Brazil’s forestry bill threat to Amazon

It looks like a traditional punch-up between capitalism and the environment.

After a particularly tense session of Brazil’s congress, which dragged into the early hours of Wednesday, the country’s lower house finally approved a controversial new environmental bill.

The main point of the legislation, which has yet to be approved by Brazil’s Senate and president Dilma Rousseff, is to give amnesty to farmers who have illegally cleared land before July 2008.

Backers of the legislation argue that it will support smaller farmers and rural communities, help Brazil expand its agricultural production, and ensure that the country continues down its path of economic prosperity.

Environmentalists and other opposition groups say the bill is a death-sentence for the Amazon rainforest as it will encourage farmers to cut down more trees on the assumption that they will be let off again in the future.

However, after a crushing defeat in Congress, environmentalists have now started tugging on the capitalist heartstrings of their opposition as well. (No mean feat given that the congressman who proposed the new legislation is actually a member of the Communist party).

“The bill not only compromises the environment, but also Brazil’s economy,” Marina Silva, Brazil’s former environment minister and presidential candidate, said in an interview with the Financial Times.

“Brazil has shown that it can grow even as it reduces the rate of deforestation. With this, we’ve just gone back in time.”

Paulo Adário, director of Greenpeace Brazil in Amazônia, said the new bill could also harm the country’s exports because of opposition among environmentalists in developed markets.

But the problem is that Brazil is selling less and less to these markets. Over half of the country’s soybean exports, for example, now go to China – a country where environmental protests are often restricted to local issues rather than global injustices.

“If there are concerns, they would only really come from European markets because they have more open environmental awareness,” says Fábio Faria, vice-president of AEB, Brazil’s Foreign Trade Association.

If export groups such as AEB are right, campaigners may have to rely on environmental arguments alone to sway the final vote.