Nieuws - 7 juni 2011

Is the Amazon rain forest nearing its end?


While Brazil has relaxed its laws on nature, the tussle among its government, agriculture and nature lobbyists is not yet over, says Peter Zuurbier and Stephanie Ruiter of the Latin America Office of Wageningen UR.

Current legislations for land use in Brazil date back to 1965, but it was only in 1988 that environmental  ministries were set up at federal and country levels to take charge of law enforcement and other issues. Have they been effective? Yes, in a way. Deforestation has been reduced from 2.7 million hectares in 2004 to 0.7 million hectares in 2009. However, there is much uncertainty as to whether this is the result of stricter control.
The law of 1965 is far from perfect. Apart from nature reserves which are given full protection, there is a lot of ambiguity about the ruling that 80 percent of someone's land in the Amazon - Permanent Preservation Areas (APP) - should be protected, and 20 percent be used for commercial activities. To monitor this in practice is difficult and legal procedures have been resorted to in only a few cases, while conviction is even less known. In the meantime, the law has grown to encompass 16,800 articles, and has become much too complex for everyone involved and difficult to enforce.
External forces have tried to manipulate this law in the past ten years. The debate on food production in relation to the growth of world population has placed agriculture in a better position to make additional demands. And yet, the agriculture sector itself also imposed a limit on production. Soya producers in Mato Grosso, for example, limited their production voluntarily because they are well aware that the reputation of this sector is important for its competitive position worldwide. Satellites monitor the enforcement of this agreement.
In the last five years, pressure also mounted. The government enforcement agency IBAMA tightened its law enforcement measures, issued less logging permits and limited the setting up of new housing areas in vulnerable areas in the Amazon for poor city dwellers. In any case, this was no easy task as the Amazon region is about 540 million hectares big - the Netherlands is just 4.2 million hectares! - with a population of about 23 million people. Support for nature preservation was also evident during the presidential elections in 2010, when the green party of Marina Silva got 20 percent of the votes in the first round.
The discussion about the new law can be placed under the title: agriculture or nature preservation. The former argues for responsible ways of increasing production in agriculture; the latter points to biodiversity, vulnerability of the Amazon and negative effects for the climate. Those who are in between bring up possibilities for agricultural production in existing livestock farming areas and less vulnerable savannah areas, and mention the flexibility which the current legislation already gives with the expansion of agricultural land by 104 million hectares - don't be astounded by the numbers!
Landowners are in fact getting a general pardon for illegal logging on their land before 2008. Actions taken to penalize them have ceased, if they were started at all in the first place. Protected nature reserves along rivers and streams have also been brought down from 30 metres to 15 metres in the case of streams narrower than 10 metres. In addition, areas which are now in the hands of the government can be put to other uses besides nature preservation. This concerns about 70 million hectares of vulnerable land: unprotected, with no enforcement interventions, and no clear laws of ownership and usage. Will these areas fall into private hands? Unlikely, but there will certainly be a change of function in some areas.
A majority in the lower house of the Brazilian government has voted for a change in the law. The government also intends to make efforts to remove the uncertainties in the current legislation. President Dilma Rousef does not like the way the legal texts have developed into. She has been pleading for a clear course of action for some time to sustain nature preservation.
We can gather from the all these that Brazil as an up-and-coming global player is struggling to achieve multiple goals. It needs to find a balance of being a advocate of nature preservation, a champion in bulk production, a key player in fighting poverty in its own country, a protagonist in the climate debate and a referee in situations of conflicting interests. The game belongs to Brazil, but too many balls in the air will make scoring difficult. - Peter Zuurbier and Stephanie Ruiter