‘Ruralistas’ prevail in Brazil’s Forest Code battle


Years of legislative combat over a rewrite of Brazil’s central forest-protection law have ended in victory for the country’s powerful farming and ranching lobby, which secured provisions granting amnesty to those who have cleared land illegally.

Though a new version of the 1965 Forest Code was approved in May, battling over some of the key questions it addresses continued until Oct. 17, when President Dilma Rousseff signed two complementary measures.

Experts say that while further legislative skirmishing over the new code is still possible, the issues open to continued action are relatively minor. At this stage, they say, any effort to challenge key aspects of the new legislation would have to take place in the Brazilian Supreme Court, which as yet has not been drawn into the forest-code fight.

President Rousseff’s signing this month of the complementary measures—a law and a decree—culminates a nearly two-decade effort by the Brazilian Congress to make the country’s Forest Code less restrictive.

That effort largely foundered until May of 2010, when the lower house of Congress, the Chamber of Deputies, passed a code-overhaul bill. The legislation then ping-ponged back and forth between the Chamber and the Senate for nearly two-and-a-half years, prompting line-item presidential vetoes and other tactical measures and countermeasures along the way.

Mainly at issue were amnesty measures designed to suspend fines and replanting requirements for many landowners who have cleared forest illegally. Though the amnesty steps didn’t go as far as some farmers and ranchers hoped, experts say they clearly marked a win for the so-called ruralista lobby.

“The Forest Code revision was a victory for the ruralistas, even if they didn’t get everything they wanted,” says former Environment Minister José Goldemberg, now an energy professor at the University of Saõ Paulo. “The lobby they represent is probably more relieved than overjoyed. A new and solid piece of legislation is in place that gives widespread amnesty to many of those who have illegally cut, and that is what the ruralistas most wanted.”

Helena Nader, president of the Brazilian Society for Scientific Progress (SBPC), Brazil’s top scientific association, declines to opine on whether the code unduly favors agriculture. But she agrees the farm lobby gained ground. Says Nader: “The revised Forest Code benefits the ranching and agriculture sector far more than the 1965 law it replaces by permitting far greater land productivity. But it also contains some environmental protections.”

Brazil’s new forest-protection ground rules, encompassed in two new laws and a presidential decree:
• retain a longstanding requirement that landowners keep part of their land uncut—80% in the Amazon, 35% in the woodland savannah known as the Cerrado, and 20% elsewhere;
• nevertheless allow permanent protected areas (APPs), which are mandatory no-cut areas on hillsides, riverbanks and headwater lands, to count towards that percentage, thus reducing the forest area that must be preserved;
• suspend fines and replanting requirements for illegal cutting of non-APP parcels of up to 400 hectares (988 acres) that took place before July 22, 2008, when a decree set tougher rules for restoring illegally cleared land;
• suspend fines for all those who illegally cut APPs of any size before July 22, 2008, provided they register their property within two years after Brazil’s states set up a registry system (the decree requires the registry system to be in place by May 2014), identify the portion they cut and sign an agreement to meet replanting requirements, with which they’ll have 20 years to comply; (a landowner’s failure to register his rural property makes him ineligible for public or private bank financing);
• reduce the forest-preservation requirement from 80% to 50% in Amazon states where 65% or more of the land is protected, be it as national or state parks or as forest or indigenous reserves; (one Amazon state, Amapá, falls into that category, while two others, Amazonas and Roraima, are close);
• set riverbank-replanting requirements whose stringency varies according to the size of the landholding, with owners of large tracts (over 1,000 hectares, or 2,471 acres) subject to the strictest, but which are less stringent for all landholding sizes than those of the originaly 1965 Forest Code now being replaced.

Agricultural producers for the most part welcomed the new law.

“Those of us who represent the agricultural and ranching sector are satisfied with the revised Forest Code because it is far easier to comply with and far less punitive than the outdated law it replaces,” says Assuero Veronez, head of the Environment Commission of the National Confederation of Farmers and Livestock Owners (CNA). “It wasn’t the revision of our dreams, but is one we can live with.”

Senator Katia Abreu, CNA’s president and owner of a large cattle ranching business, agrees. “The Forest Code revision was not ideal, but it went beyond what we thought was possible in Congress,” she told the O Estado de São Paulo newspaper on Oct. 19.

Nevertheless, some rural producers hope to ease restrictions further. Ultraconservative ruralista lawmakers says they plan to go to Brazil’s Supreme Court to challenge a decree that forms part of the reform package. One of of them, Congressman Ronaldo Caiado calls the measure unconstitutional on grounds it attempts to “legislate by decree.”

Green groups are considering court action of their own. The Brazilian Committee in Defense of the Forests and Sustainable Development (CDFDS), a grouping of 200 civil-society organizations, is weighing a constitutional challenge to the new Forest Code.

“Article 225 of the Constitution says that ‘an ecologically balanced environment is essential to quality of life,’ and the Forest Code revision, by granting widespread amnesty to those who have illegally cut, will encourage more illegal cutting and will consolidate the illicit advances of the farming and ranching frontier,” says Kenzo Jucá Ferreira, public policy specialist of WWF Brazil, a CDFDS member. “This will result in an unbalanced environment that will adversely affect quality of life. That’s why the CDFDS will almost certainly challenge this legislation with the Supreme Court.”

Says Márcio Astrini, coordinator of Amazon advocacy for Greenpeace Brazil and also a CDFDS member: “This means that the long battle to revise the Forest Code could continue.”

- Michael Kepp

Márcio Astrini
Coordinator of Amazon Advocacy
Greenpeace Brazil
São Paulo, Brazil
Tel: +(55 11) 3035-1154
Email: marcio.astrini@greenpeace.org
Kenzo Jucá Ferreira
Public policy analyst
WWF Brazil
Brasília, Brazil
Tel: +(55 61) 2551-1320
Email: kenzoferreira@wwf.org.br
José Goldemberg
Former Environment Minister and Professor of Energy
University of São Paulo
São Paulo, Brazil
Tel: +(55 11) 3091-5054
Email: goldemb@iee.usp.br
Helena Nader
Brazilian Society for Scientific Progress
São Paulo, Brazil
Tel: +(55 11) 3355-2130
Email: presidencia@sbpcnet.org.br
Assuero Veronez
Head of Environment Commission
National Confederation of Farmers and Livestock Owners (CNA)
Brasília, Brazil
Tel: +(55 61) 2109-1371
Email: assueroveronez@uol.com.br
Documents & Resources
  1. For Forest Code revision law (No. 12.651, in Portuguese): Link

  2. For complementary law (No. 12,727, in Portuguese): Link

  3. For complementary decree (No. 7,830 in Portuguese): Link