What do Brazil’s elections mean for the country’s forests?

Arnaldo Carneiro Filho

The Brazilian elections could have ramifications for forests in the country, photo: Neil Palmer for CIAT via flickr.com, creative commons licence

Brazil is going to the polls next week to elect a new president and the results could have major consequences for how the country manages its natural resources. Brazil’s environment has not been a big issue in the run-up to the election, which has instead been dominated by drama around the personal circumstances and profiles of the lead candidates. But the policies advocated by many of the front-runners will have major ramifications for Brazil’s biodiversity — and the global climate.

Brazil is home to roughly one third of the world’s remaining rainforest, as well as other important natural areas such as the Cerrado, all of which help make the country one of the most biodiverse on Earth. These areas also protect vast natural stocks of carbon, and act as a buffer against climate change.

Last year, Brazil lost 1.4 million hectares of natural vegetation in the Amazon and Cerrado alone, equivalent to 115 million tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions — almost as much as the total CO2 emissions from Belgium in 2017.

Yet protecting these valuable natural resources has not even been on the radar for most of the 13 candidates standing for president. To the contrary, most are using environmental regulations as a scapegoat for the stagnation of Brazil´s economy and are promising more flexible environmental regulations, setting alarm bells ringing for the future of this country´s ecosystems.

Protection under threat

One of the key measures at risk is Brazil’s Law to Protect Native Vegetation, known as the Forest Code — a key target for candidates wanting to make environmental regulations more “flexible”.

The Code requires land owners to set aside a proportion of their land, known as the “legal reserve”, for either conservation or sustainable activities — and in practice determines the limits of legal deforestation. In parts of the Amazon, the proportion is 80 percent and in the Cerrado it ranges from 20 to 35 percent.

Brazil’s Rural lobby — a significant grouping within the Brazilian congress — has been pushing for some time to weaken this legislation. They want to see greater opportunities for the expansion of agri-business, and reduced environmental protection — and their views have captured the attention of several right-wing candidates.

Their call to open up indigenous reserves has won the support of Jair Bolsonaro, the PSL Party candidate who is currently ahead in the polls. Bolsonaro also wants to take Brazil out of the Paris Agreement, cancelling the country’s climate goals and upending hard-won plaudits for Brazil´s extraordinary achievements in bringing down deforestation in the Amazon in the 2000s.

Geraldo Alckmin, the PSDB Party candidate, has called for the abolition of the Ministry of Environment. He also supports the proposed Poison Bill which would see a weakening of Brazil’s pesticide legislation.

Increasing legal deforestation — the potential consequences

A weakening of Brazil’s forest protection legislation would open up more of the country’s native vegetation for agricultural expansion, as well as for other activities such as mining. The soy and cattle industry would be able to expand into areas that are currently protected by law.

This would have knock-on effects for communities in currently protected areas that have land targeted for development. Communities who have lived on the land for generations, but do not have legal titles for that land would be at particular risk. With Brazil already breaking records for violence against land and environmental activists in 2017, this does not bode well.

There are also concerns that this shift could lead to fewer resources and less political will to enforce existing environmental legislation — creating an opportunity for less scrupulous companies and land developers to further abuse the law.

And an increase in native vegetation clearance could mean that retailers and other companies that buy Brazilian agricultural commodities who have made commitments to zero deforestation would find it harder to guarantee deforestation-free supplies.

Increasing scrutiny

These threats come against a backdrop of increasing scrutiny of Brazil’s forests — with improvements in satellite monitoring and other technology making it easier to see where native vegetation is being cleared illegally.

Tools such as Trase, which maps soy supply chains from Brazil — can help here. New indicators on the Trase platform will provide estimates for legal and illegal deforestation in soy supply chains, allowing companies to identify where the risks lie, and prioritise action.

Tools like this, and government initiatives such as PRODES Cerrado, which for the first time monitors annual clearance rates of Brazil´s second largest biome, can also be used to monitor Brazil’s performance with regards deforestation driven by agriculture and the socio impacts associated to it.

They can also be used to identify where there are opportunities for deforestation-free agricultural expansion to enable the Brazilian agriculture sector to be set on a more sustainable footing.

A decade ago Brazil was lauded internationally for dramatically curbing deforestation in the Amazon. Yet the incremental dismantling of environmental protection in recent years undermines any claim that Brazil remains a global leader in environmental conservation. Brazil needs to regain this mantle and recognise that the health of its unique biomes is critical for the health and prosperity of the country´s economic development, and not an impediment to it.

Intelligent approaches to planning the use of Brazil´s natural environment can help meet the needs for food, jobs and development, without destroying the environment in the process. Sadly this approach is not on offer in this election — Brazil’s people deserve better.

Arnaldo Carneiro Filho is director of Global Canopy’s Supply Chains Programme and Trase co-lead