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Reforming Brazil’s forest law: defeat or discernment?

Farmers involved in illegal deforestation would be forgiven under proposed amnesty.

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President Dilma Rousseff has been urged to veto Brazil’s latest reforms to the forest code, which may threaten forest cover in the country. Marcos Rodrigues/ASN

LIMA, Peru (15 March, 2012)_Just three months before world leaders gather in Rio de Janeiro to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Earth Summit, Brazil’s forest law is about to be changed once again – this time, conservationists claim, not in favour of forests.

Proposed reforms to Brazil’s Forest Code, which have been debated on and off for over two years, will provide amnesty to farmers involved in illegal deforestation activities before July 2008 and reduce the area of forest that landowners need to retain thus favouring agricultural expansion. As such, the reform could be a major blow to the country’s recent success in halting deforestation.

Still in 2009 at the UN Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, Brazil had announced its plan to reduce deforestation in the Amazon by 80 percent. The plan’s main strategic components were (1) more rigid forest law enforcement and (2) a national program of payments for environmental services to compensate land users for avoided deforestation. A recent CIFOR study emphasizes the role of forest law enforcement in achieving the 80% reduction target in a cost-effective and equitable manner.

“In a situation where illegal large-scale deforestation has been tolerated for several decades, it is politically unattractive vis-à-vis good forest stewards to fully compensate land users for complying with the law,” says Jan Börner, Research Fellow with CIFOR’s Forests and Livelihoods Programme and lead author of the study REDD sticks and carrots in the Brazilian Amazon: Assessing costs and livelihood implications.

REDD stands for Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation – an upcoming mechanism in the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change. In their study, Börner and his co-authors illustrate the need to find a socially fair combination of compensation and conservation law enforcement and shows that effective law enforcement is essential to keep the cost of implementing REDD in Brazil in a manageable range.

In line with previous CIFOR research, the authors identify the poor definition and spatial delimitation of forest use and property rights in the Amazon as one of the key factors limiting the effectiveness of any conservation strategy in Brazil. Changing the rules of the game may thus have little effect unless the legal and institutional infrastructure to enforce them is fully functional.

The looming forest law reform, nonetheless, sends a clear signal to land users who had reasons to fear being held accountable for illegal operations in the past. Lowering the bar in terms of conservation targets may thus rightly be interpreted as an incentive to deforest more. A less ambitious legal conservation target, however, could just as well provide authorities with enough moral and political backing to take enforcement more seriously.  Recent and measurable improvements in forest law enforcement suggest that the political will to do so is eventually there.

Should it be passed, however, only time will tell us whether the forest law reform was a clever move of Brazil’s environmental administration, or simply the result of an unequal power game between conservationists and commercial agricultural interests.

To ensure that  Rio+20 delivers a global message that forests matter to sustainable development, CIFOR will coordinate one of the most important conferences on forests on 19 June, 2012. Forests: The 8th Roundtable at Rio+20 will discuss new research findings, remaining knowledge gaps and policy implications for integrating forests into the solutions to four key challenges to progress toward a green economy: energy, food and incomewater, and climate. Seats are limited so register here to avoid disappointment! 

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Topic(s) :   Deforestation Timber legality Food security Community forestry Rights