Copenhagen, December 2009: amidst the general feeling of disappointment due to the lack of leadership at the UN climate conference, Brazil is responsible for one of the very few rays of hope: the chief of cabinet announces a set of very ambitious environmental targets, including a commitment to a 80 per cent reduction in deforestation by 2020. The chief of cabinet's name? Dilma Rousseff. Her job today? President of Brazil.
Fast-forward to 2011: although only two years have passed, this year has seen the biggest spikes in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon in recent history. The latest data shows that between August 2010 and April 2011, deforestation increased by 27 per cent compared to the previous year. Unfortunately, it seems like this is only the beginning of an even more disturbing trend: satellite data for March and April 2011 shows that almost 600 sq km of forest (an area larger than the Isle of Man) was lost. This is an increase of 470 per cent compared to the same period in 2010.
Why is this happening now? For years, Brazil has proven that it can grow substantially while at the same time fighting deforestation. President Dilma herself has argued that Brazil does not need to cut down any more trees to increase its agricultural output. She has support from the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (pdf) which both point out that Brazil can grow economically without more deforestation.
In addition, a study published in Science has shown that areas prone to deforestation do not show sustained levels of human or economic development. It therefore makes sense for Brazil to curb its deforestation levels, and its efforts had begun to pay off. All this has somehow been reversed in 2010.
In July 2010, a special commission voted in favour of changes to the law that regulates the use of forests in Brazil. As it stands that law, the Forest Code, requires landowners to set aside 80 per cent of their lands as legal reserves that cannot be deforested. The proposed changes would reduce the area which means much more forest could be cleared. Although the final vote on the changes has not been passed yet, deforestation has spiked since it was introduced.
One of the reasons for this might be that the new bill also includes a clause granting amnesty to environmental crimes like illegal deforestation which occurred before July 2008.
According to Fabio Alves - a scientist working for the Brazilian government’s own research body, the Institute of Applied Economic Research (IPEA) - this has led to some farmers illegally clearing more forest because they hope that the government will simply not be able to find out which parts of the forest were cut down before 2008 and which parts were destroyed afterwards.
On top of that, former environment minister Marina Silva argues that many farmers assume that if they are not charged for their illegal deforestation now, they will be granted another amnesty later.
This is deeply concerning, and threatens Brazil’s commitment to become a world leader on environmental issues. IPEA estimates that if the proposed changes to the Forest Code are passed, an additional 47 million hectares (an area the size of Sweden) could be lost.
With the law getting very close to a final vote in the Brazilian senate, the spotlight is on President Dilma who can still veto the bill. Now is the time for her to speak up and live up to her promises to refuse any law granting amnesty to those who have illegally destroyed pristine Amazon rainforest.
And the Brazilian public is behind her. In a recent poll, an overwhelming 79 per cent supported a presidential veto of the Forest Code revision; 84 per cent even said they would not vote for anyone who had voted in favor of “pardoning illegal deforestation”.
In Copenhagen, Dilma promised to protect rainforest - it's time she lived up to that promise.