Brazil’s Revised Forest Code Threatens Country’s Emission Policies

By Antonio Pasolini

Brazil, a major player at COP16, faces a challenge back home as alterations in its Forest Code could compromise its emissions reduction target.

Last year the Latin American country came out of the COP15 in Copenhagen as an example of commitment to carbon reduction, writing into law its target of reducing by 38% its emissions until a 2020 deadline. In the case of Brazil, that can be achieved mainly by curbing deforestation, the country’s major source of emissions, since its energy matrix is mostly renewable (hydropower).

However, throughout 2010, a proposed revision of the country’s Forest Code, led by a communist congressman called Aldo Rabello, has been threatening to cancel out the efforts of the current government, which has managed to keep a downward deforestation trend, as recent figures show.

The Forest Code, which establishes environmental obligations to be complied with by farmers and ranchers, goes back to 1934 and has been revised several times. It is not carved in stone. The problem is that the new revision abolishes several environmental requirements, including downsizing riparian forest area from 30 to just 15 meters and giving deforesters amnesty, the sorest point from the government’s point of view.

The debate has been raging amongst the country’s environmentalist community and it was one of the reasons that Green presidential candidate, Marina Silva, succeeded in galvanizing 20 million voters in the first round of the election, which in the end was won by Lula’s anointed successor, Dilma Rousseff.

Now, the agribusiness, including sugarcane ethanol, lobby is pushing hard to get the new code to get a plenary vote already in December while the government wants to push it back to 2011 to give more time for the proposal to be discussed. President-elect Rousseff got agribusiness support for her campaign so her administration faces a tough balancing act  ahead.


A coalition of 35 organizations in Brazil called Observatório do Clima released on Tuesday (November 23) a study that says that the changes proposed by Mr. Rabello will compromise Brazil’s emission goals. The study says the proposed new code will release almost seven billion tons of carbon currently stored away in several types of native vegetation. This represents 25.5 billion tons of greenhouse gases, 13 times more than Brazil’s emissions in 2007.

According to André Rocha Ferretu, the coordinator of Observatório do Clima, it would be a very serious matter for Brazil to take a leadership role at international conventions such as COP16 and then allow its Congress to “dump everything in the trash can.” Besides that, the country’s biodiversity would be seriously affected, he added. He remains hopeful President Lula will veto the project.

One of the revised text’s proposed change that has been causing most concern is the one that gives exemption to small rural properties (ones with up to four fiscal modules) from keeping and recovering a legal forest reserve. Medium-sized and larger properties would also be exempt in regard to equivalent areas. As a consequence, the new measure would exempt 69.2 million hectares from the legal reserve. The study highlights that these areas store 6.8 billion tons of carbon.

Another major area of concern is the reduction of the riparian forest mandate around rivers with up to five meters in width. The study says that Brazil’s six biomes would release 156 million tons of carbon from an area of 1.8 million hectares, or the equivalent of two million football pitches.

What is hoped now, and what is avidly defended by Marina da Silva, is that the vote would be postponed until next year to be voted by the newly elected congress and after further debate. As da Silva said earlier this year, the forest code can be modified, but only to improve environmental protection and not to undermine it. The proposed text, she says, is a backward step.

Antonio Pasolini is the editor of Energy Refuge, an alternative energy blog.

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