Brazil dominates forest-related news coverage of Latin America in 2011

Native communities of the Amazon rainforest are protesting the Brazilian government's decision to build the massive hydroelectric Belo Monte dam in the Xingu River. AP Photo/Eraldo Peres

LIMA, Peru (16 January, 2012)_Reformation of Brazil’s Forest Code and construction of the Belo Monte dam are just some of the issues that lead to Brazil’s domination of forestry news in Latin America last year – and these will continue to top forest headlines in the region in 2012, according to some of the most highly recognized environmental journalists based in Latin America.

“I think the developments in Brazil have been an important story this year” said Rhett Butler, founder and editor of Mongabay, one of the world’s most popular environmental science and conservation news sites.

“[In Brazil] deforestation continues to fall, reaching the lowest level since annual record-keeping began in the late 1980s, but there are things to watch. For one, the Forest Code that passed the Senate, includes some provisions that could encourage deforestation. Another concern is large infrastructure projects like Belo Monte, which seems to be setting some potentially worrisome precedents in limiting indigenous rights. Finally transnational leakage is a real issue as Brazilian firms launch energy projects in neighboring Amazon countries,” said Butler (Click here to see Mongabay’s top 10 environmental stories for 2011).

In December the Brazilian Senate approved changes to the Forest Code, which, according to groups opposing the changes, would open the door for deforestation by providing amnesty and not making reforestation activities mandatory (read a news report and see CIFOR’s Latin America forests updates from November and December here). The latest version of the Code will go to the Congress next February or March and then to President Dilma Rousseff to be approved.

The vote to reform the forest code in the Brazilian Congress will continue to be the most important news related to forests in Latin America in 2012, according to Yana Marull, head of the AFP office based in Brasilia.

It will have consequences for everyone because this law defines what percentage of forests the farmers are obliged to protect, she explained. “Millions of hectares of forests, especially in the Amazon, are at risk of not being reforested or being lost to agricultural expansion”.

For Marull the reforms that were an opportunity to update the agricultural sector and the environmental protection in Brazil, are putting at risk the international commitments and the recent achievements of the government in massively reducing deforestation.

“Since Brazil is increasingly seen as an emerging leader on low carbon development by other tropical countries, the actions it takes and the policies it implements carry weight well beyond its borders,” Butler pointed out.

“Still there were some positive signs, like increased law enforcement, linking finance to safeguards, and progress on some sub-national forest conservation projects.”

For Luis Alberto Gallegos, an independent journalist member of the Environmental Communication Network for Latin America and the Caribbean (REDCALC), Brazil also made the top of his list for last year’s Latin American news cycle. Brazil’s policy regarding deforestation is extremely inconsistent, he said. Considering that Brazil is an emerging leader “it is a shame that the country is ready to generate power at the expense of the Amazon forest”.

The potential of fires to cause environmental problems in the Amazon region was one of the most important issues this year for Barbara Fraser, an independent journalist whose work has been published among by EcoAmericas, The Daily Climate, The Lancet, and Environmental Science & Technology.

“Although 2011 was not a severe fire year like 2005 and 2010, several papers were published this year linking drought in the western Amazon basin to water temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean off the northern coast of Brazil. If those patterns hold true and scientists can forecast fire seasons with some reliability, it could help policy makers and local governments in the western Amazon reduce the risk of escaped fires as destructive as those that occurred in 2005 and 2010.”

This topic has been highlighted by CIFOR’s researchers, who have affirmed that finding a solution is very urgent since 2005 fires have been burning forests and farms every year. (See CIFOR’s story Western Amazon in the grip of a “perfect (fire)storm and watch the interview with a forest fire scientist here).

The other major news for the forestry sector was the involvement of local communities looking for environmental justice. “The most important news items are about indigenous people fighting to prevent the destruction of their forest resources,” said Miguel Angel Torres and Talli Nauman, co-directors of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness (PECE in Spanish).

They highlighted the indigenous demonstrations in Bolivia against the construction of the Amazon highway planned to cross through the Isiboro Sécure Indigenous Territory and National Park (Tipnis) in the Amazon as being one of the most important environmental issues covered this year. Indigenous people opposed the highway’s construction arguing it would ruin indigenous livelihoods by increasing deforestation and the presence of drug groups in the area (see CIFOR’s Latin America forests updates from October)

There were also other demonstrations by indigenous peoples far from the Amazon rainforest, they explained. In Mexico, Cheran Purepecha people defended their villages from drug cartels logging illegally (see news report here). Indigenous groups are organizing against transnational oil and mining corporations plans, which at the end means “the destruction of ecosystems, forests, water, and life as we have seen in Ecuador and El Salvador”.

Equally important for them was news emphasizing proactive community efforts against deforestation, including the news covering communities’ view of the world, their access to information, aspects of environmental justice and human rights, forest community management, traditional knowledge, gender equity as well as research on fair trade, land tenure , empowerment, participation in democracy, self-determination in REDD projects, among others.

These news items are a call to “governments and investors about the reality in the forest and the importance of taking into account the self determination of forest people, if they want to advance and reach funding schemes for a sustainable development model in a globalized economy” said Fraser.

Fraser also highlighted the ongoing issues with the carbon market in Latin America: “Stories in the past year ranged from examples of communities that were benefiting from carbon offset schemes to cases that referred to the architects of local plans as “carbon cowboys” and claimed they were only benefiting themselves”.

Journalists in the Latin American region are closely following news related to indigenous and local communities defending their resources as well those about international schemes aimed at deriving and distributing benefits from forests in developing countries, which they anticipate will make headlines during 2012.