There are three avenues to reduce the rate of extinction of millions of species that is the result of economic activity: better regulation, market-based solutions and ideological changes. Here we concentrate on the first, a potential regulatory change that threatens broad groups of species as well as their habitats. Presently, the Brazilian congress is deliberating on a bill (PL 1551/2019) that extinguishes the requirement for rural landowners to conserve a percentage of the natural environment in their properties. This parcel, labelled "Legal Reserve", is part of the country’s revised Forestry Code (enacted in 2012), which establishes the limits of agricultural activities, and also creates Areas of Permanent Preservation (APP). Research has shown rapid adoption of the new code, with registered properties in a single state covering a total of 57 Mha by 2013 and initially showing lower deforestation rates compared to unregistered ones (Azevedo et al, 2017).
The bill to abolish Legal Reserves, which we dub the Deforestation Bill, is a threat to biodiversity as it does not replace the legal reserve with any alternative mechanism; it simply allows farmers to exploit even more massively the lands of Brazil, and more worryingly, the threatened habitats at Amazonia and Cerrado. It was introduced by a Senator of the political base of the recently elected President, and is now under deliberation in the Senate.
The bill may not come to pass, but it is quite symbolic of the current government's plans of reducing environmental protection in Brazil. Jair Bolsonaro’s administration is one among the recent wave of illiberal governments that view environmental protection as a barrier to economic growth and made it clear since the beginning of its mandate. At first, the government attempted to merge the environment and agricultural ministries, but retreated after popular backlash. Today, public officials continue to hail against climate change (a Marxist plot, according to the Foreign Office Minister), the theory of evolution (it shouldn’t be taught in schools, argued the Minister of Women, Family and Human Rights), and indigenous people rights to protected land (indigenous communities living in protected lands are similar to animals in zoos, said the President).
The government’s undermining of environmental protection includes punishing environmental inspectors that apply fines deemed inconsistent, greatly reducing subsidies to wind and solar energy, withdrawing from hosting a UN climate conference, and allowing new mining activities in indigenous people’s protected land. Yet all these actions pale in comparison to the effects of extinguishing the legal reserves of agricultural land. Certainly, the legal reserve regulations can be improved upon and maybe even reduced partly in some cases, as it stands it fulfils an important role within the Forest Code and, if challenged, should be replaced by an alternative rather than simply being abolished.
The Forest Code has existed for more than 80 years, but the recently defined Areas of Permanent Preservation (APP) and Legal Reserve (LR) were established to facilitate compliance, encourage environmental conservation and strengthen the supervision and monitoring of protected areas (Santiago et al., 2018). Evidence shows that, although far from perfect, these new tools limit deforestation and conserve biodiversity to some extent. They might reduce the loss of carbon stock and of forest by almost 10% (Roriz et al., 2017). One of the mechanisms for it comes from evidence that larger, rather than smaller, farms have important effects on biodiversity conservation at the landscape scale, and there is a positive relationship between compliance with the 20% compulsory Legal Reserves and farm size (Stefanes et al., 2018). More important, regulatory stability resulted in agricultural production increasing, instead of the expected drop from more protected land (Garrett et al., 2018). In the Cerrado region, proper enforcement of the Forest Code coupled with restoration programmes in private properties could create habitat for 25% more threatened species (Vieira et al., 2017), some of them lizards that still have not benefited from protected lands (Ledo and Colli, 2016).
Very few illiberal policies are as short-sighted as the proposed abolishing of Legal Reserves. In a way, Brazil used to be a global leader on climate change, and it is now a threat. The environmental minister has stated that in the climate change fight, Brazil owes nothing. Such rhetoric is scientific denial at its best, potentially leading to devastating effects on biodiversity and world’s climate.