The proposal intended to replace the Forest Code approved in the House of Representatives brings risks to wetlands, which provide indispensible environmental services for farming and ranching and for society as a whole.
Wetlands are defined as lands which are periodically flooded, where species develop adaptations to such flooding. Igapós in the Amazon, the Pantanal, flood plains, swamps and mangroves are examples of this type of ecosystem.
Wetlands were removed from the final version of the text by spokesperson Paulo Piau (PMDB-MG), who considered the term to be “subjective”, even though it is used widely in specialized literature and was included in the text approved in the Senate based on recommendations made by specialists.
With the change planned in the bill by the House of Representatives regarding the width of protection for riparian woods (located along the margins of waterways), which will be measured when the water line is regular, no longer during the flood months, wetlands will cease to be Permanent Preservation Areas (PPAs), as they have always been since the Forest Code was published, in 1965.
If the bill becomes a law, these areas will be eligible for legal deforestation and occupation by agricultural activities, even those with low potential for agriculture and high ecological importance.
In practice, the approved text also makes protection of wetlands difficult by requiring government repossession, which leads to payment of compensations.
|Bill approved by representatives could remove protection from up to 90% of all wetlands, ecosystems that are strategic for conservation of water bodies in the country. Flooded area in the Xingu Indigenous Park (Mato Grosso)
The proposal also removed current protection in a width of 50 meters around swamps, used as a buffer zone for economic activities with impacts. Thus, these ecosystems, which are one of the main sources of water in the Cerrado, will be subject to pollution and contamination by pesticides.
Wetlands are estimated to occupy approximately 20% of the national territory. Between 80% and 90% of them will be unprotected if the text from the House of Representatives is not vetoed by President Dilma Roussef, according to Wolfgang Junk, Professor at the Federal University of Mato Grosso (UFMT).
When compared to other ecosystems, one of the most important aspects of wetlands is the importance of environmental services they offer (learn more about this in the box further ahead).
Researcher Maria Teresa Fernandez Piedade, from the National Institute of Amazon Studies (Inpa), who has studied floodplains and wetlands in the Amazon for decades, claims that destruction of these areas could have disastrous impacts on agricultural production.
“The main consequence is reduced supply of water, considering that effects of alterations in wetlands are not local in scale,” she alerts. “With reduced underground water in affected regions, due to less infiltration, there will be shortages of water during the dry season for plant life and humans,” explains the researcher.
She remembers that specialists foresee a reduction of up to 25% in annual rainfall due to climate changes in the Cerrado, the greatest agricultural frontier in the country. “That is why availability and distribution of water are limiting factors for agricultural development and for the well-being of populations,” she analyzes.
By slowly releasing large amounts of rainwater, wetlands maintain water availability for a longer period, preventing erosion and controlling floods.
Swamps, in turn, also facilitate precipitation and retention of sediments, acting as filters and reducing costs of water treatment. For this reason they are protected in many parts of the world. In the United States, whoever has a wetland in his or her property has to conserve it and no credit or State subsidies can be accessed if proof of protection is not presented.
|Wetlands house some of the most important and productive ecosystems in the world. Flooded forest in the Xingu Indigenous Park (Mato Grosso)
These environments play a fundamental role in the life cycle of countless plants and animals, providing shelter and nourishment. Therefore, they are a source of income and protein for many human populations, and are indispensible for fishing, subsistence farming, cattle ranching, timber collection, fruit, essences and oils.
Authorizing intensive agricultural use in these ecosystems could affect in an irreparable manner these environmental services, damaging hundreds of thousands of families that currently use them sustainably.
Nearly 60% of the rural population in the Amazon lives in wetlands. In Amazonas and Pará alone, two million people live along riverbanks.
In spite of this, the spokesperson for the new Forest Code in the Senate, Jorge Viana (Acre PT), did not incorporate the suggestion made by researchers to guarantee permission to use them only for traditional activities and low-impact activities.
There is no precise data about wetland degradation in Brazil, but Maria Tereza Piedade calls attention to the fact that they are the first areas to be cleared in settlement processes.
“In large urban centers these environments have been converted to landfills, for refuse from large constructions or as garbage dumps. This is a very alarming situation,” in her evaluation.
Regular water line
Researchers point out that in ecosystems with clearly distinct flood and drought periods, such as the Pantanal and the Amazon, the reference in the text approved in the House of Representatives to regular stream bed for calculation of the PPA is ineffective because it does not encompass the great variation in extension and lateral reach of wetlands throughout the year and in different landscapes.
In the Amazon, the difference between the high and low levels of flooding in rivers may surpass 10 meters.
“This means that flooded forests can only be protected if the high level of the flood is considered for calculation of the environmental protection area,” affirms Piedade.
Brazil is a member of the Ramsar Convention, which has the goal of protecting wetlands of international importance. As such, it must establish special policies for their management and preservation. The convention sets forth that the limit of wetlands is the maximum water line in flood periods.
|According to specialists, the text approved by representatives cannot encompass the cycles of wetlands and is therefore a threat to their protection. Xingu Indigenous Park (Mato Grosso)
According to scientists, national legislation should not reduce protection for wetlands, but rather encourage their sustainable use, recovery and conservation, according to the diversity of environments.
“With the text approved in Congress, the country is effectively tearing the international agreement to pieces, as well as all scientific knowledge accumulated over the years regarding wetlands,” argues Raul Silva Telles do Valle, ISA’s Deputy Director of Socioenvironmental Policy and Law.
|What are wetlands?|
Wetlands are common in all Brazilian regions, and it is estimated that they cover approximately 1.7 million square kilometers, or 20% of the national territory, being densely forested for the most part.
They correspond to approximately 30% of the Amazon Basin. Of this total, over 400 thousand square kilometers are located throughout the Amazon River and its main tributaries.
In wetlands, some of the most productive environments are found, with the greatest biological diversity in the world.
In Brazil, wetlands can be classified as: flood areas along the course of large rivers with different levels of water quality (varzeas and bogs); lowlands along upland streams; flood areas between large rivers (fields, floodplains, fens, carrs, poccosins) and estuarine wetlands (marshes and coastal lagoons).
|Pantanal under threat|
The proposal to revoke the Forest Code considers the Pantanal to be an area of restricted use, but makes it possible for new deforestation to take place in the region upon authorization from environmental agencies.
The Pantanal is the greatest wetland in the world, with 210 thousand square kilometers. Of this total, 70% is in Brazil (approximately 151 thousand square kilometers and 2% of the national territory), in the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul.
The biome is known nationally and internationally for the exuberance of its biodiversity, as one of the wetlands of greatest importance in the world. It is declared as a Biosphere Reserve and World Natural Heritage by the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO). It is also acknowledged in the Constitution as a National Heritage.
In spite of this, over 15% of the region has been cleared. It is subject to pollution, forest fires, construction of hydroelectric dams, contamination from pesticides and mining.
|Some economic activities, in particular those carried out by traditional populations, managed to adapt to the characteristic water cycle in the biome. Cattle in Pantanal
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