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How a New Provision in Brazil's Forest Act Could Cost It a Massive Chunk of Protected Rainforest

Researchers warn that an area of Brazilian Amazon rainforest bigger than Ireland is at risk of losing its legal protection.

An area of Brazilian Amazon rainforest bigger than Ireland is at risk of losing its legal protection, according to new research. In an ironic twist, the trigger for this loss could come from the granting of protections to other areas of the Amazon.

The study was conducted by researchers at Chalmers University of Technology and the KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Sweden and the University of Sao Paolo–Brazil. It was released this week in Nature Sustainability.

Brazil's Forest Act requires landowners living in the country's Amazon region set aside 80 percent of their private land for native vegetation. They're not allowed to clear forests on that portion for farming, logging, or any other activity that requires deforestation.

But the Act was revised in 2012 to include a paragraph that says this 80 percent requirement can be relaxed to 50 percent if a state protects more than 65 percent of its public land. The result, the researchers warn, could be the legalization of logging and other development activities in vast areas of rainforest once protected as reserves.

The study estimates that between 65,000 and 154,000 square kilometers of the Brazilian Amazon could lose their protected status. In comparison, the land area of the country of Ireland is around 70,000 square kilometers. Most of the area under threat, its authors write, is comprised of primary forest with high levels of biodiversity and large stores of carbon.

"Brazil has favorable conditions for increasing production on land which is already used for agriculture, in particular lands where low-intensity animal grazing is practiced. But if the legal protections for nature are weakened, it could lead to agricultural growth being based more on increasing the amount of agricultural land, rather than increasing the production on lands already in use," said lead author Flavio Freitas, a doctoral student in the Department for Sustainable Development, Environmental Science and Technology at KTH. "This would be at the expense of valuable natural ecosystems, with negative impacts on biodiversity. It would also lead to extensive greenhouse gas emissions, since much of the Amazon is covered by forests."

The researchers warn the legal deforestation of these private forest reserves could stand in the way of the country's emissions reduction targets.

"Brazil has pledged that, by 2025, its greenhouse gas emissions will be at a level 37 percent lower than in 2025," said co-author Göran Berndes, a professor at Chalmers University. "That will be a struggle if deforestation is not kept down."

Freitas explained that, even if privately held forests lose their protection, it wouldn't necessarily mean they'd immediately be cleared. But he says it's important to acknowledge this situation and circumvent deforestation before it has a chance to happen.

To do this, the researchers aren't suggesting that public land remain unprotected—on the contrary, they refer to its protection as "crucial for safeguarding the Amazon"—but instead recommend a revision of the paragraph that lays out the 65 percent threshold.

"One possibility is that the law could be revised, with the paragraph adjusted or removed entirely," Freitas said.

Brazil's recent election of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro as its president has left many conservationists worried about the future of the country's environment. Among other highly controversial statements, Bolsonaro has proposed opening the Amazon rainforest for economic exploitation and defunding non-governmental organizations and scientific programs. Analysts say he will have significant congressional support, making it likely his policies will come to fruition.

However, Freitas said that, even if legislative action doesn't materialize, international and economic pressure could come to the rescue of Brazil's private forest reserves.

"In addition to legal measures, businesses could help to reduce the risk through non-deforestation commitments," he said. "Such measures could be motivated by simple economic reasons—there is a strong international awareness of the downsides of deforestation, and Brazilian agricultural exports will likely be negatively influenced through their association."

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