Tuesday, July 20, 2010



Ever since Henry Wickham committed the bio-piracy that led to the British Empire's more efficient rubber plantations in Southeast Asia and the consequent bursting of the rubber bubble in Amazônia, Brazilians have been especially suspicious of and susceptible to conspiracy stories about foreign attempts to steal the vast treasures of he Amazon Basin. So focused have they been on "foreign theft" that it would have been hard to anticipate a homegrown alliance between forces on the far left and far right to grab the land and forests. But that's exactly what happened when the Communist Party combined with the right-wing "ruralistas" and agri-businesses to revise Brazil's Forestry Code.

Johannes van de Ven elaborates on the far left-and-right conspiracy:

Although conceived more than 40 years ago, this landmark piece of legislation is a most progressive and modern, perhaps even the best in the world. In theory, the law requires landowners to preserve 80 percent of private properties in the Amazon basin, 35 percent in the savannas and 20 percent along its vast coastline. These are the so-called effective legal reserve requirements for rural properties. In practice, however, these reserve requirements have not been respected. The Forest Code has largely been a fiction, used and abused by small and big landowners, cattle ranchers and energy barons, landless peasants and multinationals. Law enforcement has been weak due to federal mismanagement, political omission and lack of financial resources and outright corruption.

On July 6, 2010, the Special Congressional Commission approved Aldo Rebelo’s reform bill, by a surprising 13 to 5 margin. In a typical scene of Brazilian federal politics, proponents of the projects commemorated the adoption by shouting “Brazil, Brazil, Brazil”, while opponents screamed “regression, regression, regression.” As if we were watching a bad movie about the last frontier on the Western front. The approval was only made possible due to rather an awkward agreement between the Communist Party and the right-wing ruralist bloc, which votes according to the interests of large landowners and the agribusiness lobby. This extraordinary coaltion was surprisingly backed by some members of the government coalition (PT/PMDB) and the major opposition party (PSDB/DEM). The only party that strongly opposed to Rebelo's bill was Marina Silva's Green Party.

The old Brazilian political standby of foreign CONSPIRACY played an important role in building support for the revised code:

In order to keep the momentum for passing the bill in the Congress, the awkward alliance of communists and the agribusiness lobby has been vocal. In a recent public debate, which I attended in the city of São Paulo, for example, Rebelo argued that environmental non-governmental organizations are in league with foreign governments in North America and Europe to undermine Brazilian sovereignty. For Rebelo and his communist party colleagues, the concept of forest protection or conservation is a conspiracy invented by the United States and the European Union to restrict Brazil’s economic development. This seems a rather bizarre accusation but is still omnipresent in domestic debates. The conspiracy theory is food for thought and resuscitated at regular intervals in newspaper columns, domestic television debates, especially now in a year of presidential campaigns.

Even Brazil’s agribusiness lobby is hiding itself behind the conspiracy theory of foreign interference in domestic affairs. A recent report of Washington, D.C.-based Avoided Deforestation Partners (ADP) has unintentionally reignited the conspiracy theory among communists and cattle ranchers in Brazil. Rebelo argues that the North American report “Farms Here, Forests There” is evidence that US lawmakers conceive stopping deforestation in the Amazon basin as a way to enhance multi-billion dollar markets for US agribusiness at the expense of Brazil. ADP argues that ending deforestation in Brazil through US and global climate incentives would net $190 to $270 billion by 2030 for US beef, soy timber and oil seed producers. In other words, by promoting forest preservation in Brazil, American farmers would be protected from rising competition from rising agribusiness power nation Brazil.

van der Ven points out that only ex-Minister of Environment and current presidential candidate Marina Siva has had the guts to take a unambiguous public stand against this nonsense:

The proposal is now on the table of the full Congress, where support is not guaranteed. With the presidential elections looming at the horizon later this year, the three main candidates are forced to justify their positions. Marina Silva of the Green Party has placed her opposition to Rebelo's bill at the very center of her presidential campaign. Her support base is growing, also driven by her campaign plea for “zero deforestation” from now onwards.

(continue to van der Ven's excellent in-depth analysis of what the future debate has in store.)

With due respect for and not to diminish the importance of Silva's courageous stand, it's necessary to point out that even zero deforestation will not be sufficient to avert the coming crisis as global GHG emissions cause the warming of North Atlantic tropical waters and bring more frequent devastating storms and more persistent drought to Amazônia. Indeed, the true conspiracy to end the Amazonian treasure trove is not found in foreign or domestic theft but in the joint refusal of China and the United States to reduce their outrageous levels of emissions (which are outrageous in the U.S. and rapidly rising in China) which are threatening to alter the climate and transform a large part of the Amazon basin from forest to savanna. 

Since much of the rainfall for Brazil's great agricultural zone is actually generated by Amazonian forest dynamics, loss of its moisture pumping role would be devastating to the interests of the ruralistas and agri-business as well. Just as China, the U.S. and the developed world must reduce the carbon emissions caused by their energy demand, Brazil must reduce emissions caused by deforestation. The communists, rualistas and agri-business interests would be better-advised to conspire to be part of the growing 21st Century awareness that global warming and deforestation affects everyone.

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