The Brazilian Forest Code and the fate of natural vegetation cover in private lands 10 years after its last review of 2012

The Brazilian Forest Code and the fate of natural vegetation cover in private lands 10 years after its last review of 2012

Based on a dataset representing over 4.3 million private rural properties in the Brazil, we have found that since 2012, around 54% of all deforestation in private lands in the Amazon biome occurred within legal reserves (the major type of conservation area within a private property), a clear violation of the legislation as no clear-cut is allowed in those areas. In Cerrado, this share represented only 7.5%, while in the Atlantic Forest we observed an 1% increase in natural vegetation within those legal reserves. Surprisingly, we also found 25.5 million hectares of private rural properties declared by landowners within public protected areas (i.e., public lands designated to conservation units or indigenous territories). In the Atlantic Forest, 42% of these public protected areas have a superposition (i.e., overlapping) with private rural properties declared in the Rural Environmental Cadastre (CAR) system. Additionally, we observed that deforestation rates in those overlapping areas are much higher than the deforestation rates observed in the public lands without overlapping. This is a clear evidence of a large land conflict between protected areas and private lands evidenced by the CAR dataset, a novel cadastral information system on private rural properties created in 2012, during the last review of the Brazilian Forest Code.

In 2012, Brazil issued the new Forest Code, a controversial review of a previous version of such environmental legislation (the 1965 Forest Code)—which was considered more stringent and hence forcing private landowners to allocate much larger areas of natural vegetation for conservation in their own private rural properties. However, given the political influence of different groups, with special note to the political leadership of agribusiness stakeholders, the 1965 Forest Code was changed bringing important flexibilizations for landowners in three major aspects.

First, conceding amnesty to landowners that where in non-compliance with the 1965 legislation by not having the minimum conservation areas within their properties (i.e., legal reserve deficit)—in this case, the new Code released small rural properties from the obligation to restore natural vegetation areas. This change majorly affected the Amazon biome, which according to the previous Code (of 1965) would obligate landowners to restore 14 million hectares (i.e., the amount amnestied by the new Code) in small private properties. We also found 3 million hectares amnestied in the Atlantic Forest (a global hotspot of biodiversity and the most endangered biome in Brazil with approximately only 15% of natural vegetation remnants).

Second, the 2012 Code created new conditions to decrease the minimum area of conservation through legal reserves within private properties in the Amazon, from 80% to 50%, if a municipality reaches a minimum of 50% of its territory protected by conservation units or indigenous territories (i.e., protected areas), or if a given state reaches at least 65% of its territory. In our study, we have found that if these new changes are fully implemented, considering the current scenario of protected areas in the biome, the legal reserves can be reduced by 8 million hectares. In this case, considerably increasing the areal extent impact of the 14 million hectares of amnestied areas in Amazon to around 22 million hectares. 

Third, the new Code creates opportunity for landowners to use the permanent preservation areas (other type of conservation area within private properties—usually natural vegetation bordering riverbanks and water springs) to account as legal reserves, then reducing the need of restoration in properties with a legal reserve deficit, as they can use the permanent preservation areas to supply that deficit. In this case, we found that in the Amazon biome, this change in the legislation can lead to an additional decrease in total legal reserve area by 9 million hectares. For the Atlantic Forest the impact reaches 4 million hectares, and 5 million hectares in the Cerrado biome. Considering the impacts of these two instruments to reduce legal reserves (the presence of protected areas and permanent preservation areas) in the Amazon, the current deficit will decrease by 67% (equivalent of approximately 3 gigatons of carbon).

Although these critical setbacks in legislation, considerably decreasing conservation areas within private rural properties in Brazil, the CAR is a major national effort to collect, systematize and monitoring private lands and their respective natural vegetation cover. Hence, the CAR allowed us an in depth analysis of the current state of self-declared data on over 4.3 million private rural properties and their respective conservation areas in the three largest biomes in Brazil. Thus, the CAR represents an useful tool to track and monitor natural vegetation over time and at the property level. Also, the CAR was fundamental to evaluate the impacts of the changes brought by the new Forest Code, previously discussed, by providing individual information of each private rural property and what they declare as conservation areas in legal reserves, a type of information not possible to obtain through any kind of land/spatial modelling (because it is a self-declaratory data). Hence, by checking the empirical information of landowners, and with the assist of remote sensing data (land use/cover maps), we were able to generate a new panorama of the current state of natural vegetation cover in private lands in Brazil.

Brazil is currently under a new government term, started in January 2023, with great ambitions to boost environmental governance (e.g., creating the Climate Authority), international partnerships (e.g., the return of the Amazon Fund after 4 years frozen), and its role as an environmental superpower in the global governance arena. However, we argue that although the political will of the current government term, Brazilian politics is much more complex and sometimes the environmental agenda can be jostled by other interests (e.g., economic) with long-term negative impacts on conservation. In this sense, we demonstrate that the CAR can be a basis for next steps in the Brazilian forest governance agenda, by increasing national capacity of monitoring, revealing hotspots of non-compliance with the legislation, and by providing empirical data on private conservation areas. We highlight that the empirical data, now available, is necessary to measure deficits more accurately and to define new tools to improve and expand the web of natural vegetation conservation in Brazil.   

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