Brazil Forest Code Vote Flies in the Face of Science

, former policy analyst, Tropical Forest and Climate Initiative | May 15, 2012, 12:15 pm EDT
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In the US, we are not strangers to seeing politics trump science in the policy arena.  As the work of the UCS Scientific Integrity program has demonstrated time and again, legislators and executive officials sometimes ignore or distort science when pushing a particular political agenda. The US does not have a monopoly on steamrolling science however, as the Brazilian Congress recently demonstrated by passing a set of controversial amendments to that nation’s Forest Code, which protects the Amazon and other critically important natural systems, over the protests of the nation’s leading scientific groups.

Decoding the Forest Code

Brazilian Amazon

The Amazon Rainforest is the largest contiguous tropical forest on the planet but current changes to the Brazilian forest code threaten its ecological stability. (Ohto: Filckr/ CIFOR)

The Forest Code, which has been on the books since 1934, mandates that private land holders within the Amazon must leave at least 80% of the forests intact. The law also stipulates buffer zones along watersheds, and forbids clearing on steep slopes. While the code hasn’t always been strongly enforced, beginning in the 2000’s the federal government began strengthening its enforcement of the law.

In late 2010, the powerful Ruralista block of legislators, supported by large commercial interests, proposed a bill that would lower the amount of area landowners are required to conserve. Even more damaging, the changes would allow amnesty for those who have already violated the law.  After two years of back and forth with the Brazilian congress the bill was finally passed and sent to the president on May 7. Although Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff vowed to veto any bill which contains amnesty during her campaign, her veto is now by no means a sure thing.

Silenced Science
While the existing Forest Code, was based on the best available science at the time, these current amendments were passed without any input from scientists. The Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC) and the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC)  (think NAS and AAAS) highlighted this in their report, “The Forestry Code and Science: Contributions for Dialogue.”

Normal Curve Ignored ScienceAs they point out, science indicates that such drastic revisions of the code are unnecessary and harmful. Countless studies demonstrate the ecological, meteorological, and climatic advantages of conserving Brazil’s natural ecosystems. Additionally, some evidence indicates that extensive clearing of the Amazon could dramatically reduce the rainfall and pollinator populations that are necessary to maintain Brazil as an agricultural powerhouse. Further, recent advances in agricultural technology means there are a number of steps Brazil can take to increase agricultural production without expanding onto new land.

There has been an outcry from the international science community as well. The Society for Conservation Biology and The Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation released resolutions opposing revisions to the code, but like the other report, these calls were not heeded. Now that the law has passed, groups of scientists and environmental lawyers are calling for President Rousseff to veto the law. A number of groups have also started an online petition calling for a veto, which has already been signed by more than 1.5 million people.

A Necessary Veto
There is no scientific basis for the current revisions to the forest code, and much risk. Brazil is a global leader on reducing carbon emissions (driven by a major reduction in deforestation over the last 6 years), and will soon host the United Nations conference on sustainable development. With the eyes of the world turning to Brazil for environmental leadership, President Rousseff should heed the warnings of thousands of Brazilian and international scientists, uphold her campaign promise, and veto the amendments.

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