Brazil’s Supreme Court has begun a historic trial about the environment

By Carlos A. Joly and Jean Paul Metzger

The Brazilian Forest Code, regulating the maintenance of native vegetation on private lands, was introduced in Brazil in 1965. It was valid with some changes until 2012, when it was replaced by the Law for Protection of Native Vegetation (Lei de Proteção da Vegetação Nativa). The introduction of the new law provoked widespread protests, with protesters demanding the then-president Dilma Rousseff to use her right of veto to reject it – which did not happen.

5 years later, in 2017, the Supreme Court (STF) met up on the 14th of September to discuss the legal grant of four legal actions submitted against the law once it was approved by the Brazilian Congress. On the same day, the newspaper Folha de São Paulo published an article authored by Carlos Joly and Jean Paul Metzger explaining to the general public what changes the new law brings and their impacts on the environment.

In general terms, the Law for Protection of Native Vegetation made the rules for protection of vegetation on private land more flexible than the relatively strict Forest Code. According to the authors, the new law does contain some important and positive changes – such as the requirement for the private owners to register in the CAR (Cadastro Ambiental Rural), which allows mapping the boundaries of their land and any changes to the native vegetation on their land.  However, the new law went too far in making the rules flexible. As a result, sensitive environmental areas such as riverbanks, water springs and hilltops will not be sufficiently protected, increasing the risks of floods or landslides. The article argues that in this sense the law can be seen as contradictory to the Article 225 of the Brazilian Constitution, which grants the rights to an essential environmental protection and healthy lifestyle. It is also deemed controversial as it grants amnesty to landowners (many of them large agricultural producers) who cleared the native vegetation illegally before July 2008, an area summing up to 41 hectares of land.

The article suggests two ways in which the current law could be improved. Firstly, it could take into consideration the vast areas of pastures with agricultural potential which are currently under-used. These pastures could be used to increase Brazil’s agricultural potential without impacting the cattle farming production. Secondly, the law should take into account the fact that native vegetation increases agricultural production, for example by protecting water springs and promoting pollination and pest control. The benefits of pollination have been estimated between 3.5 and 6.5 billion Brazilian Reals in 2016.

Maintaining the law in its current version will make Brazil even more vulnerable to environmental changes such as floods and climatic extremes. Brazil’s natural resources, however, have the potential to benefit all sectors of the society, including agriculture.

Unfortunately, due to the fact that the Supreme Court is overwhelmed with legal processes involving all denounces of corruption in the highest levels of Brazilian politics. Therefore, the judgment regarding the Law for Protection of Native Vegetation was not finished on the 14th of September, being adjourned without a new date to be resumed.

(Originally published in the newspaper “Folha de São Paulo” –  September 14, 2017)