May 22nd, 2012 by
Amazon rainforest, near Manaus, Brazil

Amazon rainforest, near Manaus, Brazil. Credit: Neil Palmer/CIAT

Welcome back to the world of environmental law and policy! Most of these posts will address domestic concerns, but today, we begin with one of the largest forests in the world — the Amazon rainforest. In the vein of Harper’s Index, one of my most favorite monthly reads, I bring you a few interesting statistics:

  • Number of acres of forests and grasslands managed by the U.S. Forest Service: 193 million
  • Number of acres of rainforest in the Amazon Basin: approximately 1.4 billion
  • Percentage of the rainforest that is solely within Brazil: 60 percent, or approximately 840 million acres
  • Number of law enforcement personnel employed by the U.S. Forest Service: 737
  • Average number of acres of forest and grassland per agent: 261,872
  • Number of federal environmental enforcement agents in Brazil: 1,300
  • Average number of acres of Brazilian rainforest per agent: 646,153

The U.S. Forest Service also has a stewardship role, in conjunction with state and local authorities, over millions of acres of urban forests. The Forest Service has firefighters and numerous other types of employees; however, the fact remains: In Brazil, enforcement agents have much more territory to cover than their counterparts in the United States. That territory is not grassland or forests with roads and paths and trails. The Amazon rainforest contains one in 10 known species of plants and animals in the world. It is dense and, in large part, unmapped. Both farmers and ranchers own land within the rainforest, and Brazil has passed laws and regulations governing how that private land is cultivated. One of those regulations requires farmers to preserve or replant trees on 80 percent of their land that is located within the Amazon rainforest. Trees and woodlands that border rivers and stand on hilltops and steep inclines are not included in the total amount of required preserved forestland.

Farmland near Manaus, Brazil

A boy walks through his family’s farmland near Manaus, Brazil. Credit: Julio Pantoja/World Bank

On April 25 of this year, the Brazilian Congress passed a new bill that pitted the agricultural lobby against environmental groups, coupled with a large dose of governmental jostling. This bill, which underwent a significant alteration by lawmakers to include more lenient language on behalf of the agriculture lobby, allows previously exempt woodlands to be counted in the total amount of acreage required by law to be preserved. Farmers who had deforested land in order to create arable land for agriculture can now replant less acreage, but still comply with the overall requirement of 80 percent preservation. The new bill also allows farmers to cultivate farmland up to rivers’ edges, should they choose to do so. Previous buffer zones of 30 to 100 yards of forest required between the river and worked land were stripped away by the new bill. Finally, the bill grants an amnesty for fines levied against farms and ranches that had previously cleared more than the legally allowed amount of acreage.

Environmentalists decry the new bill as too lenient in terms of preservation and restoration and call the amnesty a free pass for environmental crimes. The main fear of the bill is that it will result in the replanting of fewer deforested acres than under the old regulations.

In June, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (the Rio+20 Summit) descends upon Brazil to discuss global environmental policy. This new forest bill, watched closely by other developing nations, will surely be a topic of conversation among the attendees, especially considering the summit’s themes of poverty eradication through sustainable development and the creation of an institutional framework for that development. Brazil faces innumerable challenges when it comes to its rainforest. And the trials that the nation must undertake in balancing the various interested factions can serve as an education for us all.