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BRAZIL: Forestry Law Reforms Augur More Disasters

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 27 2010 (IPS) - While the Brazilian authorities tally the death toll and the economic losses caused by recent torrential rains in the northeast, activists warn that a legislative bill to modify the Forestry Code will only worsen the effects of extreme weather, which is increasingly frequent in the context of climate change.

A special congressional commission is expected to vote early this week on the reform bill presented by legislator Aldo Rebelo, of the Communist Party of Brazil.

As the bill makes its way through Congress, 13 environmental organisations have expressed their concern in an open letter to all the candidates vying for the Brazilian presidency in the Oct. 6 elections.

“It’s an historical reversal” of the 1965 forestry code that is still in force, Rafael Cruz, of the environmental watchdog group Greenpeace, told IPS.

In the letter, the environmentalists warn of the harm in declaring an amnesty — as the bill proposes — for illegal logging on more than 40 million hectares of savannah and forest in the Amazon region recorded since 1996.

That amnesty would pardon an equivalent of 14.6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide emitted illegally, says the letter.

Lawmaker Rebelo argues that the Forestry Code reform is necessary because existing rules threaten agricultural development and, with it, the supply of food for the Brazilians in greatest need.

The bill also proposes that each Brazilian state can use its own criteria to reduce by up to 50 percent the federally-defined “areas of permanent preservation” (APP), which are the buffer forests along lakes and rivers that protect those water sources.

Another proposed change that the critics consider “serious” is the removal of a nationwide requirement to maintain a portion of larger properties in legal reserve.

“In the Amazon forest alone, that could mean the elimination of legal reserves of up to 70 million hectares,” states the environmental groups’ letter.

Assuming that half of those areas are already deforested, “even so, the legislative bill removes legal protection from at least 35 million hectares of forest,” the letter says.

According to the environmental groups, if the bill is passed, it would allow the release of 12.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide stored in the vegetation of the Amazon.

That total is three times Brazil’s goal for reducing emissions of greenhouse gases released through destruction of the forest. Brazil presented that goal in December in Copenhagen at the 15th Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.

The mobilisation against the bill began even before the heavy rains that caused flooding and mudslides last week in the northeastern states of Alagoas and Pernambuco. By Thursday, the disaster had left at least 44 people dead and 600 disappeared, affecting hundreds of families.

Cruz said the proposed changes to the Forestry Code “open gaps for deforestation from beginning to end.”

Tragedies like that of the northeast last week “serve as an example of what can happen as a result of deforestation, and in Brazil’s case, in tropical forests as a whole,” he said.

The environmentalist noted that deforestation is responsible for 75 percent of Brazil’s climate-changing emissions.

Under what Cruz calls “the Deforestation Code,” there will be an increase “in these extreme climate events,” he said, such as torrential rains outside of the rainy season and precipitation totals greater than the average.

An estimate from Greenpeace, which Cruz considers “conservative,” warns that if Congress approves the changes to the bill, 85 million hectares will be deforested.

Carlos Alberto de Mattos Scaramuzza, head of conservation for WWF-Brazil (World Wildlife Fund), shares that opinion.

The expert in ecology pointed to the increasingly extreme natural disasters involving landslides and heavy rainfall, as has occurred in the southern Brazilian state of Santa Catarina in recent years.

If Congress passes the bill, he said, Brazil can expect “extreme climate events of greater frequency and strength.”

Marcia Hirota, of the non-governmental group SOS Mata Atlântica, told IPS that the areas most affected in Pernambuco and Alagoas are located in the Atlantic Forest biome, which extends along eastern Brazil, covering 1.3 million square kilometres (15 percent of Brazilian territory) and part of 17 states.

Data from SOS Mata Atlântica and from the government’s Institute of Space Research (INPE) show that this ecosystem originally covered 18 percent of Pernambuco state, reduced to 13 percent today.

In Alagoas, the forest coverage was originally 53 percent of the state, but now has dropped to just 10 percent.

Hirota, who had just returned from the northeast, stressed that the populations hit hardest by the rains were located on completely denuded riverbanks, despite the fact that the Forestry Code in force require 30 metres of protective buffer.

With the torrential rains, the lack of vegetation contributed to the flooding of rivers and dams, which left entire neighbourhoods under water, she said.

The environmentalist was very moved by the tragic scenes she witnessed. Many people had disappeared, and families had lost their homes and all their belongings, she said.

She believes Rebelo’s bill “is totally contrary to the reality in which we live, and is going to worsen the situation.”

Hirota noted the disasters that hit Rio de Janeiro and Niteroi this year. The people most affected by the storms were those who irregularly occupied deforested and hillside terrain.

“It’s important to remain alert because we can’t lose any more lives,” she said, adding that situations like these confirm that environmental legislation is not just “to protect trees and animals, but also to ensure people’s safety and right to life.”

In such circumstances, she said, it is not enough that the government move people out of the danger zones, but must also move them “to safe places where they can live with dignity.”

The WWF’s Scaramuzza proposes in addition that the government must invest in reforesting the areas along the rivers.

Attorney Paula Lavratti, of the Law Institute for a Green Planet (IDPV), cited figures from the Environment Ministry indicating that natural disasters affected more than one million people in Brazil in the 2000-2007 period.

The environmentalists blame the offensive against the existing Forestry Code on the “ruralist bloc” in Congress, the legislative deputies they say vote according to the interests of large landowners and agribusiness.

That is why the activists want the vote on the bill postponed until after the October elections. “The fear is that the ruralist bloc will negotiate the forest for votes,” said Greenpeace’s Cruz, adding, “There are already people waiting to start up their chainsaws if the new code is approved.”

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