12/20/2011 04:05 pm ET Updated Feb 19, 2012

Code Red for Brazil's Forests

In recent years, the nation of Brazil has established itself as a global environmental leader in conserving forests, managing natural resources and taking steps to solve climate change.

Now, amendments to Brazil's long-standing forest law, known as the Forest Code, place that legacy in jeopardy. The legislative changes would dramatically increase deforestation, the country's leading source of climate-warming carbon emissions. Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff can, and should, veto portions of this legislation.

The revised Forest Code could have mind-boggling consequences. Tens of millions of acres of natural vegetation in legal reserves could be cleared or not restored. As a result, tens of billions of metric tons of carbon dioxide could either be emitted or not sequestered. This emissions increase would make it practically impossible for Brazil to meet its international commitments to reduce levels of greenhouse gases, and would expose Brazilians to greater risks from natural disasters.

So, how did we get to this fork in the road?

The Forest Code curbs the environmental impacts of the country's growing agro-industry with safeguards that permanently preserved a percentage of rural properties under native vegetative cover, and protected sensitive ecological areas.

From 2006 to 2010, Brazil halved the rate of Amazon deforestation compared to the previous five years. An estimated 14.5 million acres of forests were saved, paving the way for Brazil to approve ambitious carbon pollution reduction targets. All of this was achieved while increasing agricultural production and reducing poverty, demonstrating that Brazil does not need deforestation to thrive.

However, in recent years, short sighted agri-business interests with great influence on Brazil's Congress have been trying to affect changes to the Forest Code, seeking to open vast new areas to agriculture and cattle ranching.

Paradoxically, Brazil has more than 150 million acres of abandoned and inadequately used lands that could be exploited for agricultural expansion. This area could almost double the amount of land used for agriculture and for raising livestock, even before the potential of more efficient agricultural practices were tapped.

Nonetheless, in May, changes to the Forest Code were approved by the House of Representatives. On Tuesday, December 6, related legislation cleared the Senate. The pending legislation provides amnesty for land owners that illegally cleared protected forest areas. Those who deforested illegally would be required to reforest less area over a longer period of time. The amended Forest Code would also reduce the amount of areas that should be preserved and cut the protected areas along rivers and streams, making existing regulations more difficult to enforce.

Of particular concern is the impact on the Amazon, the world's largest rain forest, of which Brazil has the largest share. Millions of people rely on the forest's natural bounty for food, shelter and their livelihoods, and there is an unequivocal link between the health of the Amazon and the health of the planet.

Today, Brazil competes with the United States as the breadbasket of the world. The country now stands as the leading provider of coffee, sugar and orange juice, and ranks second for beef and soybean production. But the negative impacts to water resources, soils, biodiversity and the world's climate from widespread deforestation would harm agriculture instead of improving it.

Brazilians are also well-positioned to benefit from direct financial support from international sources through a program that would pay locals to protect precious forests and the capacity of those forests to naturally absorb and retain carbon. Brazilian land owners will lose that opportunity if the changes to the Forest Code are not rejected.

In addition, Brazil could potentially cut itself off from growing global markets for responsibly-sourced products.

The future is in Brazil's hands. It will host several major international events in the coming years, including the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and the 2016 Summer Olympics, and this June, the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (dubbed Rio+20). The eyes of the world will be watching to see which path Brazil takes.

President Dilma Rousseff should honor the commitments that she made as a candidate and prevent the most egregious provisions of the revised Forest Code from becoming law. The legitimacy of Brazil's reputation as a good environmental steward, and the economic benefits that come with it, depend on her decision.