Untangling Brazil’s Controversial New Forest Code

25 April 2014

Approved in 2012, Brazil’s new Forest Code has few admirers. Agricultural interests argue that it threatens the livelihoods of farmers. Environmentalists counter that it imperils millions of hectares of forest, threatening to release the billions of tons of carbon they contain. A new study, co-authored by Woods Hole Research Center (WHRC) scientists Michael Coe, Marcia Macedo and Brazilian colleagues, published this week in Science, aims to clarify the new law. Entitled “Cracking Brazil’s Forest Code,” the article is the first to quantify the implications of recent changes to the Forest Code and identify new opportunities and challenges for conservation.

The Brazilian Forest Code is the largest single protector of forests on private properties, which contain over half of Brazil’s remaining forests and savannahs. Though championed by conservationists, the law has proved challenging to enforce. As global demand for beef and animal feed increased in the early 2000s, annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon surged to more than 20,000 km2 per year – prompting global outrage and a redoubling of efforts to improve enforcement. These pressures inspired a backlash from agribusiness interests, who lobbied to reduce the burden put on landowners to conserve and restore forests.

The new Forest Code is the product of a long and bitter debate in the Brazilian congress, fueled by tensions between the agribusiness lobby, government enforcement agencies, and conservationists. According to the study, the new law granting amnesty to landowners who deforested illegally before 2008, reduces the area to be reforested from 500,000 km2 to 210,000 km2. “The agribusiness lobby should see this as a big win,” explains lead author Britaldo Soares-Filho of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG,) “but if they continue to boycott and sabotage the Forest Code, they will be shooting themselves in the foot.” Ultimately, he warns, “agricultural productivity depends on the conservation of native ecosystems and the climate stability they provide.”

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