Yesterday was a sad day in Brazil. An environmental activist and his wife were shot dead in the Amazon by unknown attackers, just hours after politicians approved a controversial new environmental bill that will open the door to massive deforestation in highly important areas like the Amazon.
The Forest Code is the main law to protect Brazil’s forests. It was designed back in 1934 by visionaries who understood the need to preserve native vegetation, not only for nature’s sake but for the benefits that it provides for industries and people around the world. One of the key aspects of the existing code, which I helped to amend in 1999, is the requirement to leave intact a certain percentage of a land area even in private properties. So, in the Amazon, for example, a landowner must keep 80 percent of the area as native vegetation. This percentage is smaller in other places.
The new bill, approved by the Brazilian House of Representatives is a disaster. It will drop those percentages to even lower levels, opening the way for increased deforestation, besides allowing clearing of native vegetation in critical areas, like slopes, hilltops and along rivers. On top of that, the bill suspends penalties for those in breach of the law, meaning that criminals will simply be able to carry on with their normal lives and not have to pay any fines or compensate by replanting any trees.
We cannot afford to open the flood gates to increased deforestation; our forests represent our national, natural capital. In March and April alone, satellite imagery exposed 596 square kilometers (230 square miles) of new Brazilian deforestation — nearly six times more than in the same period last year.
This bill is short-sighted. It unilaterally favors big ranchers and supports an economic development model that is backward looking; one that completely ignores any minimum environmental requirement, as if agriculture did not need water, soil and other services that nature provides and that are absolutely essential for growing food crops.
And if you are reading this from outside Brazil and wondering: what do I have to do with this? Everything. Science proves it: tropical forests, including the Amazon and the Atlantic Forest, provide a service to the world. Because of them you can breathe clean air and drink fresh water. And because of their capacity to absorb tons of CO2, the effects of climate change are not as bad as they could be. Everyone, everywhere, depends on the conservation of tropical forests.
CI has joined a group of about 70 social and environmental organizations in Brazil that are against the bill. This coalition includes social and environmental NGOs and big forestry and wood product companies that, just like farmers, are also heavily dependent on nature, yet have a longer term vision and know that conserving the environment is the foundation for a sustainable business.
Let me be clear: we are not against changes to the current law. We do want a new law, but one that does not ease the rules against deforestation, while at the same time creating conditions for landowners to comply with the law, especially small landowners, who tend to be much more conscious of the benefits that a healthy ecosystem brings to their business.
After Tuesday’s vote in the House, this bill goes to the Senate floor and will then be voted by the president. Yesterday was a sad day, but I’ve been doing this for many years and I haven’t lost hope that criminals like the ones who killed José Cláudio Silva, the murdered environmental activist, will end up behind bars. Jose and his wife had been receiving death threats for their work denouncing illegal logging. President Dilma: defend your people — please veto this bill.