From the Forest to Brasilia: Brazil's Fight over the Amazon

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Strips of deforested land in the Brazilian Amazon (Rickey Rogers / Courtesy Reuters).

Strips of deforested land in the Brazilian Amazon (Rickey Rogers / Courtesy Reuters).

I attended a small conference a year and a half ago in Rio de Janeiro during which one of the panels focused on climate change. With one of the cleanest energy matrices around (nearly 50 percent of its energy comes from clean and renewable sources) Brazil has certainly earned its green bona fides and leadership position in world climate change talks. Alluding to Brazil’s historical leadership, they talked mostly of Brazil’s future, and its pledge – one of the first emerging economies to do so – to voluntarily reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 38% of business-as-usual amounts by 2020. In practical terms, this means attacking deforestation, which is responsible for some 70 percent of Brazil’s emissions today. The country’s 2008 National Plan on Climate Change pledges to cut deforestation by half by 2020.

During the conference the intense optimism of the Brazilians on their ability to reverse and reduce deforestation – and with it climate change – struck me. Granted, in 2009 the figures were impressive: a 45 percent drop in forests lost, the lowest level in over two decades.  Yet the declines coincided with falling commodity prices, easing the economic pressures to expand Brazil’s farms and ranches into the Amazon. One had to ask if commodity prices – particularly those for soya and beef – rise again, would Brazil be able to maintain its ambitious preservation plans? The Brazilian experts responded that Brazil’s government could in fact enforce the laws, whatever the countervailing financial incentives.

In their certainty about the efficacy of the state, it seems they were right. Government monitoring and enforcement has improved – so much so that Brazil’s agricultural interests have launched a full court press to change the laws. Under the current law, known as the Forest Code, farmers in the Amazon must keep  80% of their land forested. The new legislation will exempt small-scale landowners from having to replant deforested land and grant amnesty to farmers who illegally deforested land before July 2008. Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies approved the bill last week, and the Senate should pass it soon.  President Dilma Rousseff has come out against the amnesty provisions (threatening a veto), but hasn’t condemned the overall idea of opening up more forest for tilling and grazing

This showdown between Brazil’s agricultural lobby and the environmentalists is revealing in many ways, but perhaps most about the effectiveness of the government itself. Brazil’s ranchers and farmers see the need to  change rather than just skirt the law (though unlawfulness in the Amazon does continue, heartbreakingly witnessed in the recent murders of forest conservation activist José Cláudio Ribeiro da Silva, his wife, and a witness to the murders). As the politics unfold, hanging in the balance is the world’s largest forest – the Amazon – and perhaps the future of climate change.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.