Conserving our planet's botanical resources and ecosystems

Balancing Economy and Ecology in Brazil

by Meika Jensen

Brazil is home to the Amazon rain forest, a unique ecological expanse that makes up close to 30 percent of the Earth’s remaining tropical rain forests and provides habitat for thousands of native plant and animal species. Unfortunately, over the past 40 years,  20 percent of the Amazon has been deforested. Some scientists are concerned that in the next 20 years the percentage of deforestation will double and leave the forest at just over half of its original size. This is not just an environmental catastrophe; loss of the Amazon will create mass floods, emit mass amounts of carbon, and kill the indigenous creatures that depend on its unique conditions for survival.
The roots of this mass destruction can be traced back to the Brazilian government’s economic policies that create a huge demand for farm, pasture, and ranch land. Large corporations are allowed to exclude between 80 to 90 percent of any agricultural profits from their taxable income, making the Amazon’s rich soil extremely attractive to investors. Local farmers cannot compete, however, with the high prices these corporations are willing to pay for land, and are forced further into the forest in search of available land, which they then clear.
Many have a hard time understanding why people are willingly destroying the land that sustains the earth. Safe in their accredited masters degree programs and behind their computer screens, they forget that subsistence farming still has to exist, despite the fact that much of the best farmland is occupied by corporate farms – many of which do not even produce food for human consumption, but are feeding the livestock which also roam the cleared forest floor.
Roads are also carving much deeper holes in the Amazon, as once corporations have left an area, the roads they’ve left behind are often claimed by squatters. Under Brazil’s law, once squatters have lived on a plot of land for five years they gain legal ownership of it. This has led to an increase in land thievery, and with too few inspectors assigned to supervise thousands of square miles of forest, it is extremely difficult to monitor.
In an effort to thwart carbon emissions, major corporations including General Motors, Chevron, and American Electric Power have setup donations to the Nature Conservancy, which work to preserve land in the Amazon and around the world.  According to Mark Schapiro, the Editorial director for the Center of Investigative Reporting in San Francisco, this has created its own set of issues, as indigenous peoples living in the now preserved areas are suddenly prevented from using the land they’ve lived from for generations. The environmental reserve agents, called the Green Police, have the right to arrest these residents and often direct their enforcement. Schapiro says, “at people who live there, as opposed to these kind of black market operations” that hunt and trap illegally on the same land.
Another legal characteristic that encourages deforestation is a tax on land that is considered unused. If land is cleared it has lower taxes as it is deemed “being used”, and landowners that clear their land with no intention of farming are able to economically benefit from this.
In 2008, Brazil’s government enacted legislation to slow deforestation of the Amazon.  Beyond enforcing stricter surveillance and repercussions for those convicted of forest clearing offences, the legislation also focuses on creating a federal force to battle environmental crimes. Economic action was also included regarding rural credit and land tax policies, as well as protecting the land around new roads.
The Amazon is the final great frontier of rain forests, and Brazil must continue to enforce environmental laws and policies if we hope to preserve the life within it and prevent more carbon from entering the atmosphere.
Meika Jensen is a freelance writer and aspiring graduate student looking to study the development of communications as it relates to public opinion. Follow her on Twitter @MeikaJensen and always feel free to drop her a line and strike up a conversation.