World holds its breath as Brazil faces Amazon threat

Never before has so much vital rainforest been dependent on one person for its survival. But that is where Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff finds herself. Brazil’s congress just passed a forest code that puts the Amazon and other forests in jeopardy – it now sits on her desk and the deadline for her to pass or veto ends within the next 24 hours.

Her decision will have massive ramifications for Brazil. The code, if approved, would give loggers and farmers free rein to chop down 190-million acres of Brazilian forests. A territory roughly the size of France and Britain combined would be at risk to chainsaws. It would put forests and rivers up for grabs, placing 70% of Brazil’s river basins at risk. It would also give amnesty to anyone previously charged with illegal deforestation.

But, this code would be a catastrophe, not just for Brazil, but all our futures. Brazil is home to 40% of the world’s last remaining rainforest – a lung that provides the earth with one fifth of our oxygen.

So why is the congress passing such a destructive code and why would Rousseff not just veto right away? Simple – industrial farmers and loggers have a stranglehold on congress and this powerful lobby is screaming at Rousseff, claiming current legislation is freezing development in Brazil. Other voices are arguing that the forest must be converted into farmland to tackle rising food prices in Brazil.

None of these arguments hold water. The incredible development of Brazil’s agriculture in the last decade is due to investment in more efficient farming and has been fuelled by the rising price of food commodities over the last 10 years. It has nothing to do with needing more access to forests. In Brazil, 200-million cattle roam over 500-million acres. More efficient farming will free more land without any need for deforestation.

Every threat to the Amazon is a threat to indigenous life. The proposed new forest code will allow deforestation in previously protected areas. Those that have lived in the forests for generations are being put second to those of commercial land speculators. Environmentalists who have spoken out to protect the forest have been harassed, threatened and even killed by thugs.

But this is not merely a dispute between the businesspeople and environmentalists. Over 79% of Brazilians reject this Bill. All the former environment ministers, whatever their political differences, have joined forces to express their strong opposition to this issue and recently even some of the most prestigious businesspeople in Brazil have come out against it.

Now almost two-million people have signed a global Avaaz campaign calling on Rousseff to use her veto. Tens of thousands of people have signed the petition, while thousands of others have called her office and Brazilian embassies across the world to raise the global alarm. This Bill is now as important to people living in the islands of São Tome as it is for those in São Paulo.

The government has a proud record of protecting the environment in Brazil. In the last few years Brazil has vastly reduced deforestation rates, achieving a 78% decline between 2004 and 2011.

Rousseff came into office promising that she would firmly oppose any amnesty to the destroyers of the forest. It is up to her now to stand up to her promises and champion the environmental records of her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.

Brazil’s track record of minimising deforestation led it to be the host of the next month’s critical Earth Summit – the most important global environmental summit in 20 years. Over 50 000 people from all over the world will come to Rio de Janeiro and discuss the fate of the planet and how to accelerate the fight against environmental destruction, the collapse of biodiversity and climate warming.

Rousseff will host the summit – a massive responsibility that requires legitimacy. But, if she allows this code to pass, Brazil will not be seen as a credible host of Rio+20.

A veto will be an act of global leadership, a gesture desperately needed to win the fight against climate change. An approval by her will cast a dark shadow over her presidency and Brazil’s authority. Worse still, a victory for big business profits over the planet’s future will set a frightening precedent for the protection of the last remaining forests across our world. Brazil is seen by many countries as model of 21st century development. This is a crucial moment to define what kind of model Brazil wants to be.

Millions of people will be watching as President Rousseff comes to a decision on this forest code. It is a decision which will have impact on all of our futures.

Fernando Meirelles is the director of City of God and The Constant Gardener, and is a member of Avaaz

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