Brazil vote sparks fears for future of rainforest

Story highlights

  • Brazil has made a dramatic reduction in the rate of deforestation
  • Environmentalists worry that its progress could be put at risk by changes to forest law
  • Greenpeace is also concerned that Indonesia's measures to halt deforestation are not working
  • The World Resources Institute says the world needs consistent, real-time deforestation data
Brazil stands at a crossroads in its efforts to preserve the Amazon rainforest, as the government considers controversial legislation governing land use.
For most of the last decade it has made a dramatic reduction in the rate of deforestation -- providing a model of how it could be tackled in other rainforest areas such as Indonesia and Congo.
The Amazon rainforest covers a huge area, roughly half as large as the United States, with around 60% of it in Brazil.
It is estimated that nearly a fifth of the Brazilian forest has been lost since 1970 -- figures from Brazil's space research institute (INPE) show that 4.1 million square kilometers (1.58 million square miles) of Brazilian forest were still standing in 1970 compared to 3.35 million square kilometers (1.29 million square miles) today.
Like many developing nations, there is pressure on the natural environment from commercial and agriculture interests.
Graph showing deforestation rate of Brazil's rainforest since 1988. (Source: INPE)
According to INPE, in 1995 nearly 30,000 square kilometers (about 11,550 square miles) were cleared -- that is an area about the size of Belgium or the U.S. state of Maryland -- but in 2011 the rate of loss had been reduced to just over 6,000 square kilometers (about 2,400 square miles).
Last year saw the lowest annual clearance since yearly INPE surveys began in 1988 and Brazil is aiming to reduce deforestation even further to 3,500 square kilometres annually by 2020.
Brazil's environment ministry credits its success on a combination of support for sustainable activities and near real-time satellite monitoring of forest regions that allows it to target illegal operations with extra agents.
But environmentalists worry that these results -- brought about by efficient use of technology allied with a political will to slow clearing -- could now be put at risk by an overhaul of Brazil's Forest Code. Protesters say the new code, which could come into effect after a much-delayed crucial vote, reduces protection and weakens enforcement laws.
"The changes in the new Forest Code will reduce this protection. Combined with the strong presence of 'ruralists' in the Congress -- congressmen linked to the agri-business sector -- there is good reason to be very concerned for the future of forests in Brazil," said Jessica Miller of Greenpeace Brazil.
"Deforestation in the Amazon has many drivers. Loggers come first to take the most precious timber and finance the building of rough, illegal roads. Then come cattle ranchers, burning what is left and planting grass. Cattle ranching is often used to guarantee the ownership of the area by land grabbers," she said.
At present, Brazilian government statistics show that about 30% of the country's land is given over to agriculture.
The power of the rural lobby is acknowledged by those close to the Brazilian government but the environmental fears are also rejected.
Luis Antonio Carvalho, special advisor to the Brazilian Environment Minister, Izabella Teixeira, said: "It is true that the rural caucus representatives have much power, everybody knows that. Much of the GDP comes from the Brazilian agriculture and livestock. It is a sector of great importance for the country.
"The new proposal includes all the government's requirements. It sets out regulations to restore the land. It includes components such as social interest, public utilities and low environmental impact.
"But I think this is the best proposal that can come out for both sides. Environmental groups are concerned, but the rural caucus, on the other hand, are worried too. So it is clear that neither side will be satisfied with any code that the government approves."
Carvalho said farmers must keep 80% of their forested land -- they will only be able to clear 20% -- and may have to use some of their land for reforestation.
But farmers are worried about the future of their businesses and keen to modernize the existing code, which dates to 1965.
No-one from the Brazilian farmers' body, the CNA, which represents 2,300 rural trade unions, was available for comment but the group's website calls for a balanced approach that safeguards conservation and food production "because this production depends on the welfare and progress of the Brazilians."