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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff Faces Defining Decision on Bill Relaxing Protection of Forests ahead of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio Plus 20)

Brazil’s Leader Faces Defining Decision on Bill Relaxing Protection of Forests

Antonio Scorza/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
The Jamanxim River runs through forest in northern Brazil. Vast tracts of protected Brazilian land would be opened to farming under a bill that President Dilma Rousseff, below, may veto.

Eraldo Peres/Associated Press
President Dilma Rousseff.
The Forest Code, which Congress approved in April at the urging of powerful agricultural groups, is an effort to overhaul Brazil’s 47-year-old legislation providing forest protection. The bill has emerged as a very delicate issue for Ms. Rousseff ahead of the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, scheduled to be held here next month.
The bill would effectively give amnesty to landowners who illegally deforested areas before 2008, drawing the ire of environmentalists. If the legislation goes into effect, it could allow landowners in the Amazon to reduce obligatory forest cover to 50% from 80%, and could lead to the loss of as much as 190 million acres of forest, according to the government’s Institute for Applied Economic Research.
The bill’s arrival on the president’s agenda comes at a delicate time for Brazil’s government, forcing it to examine its alliances with parties that supported the bill. Brazil is already facing scrutiny over plans for huge energy projects in the Amazon, which Ms. Rousseff has defended. Worker revolts have recently flared at some dam construction sites, while strikes have slowed work at Brazil’s largest hydroelectric project, Belo Monte.
“Brazil cannot be allowed to take this step backward,” Marina Silva, a former environment minister and presidential candidate, said in an interview. “Obviously, giving amnesty to those who have destroyed forests heightens the risk of new deforestation.”
Equally adamant in their support of the bill are Brazil’s “ruralistas,” legislators representing agricultural interests. They are contending that the new Forest Code is needed to support Brazil’s economy, which draws strength from exports of agricultural products like beef, soybeans, sugar and poultry.
Kátia Abreu, a senator representing Tocantins State and the president of the National Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock, lashed out at international environmental groups that have been pooling together to petition Ms. Rousseff to veto the bill.
“There are NGOs out there that are compromised with their countries of origin, particularly from Europe,” said Ms. Abreu, referring to nongovernmental organizations and describing their actions as an “attempt to paralyze the growth of Brazilian agribusiness.”
Still, other prominent voices in Brazil, which is home to about 40% of the world’s rain forests, have weighed in against the new Forest Code, including the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science, two of the country’s leading scientific groups.
Anger over the bill has spread into popular culture. Exemplifying the sentiment in the entertainment industry, the actress Camila Pitanga broke protocol at an event here this month, calling on Ms. Rousseff, who was present, to veto the bill. Video images of Ms. Pitanga’s statement spread quickly on social media throughout Brazil.
Stunning some of the ruralistas, support for a veto has also emerged among some corporate leaders in São Paulo, Brazil’s business capital. Valor Econômico, the country’s top financial newspaper, likened the moment to the battle over President Obama’s sweeping health care law, calling Ms. Rousseff’s choice “one of those decisions which define a government.”
“This bill leaves Brazil in the Middle Ages,” said Paulo Nigro, president of Tetra Pak Brasil, a food packaging and processing company, who was one of several prominent São Paulo business leaders quoted by Valor voicing their opposition to the Forest Code.
Still, the dismay in some quarters over the approval of the bill weeks before thousands of environmentalists flock here for the United Nations’ sustainable development conference, called Rio Plus 20, belies an important shift in Brazilian politics, illustrated by the rising power of the ruralistas.
This voting bloc of more than 100 lawmakers chafed at Ms. Rousseff’s assertion during her campaign for president in 2010 that she would not support legislation that offered amnesty for illegal forestation. The ruralistas also lured lawmakers from the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party, a pillar of Ms. Rousseff’s coalition, to support the Forest Code.
“It’s embarrassing enough for the host country of Rio Plus 20 to be facing this kind of situation,” said David Fleischer, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Brasília. “But Dilma also underestimated the ruralistas, who are showing their clout,” Mr. Fleischer said, referring to Ms. Rousseff by her first name, as she is widely known in Brazil.
The bloc of lawmakers delayed another vote in Congress this month on a bill seeking to eradicate the contemporary exploitation of laborers toiling in slavelike conditions in Brazil. The ruralistas oppose the expropriation of properties on which such conditions are found.
In relation to the Forest Code, the lawmakers supporting it also say the legislation is needed to prevent food prices from climbing in Brazil. But agronomists and economists have responded that agriculture could easily be expanded by incorporating lands now used for pasture instead of razing new areas.
Fears over a backslide in protecting forests come after a crackdown on illegal logging and greater enforcement of environmental regulations have recently slowed the pace of deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon to its lowest level since government officials began monitoring in 1988.
Ms. Rousseff, who has until May 25 to make her decision, has not commented publicly on whether she will veto the bill. But senior officials, including Mendes Ribeiro Filho, the agriculture minister, have signaled that parts of the bill are unacceptable, suggesting that one option may be a line-item veto of parts of the bill.
Scientists and legal experts, however, say a partial veto could leave parts of the law unenforceable, while also potentially creating loopholes allowing some newly forested areas near rivers to be destroyed. “The entire bill must be vetoed,” said Ms. Silva, the former environment minister.

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