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Brazil’s demarcation plans put people and planet at risk

October 1, 2015, by Jan Rocha

Rainforest in the Amazon basin is better protected in indigenous reserves.
Image: World Bank Photo Collection via Flickr

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Threat to Brazil’s indigenous reserves raises climate and health concerns as studies show that reduced deforestation leads to lower CO2 emissions and better air quality. SÃO PAULO, 1 October, 2015 − Environmental organisations warn that a bill now going through the Brazilian Congress to transfer responsibility for demarcating indigenous reserves from federal government experts to politicians could lead to an increase of 110 million tonnes of CO2 emissions by 2030. The Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) calculates that the accumulated carbon stock inside indigenous reserves in the Amazon basin amounts to 47 billion tonnes − or more than a year’s worth of global emissions. Studies have shown that rainforest located in indigenous reserves is almost always preserved, even when much of the land around it has been cleared for farming. But the controversial bill that might soon be voted into law could radically change that situation by giving Congress responsibility for demarcating indigenous reserves − which critics liken to asking the fox to look after the chicken house. The 2014 elections in Brazil produced a very reactionary chamber of deputies, many of them belonging to the “bullet, bull and bible” lobbies defending law and order, agribusiness and conservative moral issues, with very little sympathy for, or understanding of, Brazil’s hundreds of indigenous groups.

Formally recognised

At present, indigenous lands are formally recognised only after detailed anthropological, archaeological and historical studies conducted by the National Indian Foundation (FUNAI), the government agency for policies relating to indigenous peoples, which then physically demarcates their territory. It is a slow and painstaking process that allows for the compensation of farmers who have settled in good faith − sometimes with land titles dating back to Brazil’s imperial government in the 19th century. The 698 indigenous reserves occupy 13% of Brazil’s total land area, almost all (98%) of it in the Amazon basin. Two-thirds have been officially recognised, while another 228 await demarcation, but the bill could include a clause making even recognised reserves open to revision. If the demarcation process were transferred to congress, environmental groups such as the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), a well-respected Brazilian NGO, fear that forested indigenous areas will be opened up “to high impact activities like mining, dams, oil and gas pipelines, waterways, railways, roads, and non-indigenous settlements and farming activities”.

“Even outside Amazonia, indigenous reserves have played an important role in safeguarding biodiversity”

“It is worth emphasising the strategic importance of indigenous lands for environmental conservation,” ISA says. The accumulated deforestation in indigenous territories in Amazonia is just 1.9% of the original forested area within them, compared to overall deforestation of 22.8% of the total original forested area, according to figures produced for 2013 by the Programme to Calculate Deforestation in the Amazon (PRODES), the monitoring project of Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. “Even outside Amazonia, where indigenous reserves are much smaller in area, they have played an important role in safeguarding biodiversity,” ISA adds. If the new bill is approved by Congress, IPAM reckons that the probable changes could lead to an extra 110 million tonnes of carbon emissions by 2030. The Brazilian government is committed to zero illegal deforestation in the Amazon by 2030, but embattled president Dilma Rousseff is currently too busy fighting the threat of impeachment to take on another fight with some of the Congress members she needs to keep on her side.

Criminal loggers

The government has mounted a number of successful law enforcement operations to crack down on criminal loggers, and deforestation rates have been falling. But if indigenous areas stop being protected, and fall into the hands of farmers, loggers and mining companies, the Forest Code allows for 20% of the acquired area to be cleared. According to a recent study published in Nature Geoscience, falling deforestation rates are not only good for reducing CO2 emissions, but have also contributed to saving lives by improving air quality. The study found that the 40% reduction in Brazil’s deforestation rates since 2004 is preventing 1,060 premature adult mortalities annually across South America, because of the consequent reduction in fire emissions and, therefore, of particulate matter (PM). The study says: “Inhalation of PM from fires has adverse impacts on human health, including increased hospital admissions and premature mortality.” It estimates that deforestation fires alone cause an average of 2,906 premature deaths annually across South America from cardiopulmonary disease and lung cancer. – Climate News Network

  • Jan Rocha, a freelance journalist living in Brazil, is a former correspondent there for the BBC World Service and The Guardian. Linked in: http://tinyurl.com/ppq6dg7

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