U of A scientists play major role in overturning legislation in Brazil

(Brazil) Thousands of hectares of tropical dry forests in the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais are now safe from logging, thanks to efforts by University of Alberta Faculty of Science researchers led by Arturo Sánchez-Azofeifa.

The Superior Court of the Court of Justice of Minas Gerais (Minas Gerais Appeals Court) late last week unanimously overturned Minas Gerais State Law 19,096, 2010, which would have removed 16.1 thousand square kilometres of tropical dry forests from protection. This would have resulted in a significant loss of biodiversity and other ecosystems services such as weather regulation and water production.

The new law would have allowed up to 70 per cent clearing of these forests for economic purposes, and would have provided limited, temporary fiscal benefits for a small number of large investors.

This outcome provides a significant victory for the protection of other endangered ecosystems outside of the Amazon Basin and that have been neglected over the years. In addition, the court decision opens the door for further strategies for conservation of tropical dry forests in Brazil.

Sánchez-Azofeifa, a principal investigator with Tropi-Dry, a collaborative research network sponsored by the U of A and the Inter-American Insitute for Global Change Research, and member Mario Marcos do Espirito Santo, from the Universidad Estadual de Montes Claros in Minas Gerais, Brazil, submitted evidence that the forests re-designated under the new state law are also protected by federal law, which takes precedence.

They supplied years of ecological and social science data that clearly indicated that the Minas Gerais forests should be included in the Atlantic forest preservation area, and as such, protected by federal decree.

The conflicting state and federal decrees spurred the Center for Support of the Prosecutors of Justice for Environmental Defense to file a direct action of unconstitutionality. This action was heard by the Superior Court, who unanimously agreed that the state law was unconstitutional.

“Many years of ecological and social science research conducted by Tropi-Dry and aimed to describe the human and ecological dimensions of this endangered Minas Gerais biome clearly showed that these forests belong in the federally protected category,” Sánchez-Azofeifa said.

Marcos do Espirito Santo stressed that “Given the substantial documentation Tropi-Dry provided, the environmental defense lawyers were able to present an effective and convincing argument that federal protection should extend to these forests. Once the data had established Minas Gerais as an extension of the Atlantic forest, federal precedence could be asserted. The data were key to this success.”

Dean of Science Gregory Taylor said the news is a great example of the significant impact scientific research can have in securing the future of important ecosystems and landscapes around the globe.

“Years of work by researchers in our Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences have contributed to a significant landmark decision in South America, something we can justifiably be proud of and raises our scientific profile even higher,” said Taylor. "It also provides a great example of our commitment as a Faculty of Science to enhance our global citizenship efforts."

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