One Journalist’s Take on Brazil’s Forest Code

For many journalists, stories on ecological issues don’t rank high among news priorities. Since 1999, CI has given out the annual Biodiversity Reporting Award (BDRA) to help spur journalists in developing countries to use their stories to call attention to critical environmental issues. Brazilian science journalist Giovana Girardi is one of our 2011 winners; here, she reflects on Brazil’s struggles with sustainable land use.

Serra dos Orgaos National Park in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (© CI/ photo by Haroldo Castro)

I’ve been writing about science and the environment in the Brazilian press for more than 10 years, so receiving this recognition was an honor for me and my colleague Andreia Fanzeres. It’s also significant because of the urgency of the topic that we wrote about: the debate in the Brazilian Congress to change our most important environmental law, the Forest Code.

Created in 1965 and updated in 1989 and 2000, this law defines which areas can be used for agriculture and livestock and which natural areas that must be preserved, which include APPs — permanent preservation areas — and legal reserves — private properties that can’t be deforested, but permit some sustainable activities. In legal reserves, the size of required protection depends on the type of ecosystem, ranging from 20 percent in the Atlantic Forest to 80 percent in the Amazon.

For many reasons, including lack of law enforcement and an old perception that we need ever-expanding areas to cultivate food, the Forest Code has been largely disrespected throughout the entire country. The devastation has been huge; around 80 million hectares (almost 200 million acres) in APP and legal reserves have been deforested. In 2008, a new amendment to the law was created to inhibit further deforestation, establishing penalties and even doling out prison sentences to lawbreakers.

Because of these punishments, congressmen allied with rural farmers and encouraged the discussions to reform the Forest Code. Their goal was essentially to reduce the protected areas, or at least to grant amnesty for those who deforested illegally.

When we decided to write about this movement, a first reform bill of the Forest Code had been approved in the Chamber of Deputies (one of the two divisions within our National Congress), and it was causing a stir within the scientific and environmental community. The amendment was much more flexible than the original law, cutting the size of riparian forests in half and allowing properties less than 400 hectares (988 acres) to drop the “legal reserve” designation.

Scientists started to speak out that these changes could be devastating, not just for biodiversity, but also for services provided by forests, like protection of water resources, pollination, etc. — services that can have a negative impact on agriculture. They accused former congressman Aldo Rebelo, who introduced the proposal, of ignoring what scientists had to say; in our reporting, we found that, in fact, the proposed changes to the Forest Code didn’t take scientific knowledge into account.

At this point in the discussion, the proposal has suffered more changes and is waiting to be voted on in the Senate (the second division of Congress). The proposal is currently not as pro-agriculture as farmers would like, but it is still less conservation-minded than the current Forest Code. It is still threatening biodiversity, environmental services and ecological restoration programs. And, in the worst-case scenario, it may encourage even greater deforestation in Brazil.

When I recently visited Washington D.C. on CI’s invitation, I heard a lot of people in NGOs and institutions like the U.N. Foundation and World Bank say that Brazil is doing well on environmental issues. In my experience, that doesn’t yet seem to be the case — one reason why Brazilian journalists like myself need to keep raising awareness about these issues.

Giovana Girardi is a science journalist and editor of the Brazilian magazine Unesp Ciencia. Read her award-winning story (in Portuguese).

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