Latin America Analysis: Environmental policy and deforestation

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When it comes to the environment, there is no dialogue between civil society, the scientific community, government and parliament, says Carla Almeida.

In a year that was marked by bad news on the environmental front — the polar ice caps melting at an increasing rate, the decline in biodiversity, the failure to reach agreement on climate change, amongst other things — the release of data, at the end of 2012, showing a fall in deforestation in the Amazon, one of the most important biomes in the world, came as a relief.

According to estimates by the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) — a Brazilian organisation that conducts environmental surveillance programmes in the region — 4,600 km2 of jungle, in Brazilian territory, were deforested between August 2011 and July 2012. This is a drop of 27 per cent, compared with the same period, a year before.


  • The reduction in deforestation achieved in the Amazon, in 2012, was reversed in the last few months
  • This case, and that of Bolivia, shows that new measures aren't always effectively geared towards preserving the environment
  • The increasing demand for food and the protection of forests must be reconciled

These figures were revealed during the Climate Change Conference which took place in Doha (Qatar), in November 2012, at which attention was drawn to Brazil's efforts to fight climate change.

Brazil, where deforestation is seen as the main cause of carbon emissions, has set itself a voluntary goal to reduce illegal logging, annually, in the Amazon, to an annual maximum of 3,900 km2 by 2020. The latest figures would seem to indicate that the country is only four per cent shy of reaching its goal.

Celebrations, however, have been short-lived. The Amazon's monthly deforestation alert system is already showing a marked increase in the area cleared in the last five months of 2012.

According to data collected via satellite by the NGO Imazon, between August and December, 1,280 km2 of land were deforested. This is an increase of 127 per cent, compared with the same period in 2011.

What might be the explanation for such a radical change? Wouldn't this increase in deforestation be at odds with the country's commitment to climate change? Why is this concern for the environment, which is increasing in Brazil and other Latin American countries, and which is expressed through new environmental policies and growing social awareness, still not being translated into positive, sustained results?

Internal politics for external politics

If you only keep up with Brazil's role in international negotiations about the environment, news of the increase in deforestation in the Amazon might come as a surprise. However, for those following what has been going on in the area more closely, it will, perhaps, be less unexpected.

Whilst Brazil is busy creating a global image of a country that is heavily involved in the environment debate, domestically it is encouraging oil exploration, promoting a return to mining — even in the Amazon — resorting to hydroelectricity, and relaxing environmental legislation.

Of all these measures, one worth noting is the new forest code, enacted by President Dilma Rousseff in October 2012, after 13 years of debate in Parliament and three years of intense disputes between environmentalists, rural campaigners and the government.

The law, which in its previous incarnation dated back to 1965, regulates land use and establishes where indigenous vegetation should be preserved. Pressure from rural campaigners — a group with considerable political power in Brazil — led to it being modified so that it could, supposedly, be adapted to the new demands for productivity and competitiveness in the 21st century.

Drawn up by those whose main concern is agribusiness, with no input from the scientific community — and despite repeated offers, apparently to no avail, which would suggest certain technical inconsistencies in the proposal — nor from civil society, the law reduces the percentage of indigenous vegetation to be preserved on rural properties; ignores vegetation growing alongside intermittent watercourses; and changes the way fines resulting from the reclamation of damaged areas are charged.

Some important vetoes by the Brazilian president — such as prohibiting the replanting of exotic fruits and providing full amnesty for small producers who practised illegal deforestation before 2008 — have prevented the new law from becoming a true environmental disaster. However, rural campaigners with influence in Parliament are already mobilising around the regaining of ground lost in the dispute.

The Bolivian case

Brazil is not the only Latin American country to introduce new environmental legislation. In January this year, Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, enacted a new Law (Support of Food Production and Forest Restitution) with the aim of regulating soil use in the Bolivian Amazon.

The new law states that, in order to reduce fines and avoid having their properties confiscated by the State, those producers guilty of illegal deforestation prior to 2011 must reforest the deforested areas for five years and/or produce food to supply the domestic market for the same period of time. In this way, Morales aims to increase domestic food production by 20 per cent, without sacrificing the environment.

Despite its good intentions and the favourable reception of the law, on the part of Bolivian producers, some doubt just how efficient these new measures are in a country marked by increasing deforestation, little auditing, and a strong agro-industrial lobby.

Critics see it as a way to cushion the blow of the recently passed Law of Mother Earth, which is more exacting in terms of conservation and other environmental concerns. And they believe it might even incentivise further deforestation, as it sets a precedent for future amnesties on illegal activities.

In Brazil, some associate the heavy sanctions for deforestation, of the last few months, with the passing of the new forest code.

Auditing, reconciliation, and compromise

Cases such as those of Brazil and Bolivia help to explain the modest impact made by environmental policy and social awareness in Latin America.

To begin with, new supposedly environmentally-aware measures are not always effectively aimed at preserving the environment. On the contrary, some of them come into being to make strict laws that were not observed in the past more flexible, which brings us on to point no. 2.

In Latin American countries there is no shortage of legal frameworks, government programmes, and public policy for protecting the environment. What is in short supply are the resources, the infrastructure, and, above all, the political will to implement and audit these directives, thus ensuring that they are appropriately adhered to.

We can also see that the political power of certain sections of society, whose interests are in direct opposition to efforts to preserve the environment, has contributed to the failure of these measures. No-one would deny that these countries need to increase agricultural production, be it to provide food for their people or to improve their balance of trade; however, linking that increase to greater deforestation is the worst option possible.

In order to really preserve the environment, what will be necessary is learning how to reconcile the increasing demand for food and agribusiness concerns in Latin America, with the global need to maintain biodiversity and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Lastly, there is a profound lack of dialogue between civil society, the scientific community, government, and Parliament in the processes leading to the aforementioned decisions. In order to convert environmental awareness into actions, it will be the duty of every citizen to occupy that space that is theirs by right, in discussions and decisions concerning the environment in which they live and the future of the planet.

Carla Almeida

Carla Almeida is a Brazilian science journalist and has been a SciDev.Net contributor since 2005. She is currently the editor of Ciência Hoje On-line, a science communication website, and a researcher in the public understanding of science.