for past illegal deforestation.

Brazilians overwhelmingly support stopping deforestation in the Amazon. About 85% of them want Amazon deforestation to stop no matter what, according to a public opinion poll taken in the last year.

Schwartzman said:

President Rousseff should respect the views of the vast majority of the Brazilian public that wants an end to Amazon deforestation and veto this bill.

Rousseff, from as far back as her presidential campaign, has repeatedly declared she would not accept legislation that amnesties past illegal deforestation. Brazilian law gives her as president the right to veto parts or all of the bill.

Given Brazil's position as host of June's global Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development, and with the great importance of the Forest Code to the country's forests and the world's climate, all eyes are on President Rousseff's next move.

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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.

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