US Forest Report May Fuel More Deforestation in Brazil

Twisted interpretation of findings by local agribusiness interests is tinder in effort to roll back rainforest protection

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Brazilian agribusiness interests are igniting a firestorm in their national Congress that may end up eroding a vital rainforest protection law, and for tinder, they’re using a months-old report written by a U.S.-based coalition of forest protection advocates.

These local agribusiness advocates say the report shows U.S. lawmakers see stopping deforestation in the Amazon as a way to open markets worth billions of dollars for American agriculture at the expense of Brazil.

The report by Washington, D.C.-based Avoided Deforestation Partners (ADP) said that ending tree loss through U.S. and global climate incentives would net $190 to $270 billion by 2030 for American beef, soy timber and oil seed producers. It would do so by cutting unfair competition from tropical nations like Brazil.

"Eliminating deforestation by 2030 will limit revenues for agricultural expansion and logging in tropical countries, providing a more level playing for U.S. producers in global commodities markets," the report, Farms Here, Forests There, said.

The study was released in May. Now agricultural interests in Brazil are waving it around as fuel for their campaign to allow more deforestation, local observers said this week.

Paulo Barreto, a senior researcher at Imazon, a Brazilian–based environmental research institute, told SolveClimate that lawmakers aligned with agribusiness recently "discovered" the study and are using it as "an example of how the international interests will hurt the agricultural sector."

Target: 45-Year-Old Forest Code

Their main target, Barreto said, is the Brazilian forest code, first passed in 1965. With the ADP report as a new weapon, they are pushing for passage of a reform bill that would weaken the 45-year-old law and put some 85 million acres of protected rainforest at risk in the process, experts say.

A coalition of 13 environmental organizations called the forest code "one of the most important laws protecting Brazil’s natural resources," in an appeal to their supporters to fight the bill. Under the current law, Brazilian landowners are allowed to clear 20 percent of their forests but must keep 80 percent in tact. The new bill could shrink that proportion to 50-50.

For Barreto, however, the biggest concern with the measure is that it would grant amnesty to individuals who have already cut down trees illegally.

This week, a special committee of Congress is expected to vote on the amended bill, introduced by Aldo Rebelo of the Communist Party in Brazil. Barreto said legislators remain "divided" on it, though he said "there’s a risk" it could pass. He said a final vote by Congress may not happen until after the October 3 elections, however, because the issue remains "very controversial." 

Deforestation accounts for around 20 percent of greenhouse gas emissions that spur global warming, according to UN estimates. Most of that is from the destruction of tropical rainforests, which soak up substantial amounts of carbon dioxide as they grow.

In fast-developing Brazil, cutting forests is responsible for 75 percent of climate change emissions.

Report Results Get Deliberately Twisted

The ADP report, commissioned with the National Farmers Union, a lobbying group, claims that inclusion of international tropical forest offsets in a coming U.S. climate bill would control climate change and deliver the double benefits of keeping American agriculture competitive and the legislation affordable to industry.

The report. which was carried out by David Gardiner & Associates, a Washington, D.C.–based consultancy, said forestry offsets would save U.S. agriculture and other related industries about $50 billion in compliance payments due to lower energy and fertilizer costs.

Glenn Hurowitz, the Washington director of ADP, said the study "was written for a U.S. audience relevant to the ongoing debate on climate legislation" and did not delve into the impacts on Brazil.

"Some of the interests in Brazil wildly misinterpreted the report," he told SolveClimate.

Doug Boucher, director of the Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a U.S. group that partially funded the study, similarly said that the claim coming out of Brazil that forest protection is bad for the economy "is a misunderstanding of the report."

Boucher was a reviewer of the study and said he "was very supportive" of its findings.

"The report is really focused just on the impacts on the U.S. and particularly on U.S. agriculture," Boucher told SolveClimate. "It was not aimed at Brazil at all."

For his part, Boucher said he was not entirely surprised by the hijacking of the results.

"It’s not surprising that the interests in Brazilian agriculture that benefit from … the kinds of agriculture that use deforestation as a means of getting relatively low-impact costs would use this kind of an argument."

Barreto agreed that the results are being used as a political weapon by the powerful agribusiness sector, which has "a very strong lobby in Congress." This is the case, even though the report "has nothing to do with what’s going on here," he added.

While the report’s impact on the forestry debate in Brazil was likely unintended, some groups are enraged.

"Groups in Brazil responded that they didn’t like our report," Hurowitz said. Still, he added, "none of the people in Brazil who are critical of the report contacted us."

Correction Issued: Win-Win for Brazil, U.S.

In an apparent response to the backlash, ADP released an additional analysis this week.

The original report "was not an economic analysis of the impact of tropical forest protection on tropical countries such as Brazil and Indonesia, and should not be interpreted as such," it said. The update further concluded that Brazilian agriculture would see a revenue increase of $145 to $306 billion by 2030 from ending deforestation.

"It’s important to note that gains to the United States do not mean losses to Brazil. Instead, protecting tropical forests will benefit both countries," the report said.

"[The new analysis] makes the case quite well that there are economic benefits of several different kinds to Brazilian agriculture from a reduction in deforestation," Boucher said.

The document has been translated into Portuguese and will be distributed in Brazil, Hurowitz said. However, he explained, Brazilian politicians are already aware of the economic advantages of saving their forests.

"Brazil has managed to substantially reduce its deforestation in recent years and at the same time it has substantially increased its agricultural production," Hurowitz said.

Further, a UN-backed scheme that would pay developing countries to preserve their forests, known as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation, or REDD, would unleash billions of dollars to the nation, Hurowitz added.

See also:

Surprise Call to Close Forest Loophole Shakes Up Climate Talks in Bonn

Forestry Loophole in U.N. Climate Text Could Stoke Global Warming

World’s Largest Forest Protection Deal Signed in Canada

Worldwide Forestry Deal Left Without a Legal Framework

Deforestation Deal, Copenhagen’s Supposed Savior, Hits New Low as Targets Dropped

Poor Nations to Drop Deforestation Targets if No Funding from Rich

Forestry Talks in Barcelona End in Toothless Agreement

Barcelona Climate Talks: Adequate Forest Protection Hinges on 10-Word Phrase

Seeing the Forest for the Trees: Shaping Financing to Prevent Deforestation