May 25, 2011

Increase in Deforestation in Brazil Response to Environmental Law

In response to a sudden increase in deforestation in Brazil during the months of March and April, the Brazilian Environmental Minister declared a crisis and she has instructed the government agencies responsible for monitoring deforestation to immediately determine the cause of the sudden increase.

The increase in deforestation came as a surprise because land clearing in Brazil usually occurs later in the dry season (during the July-September period) when vegetation is dry and it is easier to clear and burn the vegetation. Many suspect that the surprising increase in deforestation is in response to a proposed revision of environmental laws in Brazil known as the Forestry Code.

The Forestry Code states that environmental sensitive areas such as hilltops and along streams and rivers must remain in its original vegetative state. It also states that a certain percentage of the land must remain with its original vegetation. The percentage varies from 20% to 80% depending on the type of vegetation that was there originally. The code also mandates that if these areas have already been cleared, the landowners must reforest these areas. The Forestry Code has been on the books for a long time (since the 1960's), but it has largely been ignored for decades. Now there is now renewed emphasis on enforcement, which has led farmers and landowners to contest the entire law.

The Brazilian Congress has been heatedly debating a revised Forestry Code for months. On one side of the debate are environmental groups that say a new Forestry Code is urgently needed to protect the Amazon Rain Forest from unregulated development. On the opposite side are agricultural advocates and landowners who say that the code penalizes farmers all throughout Brazil in an effort to restrict development in the Amazon Region.

Herein is the problem. The revised code applies to all land in Brazil regardless of where it is located and how long it has been in agricultural production. Agricultural advocates indicate that if the proposed Forestry Code is adopted without changes, up to 80% of the farmers in Brazil would be in violation of the law and that many small landowners would be completely driven out of business. For example, in its present form, the Forestry Code stipulated that the native vegetation must stay intact for 500 meters on either side of a river or stream. Therefore, if a river or stream runs through a small parcel of land, the entire property would need to be reforested, thus eliminating a small family farmer. Opponents say it is completely unrealistic to expect farmers throughout Brazil to reforest land that may have been cleared several hundred years ago in an effort to protect the Amazon Forest.

If the current Forestry Code were to go into effect, it would significantly impact rice production in Rio Grande do Sul, coffee production in Espirito Santo and in southern Minas Gerais, apple production in Santa Catarina, 90% of the sugarcane production in Northeastern Brazil, all the grape production in Rio Grande do Sul, 70% of the milk production in Minas Gerais, and all the cattle production in the Pantanal (Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul).

The proposed Forestry Code seems unrealistic to most Brazilians and many suspect that current agricultural areas may be eventually grandfathered in and that the new regulations will only be applicable to areas cleared in the future. Since the new law has not yet been passed, it is reasonable to assume that the sudden increase in deforestation is an attempt by farmers and landowners to clear land before the new rules take effect in the hope of getting the newly cleared land grandfathered in under the new law.

In recent years, Brazil has been greatly increasing its monitoring capability of the Amazon Region by employing the use of satellite technology and it was recent satellite photos that alerted officials to the increase in land clearing.