A recent ad campaign aimed at gaining Midwestern senators support for US climate change legislation has backfired in Brazil. The ad by the National Farmers Union and Avoided Deforestation Partners, an alliance of major environmental organizations and utilities, advocates for farm state senators to support U.S. emission limits by offering an incentive: the ability of companies to purchase emission offsets in the form of standing tropical forests, which sequester the potent greenhouse gas carbon dioxide. Thus, the coalition argued, the land would not be cleared for the cultivation of soybeans and other crops that compete with US agriculture. A report accompanying the ad, called “Farms here, Forests there” claims that US farmers could gain up to $221 billion between 2012 and 2030 from less foreign competition.
The report states “the expansion of pasture and plantation to previously forested land in nations such as Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia and Malaysia has contributed to these countries becoming lead producers and exporters of these commodities.”
“If the forests are conserved,” the report states, “the land will not be converted to pasture or plantation…. [and] we can expect to see reduced production from these [tropical forest] countries as a result of restricted land use and higher production costs.”
A video created by Avoided Deforestation Partners goes further: “Did you know that saving forests can save American consumers billons…Did you know that saving forests can protect American jobs?” The video concludes: “No new technology is necessary, no new systems need to be invented.”
The advertising campaign aimed to win support from conservative legislators for the inclusion of rainforest protection in US domestic climate legislation. Here in Brazil, however, it went seriously wrong. The ad landed in the middle of a debate in the Brazilian Congress, which is considering a proposal by the government to loosen restrictions on the development of the Amazon.
A coalition of major Brazilian environmental NGOs repudiated the claim that protecting the world’s forests would benefit US agriculture. The coalition, including the Instituto Socioambiental, Conservation International-Brazil, WWF-Brasil, Fundação SOS Mata Atlântica and Greenpeace-Brazil, charged that the Avoided Deforestation Partners’ argument “ignores the Brazilian reality.” According to data compiled by the University of São Paulo, Brazil has at least 61 million hectares (roughly 150 million acres) of low-productivity land, which “can be quickly converted into areas of agricultural expansion” without intrusions into the nation’s forests. “We could double our production of food without having to bring down new forest and still recovering those areas where reforestation is done needed for their potential to provide ecosystem services,” it said. The statement also denounced use of the report by deforestation advocates in Brazil to support their assertion that preservationists were playing into the hands of foreign agricultural interests.
US environmental groups that are members of Avoided Deforestation Partners—including The Nature Conservancy, Conservation International, The National Wildlife Federation and the Environmental Defense Fund—later distanced themselves from the report, saying it “is based on the assumption, totally unfounded, that deforestation in tropical countries can be easily interrupted, and its conclusions are therefore also unrealistic.”
The groups also cited “several scientific studies [that] show that to reduce deforestation it is necessary to increase the competitiveness of agricultural production outside the forest frontier. Large tropical countries have large under-utilized rural areas where agriculture could be increased without increasing deforestation.” The statement came out a month after the report was released, right when then the debate was heating up in Brazil.
Hurriedly, AD Partners responded with a new report that claimed Brazil would actually benefit from forests protection, estimating that its gross revenues from a policy designed to link forest protection to global strategies against climate change—known as REDD (Reduced Emissions from Degradation and Deforestation)—could amount to as much as $306 billion by 2030.
But the harm had already been done. The news about the report came out in Brazil right in the middle of a heated debate in the Brazilian Congress about the revision of the National Forests Code, which would weaken existing forest protections. At the end of June a congressman from Mato Grosso, a soy producing state, Jorge Yanai, cited the report to discredit Brazilian environmentalists, asserting that they were actually driven toward conservation by foreign interests seeking to restrict Brazilian development.
His proposals include, among other things, an amnesty on anyone guilty of illegal logging before July 2008 and permission for small properties not to keep what’s known as the legal reserve—the amount of forest on a farm or settlement that must be protected.
The current law obliges all farms to preserve legal reserves in different percentages according to the region. In the Amazon, for instance, legal reserves must occupy 80 percent of the land; in the cerrado (a Brazilian type of savannah), the legal reserve is 35 percent of the land; and in forests elsewhere in the country, 20 percent. The word that small farms won’t have such an obligation has already reportedly led farmers to split their properties into smaller units. The proposed changes to the Forest Code also include a reduction in the width of land to be preserved alongside water courses—from 30 meters to 15.
In early July, the proposed weakening of the rules governing forest protections was passed by a key committee in the Lower House. The bill is expected to be voted on by both the Brazilian House and Senate in the fall—but not until after the presidential elections in October.
Before the revised report from Avoided Deforestation Partners was published, Glenn Hurowitz, the Washington Director of Avoided Deforestation Partners, told me that the study had been misinterpreted. “The report didn’t analyze the impact on Brazil, and it’s unfortunate that it has been interpreted that way.”
Brazilian environmental NGOs claim, however, that the original report’s intention was too clear to be misunderstood. They claim it was based not only on a false assumption, but also on two misunderstandings by the US lobby group.
AD Partners believed that to convince US farmers to preserve forests you have to say they will benefit economically at the expense of competitors. This generated a dichotomy that no environmental groups in Brazil would embrace.
The other mistake, they say, was to assume that nobody else outside the US would care. While within the US, environmental and news organizations generally praised the report’s conclusions, outside the US it was seen as an outrage. It’s something nobody at the US lobby group had thought about—that the report would have an impact on countries with tropical forests. Thus far, it seems to have had a negative impact on Brazilian’s own struggle to conserve its forests.
Natalia Viana is an independent journalist based in Sao Paulo, Brazil. She writes for The Guardian and The Independent (UK), as well as several Brazilian publications, and as a reporter for PBS Frontline. She recently published a three-part series on the debate over forest preservation and U.S. policy in Brazil on the Brazilian internet magazine Opera Mundi.