New Amazon Forest Law: Will It Stick?

Attempting to better understand Brazil's controversial new forest code and its future results in wildly different interpretations.

Jeff Tollefson is in Brazil to cover the battle over protecting the Amazon rainforest for InsideClimate News, filing dispatches at ICN's new Covering Ground blog. Credit: Jeff Tollefson/InsideClimate News

Jeff Tollefson is reporting from the Brazilian Amazon for eight weeks and exploring Brazil's efforts to protect the world's largest rainforestand the earth's climate.

BRASILIA, Brazil—Gazing out the window of the National Library of Brazil, across the concrete plaza, past the concrete dome of the National Museum and on to the most wondrous concrete Congress complex, I couldn't help but marvel at the audacity of Oscar Niemeyer and the band of architects that designed this city.

It's a city of bold and orderly forms where human activities are zoned with remarkable efficiency: government ministries here, housing there, all connected by an impressive network of roads, green spaces and pedestrian corridors. Everything is black and white—quite literally, in the case of the monumental concrete structures designed by Niemeyer himself. Here we see theory put into practice, then accosted by reality in the form of traffic, urban blight and suburban sprawl.  

The same could be said for Brazil's vaunted "Codigo Florestal," or Forest Code. Enacted in 1965, this is the law that limited the amount of forest that could be cleared in any given area—up to 20 percent of the total area for large properties in the Amazon, more for smaller properties and in other regions. It also prescribed how much forest must be retained along riverbanks and set standards that protect slopes. From an ecological perspective, it was hard to beat.

But the Forest Code, like the carefully planned architecture of Brasilia, has been utterly overwhelmed by reality.

There's a saying here that some laws stick, some don't. The old Forest Code simply didn't stick. Enforcing the regulations on the poor and generally lawless frontier was impossible. For land barons clearing massive tracts for cattle or smallholders cutting some trees to make by, protecting forests seemed like a luxury.

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The old Forest Code did, however, give the government authority to crack down on the major actors, and once it decided to do so, large-scale deforestation dropped off. Brazil's success in reducing deforestation has been celebrated around the world, in no small part because of the forest's importance in the fight against global warming.

But then the backlash began.

Rural and agricultural interests suddenly had progress they could point to as proof that the regulations could now be weakened. Environmental groups had less to rally against. And the government had more room to move.

The result was a polarizing revision of the Forest Code by the Brazilian Congress in 2012. Your correspondent came to Brasilia to reconcile wildly different interpretations of that revision and better understand the current state of Brazil's environmental agenda.   

The 2012 revision weakened requirements for protections along rivers and slopes. It granted a kind of amnesty from fines for deforestation that took place before July 2008, so long as landowners come into compliance. It also added loopholes—a recent analysis in Science suggests that the new law reduces the amount of forest that must be recovered by nearly 60 percent.

Environmentalists have described the new Forest Code as a catastrophe that could open vast new tracts of land to deforestation, while encouraging landowners to think that they can clear land now and change the law later. The remarkable thing is that I heard precisely the opposite, again and again, when I spoke to government officials this week.

These government officials aren't your typical bureaucrats; they are scientists and environmentalists who evidently believe in their mission of securing the frontier, protecting the forest and promoting sustainable development.

"From my perspective, the new Forest Code is a good thing because it allowed us to debate the issue properly," Carlos Klink, secretary for climate change within the Environment Ministry, told me. An ecologist who previously worked for The Nature Conservancy and the International Finance Corporation, Klink says the requirement that landowners maintain 80 percent of their land as forest in the Amazon was actually implemented, controversially, under a kind of executive order in 1996. Prior to that, the requirement was 50 percent. "Now it's been debated and approved by the Congress," he says.  

The optimistic view hinges in part on a "rural environmental registration" system that requires landowners not only to register their land but also to delineate which areas are protected and which are under production. There are no fines or penalties for being out of compliance at this stage, but the idea is that the government will be able to build a comprehensive property database—even in areas where land titles have yet to be legally sorted out—and then ratchet up compliance. On May 3, President Dilma Rousseff released rules implementing the system.

The law also creates a market for environmental compliance, a sort of cap-and-trade system for trees. Landowners who cut down less forest than they are legally allowed can sell credits to others who have cut down too much forest, thereby cashing in on their standing forest rather that bulldozing it.

The land registration system existed under the old law. But the hope is that it will be rolled out broadly under new law. The registration system is supported by major players in the agricultural industry, which sees it as a kind of certification in a world where consumers increasingly demand environmentally friendly products.

The land registration system also fits into a larger effort to use high-resolution satellite data and detailed monitoring across the entire country. Combined, these two tools could represent a  says Carlos Scaramuzza, an ecologist who came to the Environment Ministry last year from WWF-Brazil and is now working on forest recovery efforts.  

Scaramuzza says people on both sides of the Forest Code debate, including environmentalists in his own organization at the time, lost sight of the bigger picture. Brazil has made huge progress in reducing deforestation and consequently greenhouse gas emissions, and now it needs to bring order to the frontier in order to continue that process. The land registry could provide that order.

"The law is a reflection of our society," Scaramuzza says. "Now we have to implement it."

The question now is whether the new law will stick.

Many fear that things have already bogged down. "The Forest Code was passed in 2012, and nothing has happened since then," says Paulo Moutinho, executive director of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute.

Moutinho worries that Brazil's success in reducing deforestation over the past decade has allowed the government to relax on environmental issues and focus on development. At the same time, he is optimistic because climate change policies are being integrated across the Brazilian government. More than one government official told me that the Environment Ministry is no longer in the "ghetto."

"The environmental focus in Brazil is no longer just deforestation," Klink says. "We have to build a different narrative."

The dry season has now arrived, and we will soon see what this year's cutting season delivers. Few think that deforestation is going to ramp up to the shocking levels of years past, when landowners cleared forest with impunity. But many fear what one scientist called "the slow bleed"—persistent low-level deforestation and damaging fires that gradually, but persistently, eat away at the environment. To end the bleeding, Brazil will have to resolve the underlying social and economic causes of deforestation:  poverty, corruption and continuing uncertainty about the rule of law.

Coming soon: I'm now headed into the Amazon, where I'll visit landowners large and small in the state of Mato Grosso. I'll also take a look at one organization's efforts to change the way landowners do business.

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