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BRAZIL: ‘Green Grant’ May Do Little to Protect Amazon

RIO DE JANEIRO, Oct 11 2011 (IPS) - The Bolsa Verde or Green Grant programme, which gives financial assistance to poor families that help preserve Brazil’s Amazon jungle, may turn out to be only a drop in the ocean if legislation that undermines forest protection is adopted.

The Environmental Conservation Support Programme, known as the Green Grant, was launched Sept. 28 by President Dilma Rousseff in order to help extremely poor families develop environmental conservation activities, as one of the strategies of the Brazil Without Extreme Poverty Plan, which Rousseff calls her government’s key priority.

This month, some 3,500 families will begin to receive the subsidy of 300 reals (160 dollars) a quarter. The aim is to cover 18,000 families by the end of the year, and 76,000 families by 2014.

Regressive Forest Legislation

The new Forest Code was approved amid intense controversy by the lower house of Congress on Sept. 25. It has now gone back to the Senate, where it may be further amended. Finally it must be approved by President Rousseff, who has the power to veto it, partially or in full.

The bill reduces the percentage of protected forest that must be maintained on rural properties in the Amazon region and the Cerrado – a vast savannah in central Brazil - and grants an amnesty for illegal felling carried out before July 2008, as long as the landholder responsible agrees to a plan to conform to environmental regulations.

These are some of the measures introducing flexibility into the Forest Code of 1965, which is strict and was toughened in 2001, but is systematically flouted.

If it passes, the bill "will facilitate environmental crimes with absolutely no justification, while leaving the jungle unprotected; several parts of it are also unconstitutional," said Greenpeace-Brazil's Astrini.

The bill under consideration was called a "disgrace" by President Rousseff in May, and Astrini recalled that during the 2010 election campaign, Rousseff "promised not to change the Forest Code to allow amnesties and more devastation," and said the government could not remain inactive on the issue.

Deforestation of the Amazon is one of the main causes of Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions.

The bill is an "attack" on Brazil's international commitments, Rousseff said.

“The Green Grant is above all a recognition by the federal government that it is essential to offer an incentive that combines guaranteed income with preservation of the environment,” said Rousseff at the programme launch in the city of Manaus, capital of the northern state of Amazonas. “It is critical to our development model. People with higher incomes will be more committed to the environment.”

But the strategy of combining social and environmental policies may have “limited scope,” said Marcio Astrini, a member of Greenpeace-Brazil’s Amazon campaign.

“It’s a social programme, with the difference that it includes nature conservation as one more benefit. It’s a good start, but it remains just a drop in the ocean,” Astrini told IPS.

While he regards it as an “interesting policy,” Astrini fears it will be short-lived if Brazil adopts a new forest code being debated in Congress, which would seriously undermine regulations prohibiting the clearing of native jungle.

“In order to receive this subsidy, families have to live within conservation areas or extractive reserves (sustainable use protected areas). But under 100 reales (50 dollars) a month is very little remuneration for families helping to conserve the rainforest, at a time when the government and society are waiting for the new Forest Code to be voted on in Congress,” the activist said.

This “positive gesture” could turn into a “schizophrenic policy,” on the one hand promoting conservation, and on the other bringing in legislation that is an incentive to destroy the jungle, he said.

But Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira said the Green Grant programme, coordinated by her ministry, is “a major achievement.”

“We want people who live in the jungle to enjoy full citizenship and better living conditions, as well as valuing biodiversity. This is the first social and environmental programme that encourages people to make sustainable use of the rainforest,” Teixeira said at a press conference with foreign correspondents.

The government has set aside close to 150 million dollars a year to finance the Green Grant, and says this cost of keeping the rainforest alive is “absolutely feasible,” Teixeira added.

“The programme is part of a strategic policy for eliminating extreme poverty. It is necessary to remunerate the people helping to protect the jungle. The Green Grant’s resources are already secured, and there will be no constraints,” she said.

In her view, after more than three decades of the 1965 Forest Code that laid down the foundations of Brazil’s national environment policy, it is time for second generation social and environmental policies to be introduced.

According to the government, the areas where families who are to receive the Green Grant will be mapped, and the environmental impact of the programme will be assessed. The programme does not ban farming, as long as it is sustainable.

To apply for the grant, households must be registered on a list which already includes 8,000 families.

According to government information, conservation units created under a 2000 law which classified different protection regimes permitting sustainable use of resources are the source of nine percent of the water used in the country for human consumption, and avoid emissions of nearly three billion tonnes of carbon dioxide, one of the main greenhouse gases responsible for global warming.

The goal of the Green Grant programme is to lift 2.65 million people living in the north of Brazil out of extreme poverty. Fifty-six percent of the poorest people in the north live in rural areas.

The programme will be strengthened by widening the coverage of the Bolsa Familia or Family Subsidy plan – which provides an income for poor families, conditional on school attendance and health-care checkups for the children – and other food security and local food production programmes.

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