Fr McDonagh reports from Cancun: ‘Plunderers poised to win’

Brazillian rainforest

Brazillian rainforest

The old cliché says that a week is a long time in politics. It is also a long time in environment circles.

The Brazilian government has had some success in reducing Amazon deforestation, from over 27,000 km2   in 2004 to below 6,500 km2 in 2010.  This was a huge victory when one recalls the media coverage of the annual burning of the Amazon rainforest in the 1980s and 1990s to clear land for cattle ranching and agri-business.  For example, between May 2002 and May 2003, Brazil lost more than 24,000 square kilometres of forest - an area larger than Israel. People from around the world felt so helpless as they watched those massive forest fires on TV each year. That is why there was such rejoicing when people learned that Brazil had cut its deforestation so dramatically.

Yet, the forces that killed Sister Dorothy Stang and Chico Mendes and hundreds of others like them are still active in Brazil. At this moment there is a major struggle under way in the Brazilian Congress with loggers and ranchers doing everything possible to oppose the Forest Code which has contributed some much to reducing deforestation. It now appears that the Brazilian House of Representatives is about to approve a new forest code that will roll back all those gains and open up a much larger area of the Brazilian forest to exploiters. The bill, which is supported by 370 out of a total of 513 lawmakers, provides amnesty to those who been involved in illegal deforestation and degradation. It reduces the preservation areas along rivers and eliminates the need for legal reserves for rural properties of a certain size.

A study coordinated by a group of respected environment organizations in Brazil, including Fundacao Boticario, WWF-Brazil, TNC-Brazil, IMAZON and Conservation International, shows that two of the many changes in the proposed forest code will dramatically increase Brazil’s total national emissions as well as reduce its carbon storage capacity. So, in the international environment community within the space of one week, Brazil has moved from being a beacon of hope to other countries on how to reduce deforestation to a country that is pandering to vested interests against the well being of people and the forest.  These same environmental organisations claim that there was very little consultation with the scientific community in drawing up the legislation. WWF-Brazil has opposed the bill from the very beginning. It claims that the bill will completely undermine important requirements for environmental and sustainable production reserves on private land. These reserves and other components of the Forest Law are a major reason why Amazon was spared so much in the past few years. WWF reports:  "If the amendments are signed into law, effective control of deforestation will pass from strong Federal legislative control to a piecemeal state by state approach. Under this scenario, a strong upsurge in deforestation is expected, raising the spectre of 'the Amazon is burning' which became a celebrated cause internationally and helped form the basis of a structure of international environmental conventions and institutions."

Brazil is a land of great beauty and unsurpassed biological diversity. For this reason, deforestation in the Amazon is especially troubling. While environmental losses and degradation of the rainforests have yet to reach the point of collapse, the continuing disappearance of pristine forests and loss of its species is deeply troubling. Biodiversity is crucial to the survival of all life here on planet earth. The destruction of the Amazon Rainforest, which is the greatest centre of biodiversity on planet Earth is a loss, not just for Brazil, but for the entire Earth. If humans continue to push other species over the precipice of extinction, we too many follow since we depend on other species for our food, medicine, clothing and multiple other needs.

Biodiversity will recover after humanity is gone, but in the meantime, the continuing loss of our fellow species will make Earth a less beautiful and fruitful place. Scientists who have studied other extinction moments, such as the mass extinction at the end of the Mesozoic (Middle Life Period) estimate that it takes at least 5 million years to restore biodiversity to the level equal to that prior to the extinction event. Actions taken today will determine whether Earth will be biologically impoverished for all the creatures which will live here in the future. This is this why opposing this new legislation is so important. When all the greedy, cattle ranchers, soya agribusiness and loggers have vanished from the face of the earth – their legacy of pain, destruction and death will unfortunately remain.

Columban priest and eco-theologian Sean McDonagh is attending the UN Climate Summit in Cancun, Mexico.

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