The Weight of Thought

After two years of political wrangling that pitted rural agricultural interests known as “ruralistas” against environmentalists and many scientists, Brazil’s lower house approved legislation late Wednesday that would scale back the country’s vaunted forest protection code.

The legislation would clear the slate on older – and more often than not illegal – deforestation while scaling back protections along rivers and on hills. Deputies approvedthe main legislation in a 274-184 vote, and additional voting on 21 amendments advanced by the ruralistas went late into the night.

Details remain murky, but environmentalists immediately sounded the alarm. “O início do fim das florestas”Greenpeace Brazil proclaimed in a headline on its website. “The beginning of the end of forests.”

To be fair, such visions of doom should be considered in context. Although pressure on forests is on the rise, deforestation in the Amazon hit a record low last year. If Brazil can sustain and advance those gains, it would represent one of the most remarkable environmental success stories in recent decades. The fear is that weakening the law will reverse this progress and unleash a wave of new deforestation by convincing farmers and ranchers that Brazil doesn’t have the political will to truly enforce the law.