Brazil’s Uncertain Environmental Future

Clearcutting

Clearcutting in the Amazon. Photo by CIFOR.

Some fear that the re-election of Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff on October 26, 2014 signals an uncertain future for Brazil’s vast natural resources—including the 60% of the Amazon rainforest it controls. But while recent deforestation has been disheartening, Brazil still has a very recent history of hugely successful environmental programs. It is against this mixed backdrop that the global community reflects on the future of one of earth’s most precious resources.

The Amazon is home to 10% of the world’s known animal species. Over 2.5 million insect species are estimated to live in the Amazon, along with 40,000 plant species. It acts as one of the world’s largest filtration systems, taking in enormous amounts of carbon dioxide and turning it into the oxygen we breathe. And by keeping carbon dioxide out of the air, this large carbon sink also has great impact on global climate change.

While a world-wide concern, some of the devastating climate impacts are felt locally, as one might expect. A new report released by Brazil’s National Centre for Earth System Science links catastrophic drought, like the one currently affecting São Paulo, to the logging and burning of the Amazon rainforest.

And the problem of deforestation isn’t getting better—not recently—it’s getting worse. Unfortunately, the rate of deforestation has started to increase again, after a many-year downward trend. Last year, deforestation in Brazil increased 29%; in August and September of this year the rate of deforestation jumped 190% compared to the period a year previous.

Environmental groups are concerned about changes in Brazilian environmental law and executive policies. A March 2012 open letter signed by dozens of NGOs frames the problem as one of backsliding.

Flying in the face of the historical tendency, various specific cases illustrate the current moves to reverse [progress] and dismantle all the hard-won gains. Attempts to emasculate the current legislation, like the negotiations to rush through Congress a Forest Law reform bill utterly unworthy of the name, and the recently approved Complementary Law 140 regulating Article 23 of the Federal Constitution are the most serious examples. The list is long and includes the interruption of the process for creating protected areas, which occurred as soon as the present administration took office and actually reached the point of reducing the areas of several existing protected areas by means of a Presidential Decree, defying the legislation in force and infringing on Brazil’s international commitments. Another significant area of government neglect is the freezing of processes for the formal recognition of indigenous and quilombola lands while at the same time environmental licensing for huge public works with obvious social and environmental problems are issued at top speed.

President Rousseff’s administration has also greenlighted the controversial Belo Monte Dam, which will be the third largest in the world, flooding some 1,500 km of rainforest; refused to sign an international pledge to end deforestation; and strengthened ties with large agribusiness interests.

Increased sales of beef and soy to China are large drivers of Amazon deforestation, and the government’s pro-development policies have been seen by many as lacking effective environmental controls.

But Brazil has the ability to reclaim global environmental leadership. Brazil is, after all, a nation that has invested significant resources in technological monitoring, like satellite systems, that by most accounts has been hugely successful at reducing illegal logging. Over the past decade, the rate of deforestation has fallen 79%. Between 2005 and 2010, Brazil’s greenhouse-gas emissions fell 39%. Although the reductions in logging are not enough to save the Amazon, and even these are threatened by recent upward trends, Brazil has the ability to recapture recent successes—if it acts soon.

Matt McCurdy
JD ’15


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