Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff passes by activists holding a banner reading "Brazil without poverty, is Brazil with Forests". Image: Rodrigo Baleia
On a sunny afternoon this week, I waited outside Manaus’ ornate 19th century opera house Teatro Amazonas, with a group of Brazilian Greenpeace activists who wanted to send President Dilma Rouseff a message. While we were outside, Dilma was inside, flanked with ministers and senators singing the praises of her new rural welfare initiative ‘Brasil sem miseria’ (Brazil without misery/poverty).
Addressing rural poverty is a vital cause, yet the irony is that while President Dilma champions this new initiative to relieve poverty, proposed changes to Brazil’s forest code legislation are threatening the livelihoods of forest communities by legalizing millions of hectares of new forest destruction and granting amnesty for forest crimes.
That afternoon the activists urged President Dilma to honour her promises and not approve the forest code legislation. As she left the Opera House they presented banners, “Brazil without misery/poverty, is a Brazil with forests.” (Brasil sem miseria é Brasil com floresta). Activists also tried to give President Dilma an Açai sapling, an iconic tree of the Amazon, with a note- “I will be very comfortable in your garden. You know that I am important for the people of the Amazon. Take care of me, because I am worried about this new forest code. Sincerely, Açai.”
My colleague Rafael Cruz, a Brazilian Amazon Forest Campaigner said it best; “Scientists, family farmers, and civil society, have all protested the new forest code. Despite their criticisms, the Senate keeps moving the bill forward and President Dilma’s government is not engaged.”
“If we want to eliminate poverty, we need to keep our forests standing; they provide for the livelihoods of many of our country’s poor and invigorate our agriculture.”
Rafael referenced the false choice presented by those who want to destroy our forests. He pointed out that time and time again, forest destruction does little to lift people out of poverty. Despite 18% of the Amazon rainforest disappearing, the region maintains a low score on the Human Development Index especially in areas where forest destruction is the strongest.
The threats to the Amazon represented by the proposed changes to Brazil’s Forest Code continue to raise concern all over the world. Just yesterday, members of the European Parliament overwhelmingly passed a resolution on the Rio +20 Earth Summit that expressed concern over the new Forest Code legislation. The resolution characterized the Brazilian legislation as a threat to efforts to stop global warming and it also urged Brazil, the host nation for Rio +20, to make “a clear commitment to protect the Amazon forest and stem criminal harassment of representatives of civil society pursuing environmental protection.”
The banner these Greenpeace activists are holding up for President Dilma Rouseff to see reads: "Congress, turn off the chainsaws". Referring to the proposed changes to Brazil's Forest Code now being considered. Image: Rodrigo Baleia
This resolution is referring to the increased threats and violence occurring in the Amazon, since the Forest Code legislation was introduced in the Brazilian Congress. Six environmental activists have been killed since the end of May, and numerous others threatened.
Both the vast majority of Brazilians against the legislation, (79%) as well as the European Parliament, have reason to be concerned; the new law, passed by the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies (the lower house) this past May, is starting to move through committees in the Brazilian Senate. The law would allow amnesty for forest crimes and reduce the size of protected areas. Conservative estimates of the new law project 47 million hectares of deforestation - at least the size of California or Sweden.
Allowing congress to weaken Brazil’s forest protections and legalize millions of hectares of deforestation could be a step backwards for Brazil’s fight against poverty. Decades of deforestation in the Amazon has proven to be an ineffective way to lift people out of poverty in rural areas. Furthermore, the impact on poverty of the devastating forest code legislation could be global. The world can’t address global warming without the Amazon and impoverished communities all over the world are especially vulnerable to climate change.