Deregulation, Deforestation, and Detrimental Decline: The Brazilian Amazon

BY ROBERT BERNSTEIN–The Amazon Basin, home to one-third of all known species in the world, is an absolutely critical location for human survival.[1]  This fact makes the Amazon the prime location for strict environmental protection laws.  The Brazilian government, however, seems to be failing in its efforts to prevent deforestation and the overall degradation of this vital ecosystem.  If the most important forest on Earth cannot be properly protected, what hope is there for the rest of the world’s struggling ecosystems?

Between August 2012 and July 2013, the rate of deforestation in the Amazon increased by 28% after years of decline.[2]  Environmentalists place the blame on 2012 forest protection law reform–reform that occurred by demand of the country’s farmers’ lobby after several vetoes by Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff.[3]  The reformed code “weakens stream-buffer protections, removes hilltops under 100 meters from protected status, eliminates intermittent stream protections, and decreases safeguards for mangrove forests” in addition to promoting an overall deregulation of the environment.  Recently, an independent Brazilian government advocate challenged 39 provisions of the forest code, centering the challenges on the government’s constitutional duty to “protect an ecologically balanced environment for the benefit of current and future generations.”[4]  The success of these challenges, however, remains to be seen.  The failure to protect the Amazon would be a travesty by its own right, but it would also send a message to the world that environmental regulation is simply either not possibly or not desirable.

Miami’s own backyard, on the other hand, is demonstrating just how successful environmental regulation can be in restoring and protecting an important, yet damaged, ecosystem.  The Florida Everglades historically covered approximately four million acres of the southern peninsula, and nearly nine million acres of the region consisted of interconnected wetlands.[5]  Due to the construction of thousands of miles of canals and levees in the 1880s, less than half of the original system remains intact.[6]  Although the Everglades is not the same hotbed of biodiversity as the Amazon, it is home to thousands of species–68 of those being threatened or endangered.[7]  Recognizing its mistake, the United States government, the Florida government, and the local governments have invested billions of dollars in working to restore thousands of acres of the ecosystem and vastly improving water quality.[8]

The importance of the Everglades to Florida, and perhaps the United States, is certainly clear.  It is a unique and diverse ecosystem with aesthetic, scientific, and even economic benefits, and its restoration makes perfect sense.  The Amazon serves a similar purpose, but on a much greater scale.  In addition to harboring one-third of the planet’s biodiversity, the Amazon also discharges a quarter of the Earth’s freshwater, is the home to indigenous and traditional cultures, and it plays a crucial role in global carbon cycles and climate.[9]  Yet, while the Everglades is slowly being rebuilt, one-fifth of the Amazon rainforest has been lost in the past 40 years.  Of course, the Amazon may just hold more overall interest and value than the Everglades–making it more difficult to properly protect–but its sheer global importance should be enough incentive to step up its regulation and protection accordingly.  The recent constitutional challenges should be closely monitored, and the failure or success of those challenges will play an important role in the next steps that the government and advocacy groups must take.  As the Amazon transforms more and more into farms, ranches, and roads, it becomes increasingly more difficult to reverse the trend.  To stop the bleeding, strict laws and regulations over the Amazon need to happen, and they need to happen soon.

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