Legal tweak could wreck Amazon forest

Dense forest
Dense forest Copyright: Panos

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  • Brazil’s Terra Legal law means the protected status of swathes of rainforest could be challenged
  • Private landowners could drastically reduce the amount of land they keep pristine
  • President-elect Jair Bolsonaro, who prizes development over conservation, exacerbates the problem

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Proposed changes to legislation that protects areas of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil may be exploited to deforest up to 15 million hectares of land, a study has found.
The Forest Code, a regulation approved half a century ago, says that owners of land in the Brazilian rainforest must set aside 80 per cent of their plots for conservation. But as of 2012, the rules were revised so that the proportion can be reduced to 50 per cent, if more than 65 per cent of the state in which the land is situated is given over to reservations for indigenous people or other protected areas.
The risks of this happening now look more imminent. In 2017, a law known as Terra Legal was approved in the country and it is coming into force. The law is designed to allow indigenous people to claim ownership of millions of hectares of officially unowned land. It was hoped that the programme would create conservation areas and protect land used by indigenous people.
However, researchers are warning that the programme may allow private individuals a mechanism to claim ownership of land and thus a means to deforest it under the terms of the revised Forest Code.

“ The amendment could also pave the way for large carbon dioxide emissions through human activity, contributing to global warming.”

Flávio Freitas, KTH Royal Institute of Technology

The conclusions are based on a study published in Nature Sustainability earlier this month. Researchers used a model to combine geographical data on conservation units, indigenous reserves, military land and boundaries of private rural properties, with simulations of land boundaries in regions where no tenure datasets are available.
They found that between 6.5 and 15 million hectares of previously protected private land—an area roughly to the size of Tunisia—would become available for industrial activities such as logging and cattle farming if Terra Legal creates room for challenges.
“Besides this impact, the amendment could also pave the way for large carbon dioxide emissions through human activity, contributing to global warming,,” says lead author author Flávio Freitas, a Brazilian PhD student  at the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden. His work was supported by São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP).
Landowners in Brazilian states like Amapá, Amazonas, Acre and Roraima, which are largely covered with native vegetation and have extensive areas of undesignated land, would qualify for reducing the amount of protected areas from 80 to 50 per cent, the study warns. The problem is compounded by Brazil’s president-elect Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing politician who has repeatedly said that he prioritises economic development over environmental protection.

“These legal weaknesses should be urgently fixed, especially with Jair Bolsonaro coming into power,” says William Laurance, a biologist at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia. He argues that Bolsonaro will be much more inclined than previous leaders towards allowing private companies to tear into remote and vulnerable areas of the Amazon.
“This is very worrying because the private lands that would become unprotected are scattered all over the western and central Amazon,” Laurance says. “Forest exploitation in these areas could lead to large-scale forest loss and fragmentation, illegal logging, road-building and mining.”
The Amazon rainforest has already lost 17 per cent of its plant cover in the past 50 years, according to the WWF, an international environmental lobby group. The country’s forest cover—often referred to as the lungs of the planet—is essential to keeping down global CO2 levels.
The study published in Nature Sustainability was supported by FAPESP, a donor of SciDev.Net.