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Amazon rainforest: Proposed law threatens to cripple preservation efforts

May 31, 2011 |  2:40 pm

Slashandburn taruma mirim. charcoalvander brug Driven by powerful agribusiness interests, a bill is moving through the Brazilian Congress that could cripple the decades-long effort to protect the Amazon rainforest.

The bill would change Brazil’s 1965 Forest Code, which requires that Amazon landowners preserve 80% of their property as forest, and allow states to set the minimum amount of forested land. Soybean farmers and ranchers, responding to high global commodity prices, are considered to hold more sway in state governments.

The legislation would also lift the Forest Code’s strict limits on logging near waterways and on mountain slopes. It would grant amnesty for illegal deforestation that occurred in protected areas before July 2008 — allowing vast swaths of the rainforest to be cleared and farmed. That, according to 10 former Brazilian environment ministers who oppose the legislation, would  open the door to more illegal logging.

The bill passed the Chamber of Deputies last week. A struggle is expected in the Senate, but, according to Mongabay.com, a website that tracks forest issues, it is likely to pass. Dilma Rousseff,  Brazil’s newly elected president, has said she opposes amnesty for illegal logging and has the power to veto parts of the measure.

The Amazon rainforest stores massive amounts of carbon, which, if released, would make a major contribution to changing the global climate. According to a 2010 World Bank study, a 20% reduction in forest cover, combined with droughts, fires and climate change, could cause a dramatic dieback of the Amazon, converting large areas to savannah.

Tropical forest scientist Thomas Lovejoy, who chaired the bank’s scientific panel, said the study “indicates a tipping point in the South and Southeast Amazon of 20% -- it is currently at 18%. What is needed is reforestation to lower risk of dieback, rather than promoting more deforestation."

Lovejoy, who has led research projects in Brazilian forests for four decades, said the new legislation “is driven by short-term interests and ignores the rainfall benefits provided by the Amazon for agro-industry and hydropower.”

Brazilian farm groups have praised the legislation, saying it would lead to increased exports and boost the nation's economy.  Aldo Rebelo, the bill’s chief sponsor and a leader of Brazil’s communist party, has cast it as a boon to small, poverty stricken landowners. “If some of these international institutions could, they would remove our people from here because there are many things that interest them, a lot of water, land and minerals,” he said in a recent speech attacking foreign enviornmental groups.

Brian vander brug brazil nut tree boa frente The growth in the international appetite for meat, along with the vagaries of weather on crop yields, is driving high commodity prices. To counter those incentives for logging, diplomats have been working on the details of a plan to offer financial rewards for forest preservation. The program, known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) is part of the United Nations' global climate talks, but negotiators failed to reach a final agreement in Cancun last December.

California officials adopted a carbon trading program in December that would eventually allow the state's industries to offset part of their greenhouse gas emissions by purchasing credits generated by forest preservation in Brazil and other nations.

“Brazil has been a leader in international efforts to protect rainforests and slow climate change,” said Steve Cochran, an official with the Environmental Defense Fund, which has been active in the Amazon region. “But its vote to throw open hundreds of thousands of currently protected acres to deforestation threatens to undermine its position on the world stage."

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, tracked closely by Brazil's National Space Research Agency (INPE), dropped dramatically in recent years. From 2006 to 2010, it was two-thirds below the annual average from 1996 to 2005. But in March and April, it spiked 470% compared with the same period last year, which experts link to an expected relaxation of the Forest Code.

RELATED:

Battling climate change by saving the Amazon

An American company funds a project to preserve Brazil's Amazon

Will California companies pay to save Chiapas' rainforest?

-- Margot Roosevelt

Photos, from top: Slash-and-burn agriculture and charcoal-production, as in this land outside Manaus, has destroyed as much as 18% of Brazil's Amazon rainforest; an Amazon villager harvests Brazil nuts as part of a program to increase income, and incentives for forest preservation. Credits: Brian Vander Brug / Los Angeles Times

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