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Rio Earth Summit: Brazil Relaxes Farming Laws, But Environmentalists Have No Right to Complain

Brazil’s Chamber of Deputies’ has recently approved the relaxing of the Forest Code, laws that dictate how much land should remain forested on farmland. The country’s farmers lobby claims that lessening the Forest Code will assist sustainable food production and bolster the economy. Even so, such actions have angered environmentalists, who criticise Brazil just weeks before the Rio Earth Summit, which will focus on sustainable development. Hearing this news, it is easy to side with the environmentalists; however, my feeling is that we are in no position to blame Brazil when we all have a part to play in the destruction of out planet’s natural habitats – directly or indirectly.

Rainforests regulate our climate, provide timber, medicines, and an array of other natural resources, are a habitat for around half the world’s species, and are inhabited by indigenous human communities. The finely balanced interlace of biological relationships that characterise tropical rainforests are of immense ecological importance. However, such complexity also means that the rainforests are extremely vulnerable to even minor change, and such an abundance of life invites economic interests, attracting loggers and farmers.

Girdling the equator, rainforests grow in the wet, sunlit tropics – areas that provide optimal conditions for botanical growth. The immense trees and entangled vegetation take in carbon dioxide and release water and oxygen, thus assisting with the maintenance of our climate. Many plant species have medicinal properties, which are sought after by pharmaceutical industries; and where there are plants there are animals, including an abundance of insects. The largest expanse of rainforest is the Amazon. Drained by the myriad of capillary-like tributaries, the vast Amazon River and its drainage basin spans a third of South America and supports a wealth of life.

Established in 1934, the Forest Code states that all landholders in Brazil’s Amazon region must ensure 80% of their land remains forested (20% for other regions). However, Amazonian farmers claim this impacts food production. If the bill is passed, the approval from Brazilian Congress will relax how much land-area must be preserved as natural forest. Additionally, there are plans to grant amnesties to small-scale farmers who cleared their land before 2009. This approval comes at a conflicting time in Brazilian environmental policy: According to a government report in 2011, deforestation is at its lowest level in 23 years; yet satellite images from Brazil’s Space Research Institute reveal a 27% increase in deforestation from August 2010 to April 2011, especially in areas that produce soya beans, such as the landlocked Mato Grosso state.

Environmentalists are concerned that increased demands for soy beans and beef are encouraging farmers to clear more land, who know there will be fewer consequences if there is less pressure from the Forest Code. Conversely, farmers stress that an increase in agricultural land will yield more food, feed the growing Brazilian population, and assist bringing rural communities out of poverty. Whether or not the approval will be finalised will be decided by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, who indicated that she would reject any amnesties and can still veto the amendments.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the Brazilian government encouraged farmers to settle in the Amazon and increase agriculture production to boost the economy. This trend has declined over recent years, and preserving the forest is now a key concern. However, slacking the Forest Code could further increase rates of deforestation. These issues raise many questions about the future of rainforests and the vital ecosystem services they provide humanity. In other parts of the world, there appears to be some positive advancement: For instance, the European Union signed an agreement with Indonesia in 2011, stating that from 2013, all timber and wood products can only be imported into the EU if they have been processed in accordance with Indonesian law. This could benefit the sustainable management of Indonesia’s tropical forests; however, elsewhere in the tropics, the outlook is not so bright.

Tropical developing countries face a classic dilemma: Should they exploit their rainforests to make a quick profit, with little regard for future environmental consequences? Or should they preserve their forests via sustainable means and benefit from the ecological services they provide, such as food, medicine, clean water, the decomposition of organic matter, climate regulation, nutrient cycling and pollination; processes that are globally estimated to be worth trillions of dollars each year.

It may be easy for us to disagree with the current approvals to relax the Forest Code in Brazil. Yet, if you buy food, wood, paper or other products from unsustainable sources, then you are also to blame. As the global population rises and middle income countries such as Brazil, China and India aspire to live Western lifestyles, our modern standards of living and our consumerist societies are simply not maintainable in our growing resource-hungry world – and neither are the finite resources that our finely-balanced planet can offer.

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