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Amnesty for Amazon Deforestation Remains After Rousseff Veto

Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff vetoed sections of a forestry bill under pressure from environmentalists who say it forgives farmers for clearing land illegally and could fuel more destruction in the Amazon.

The lower house of Brazil’s Congress on April 25 approved the legislation in a 274-184 vote, a margin that would be too small to overturn Rousseff’s veto.

While the line-item veto excised 12 provisions that environmentalists criticized, the remaining amnesty for illegal loggers represents a victory for the agricultural industry and damages Rousseff’s green credentials as the country prepares to host the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development, said Laura Antoniazzi, an agronomist at the Sao Paulo-based Institute for International Trade Negotiations.

“The summit may be an embarrassing moment for her,” Antoniazzi said in a phone interview, adding that Rousseff “wouldn’t have been able to get the bill passed without the amnesty” because of pressure from agricultural interests.

Brazil is the world’s second most forested country after Russia, with 521.7 million hectares (1.3 billion acres) of woodland covering 61 percent of its total area, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s website.

Size of Germany

While an area the size of Germany was cleared in the Amazon between 1990 and 2010, Brazil has been making progress slowing destruction of the world’s largest rainforest. The rate of deforestation last year fell to an estimated 623,800 hectares compared with 2.8 million hectares in 2004, according to the state-run National Institute for Space Research.

Even after Rousseff’s veto, small farmers will still be forgiven for cutting their share of a total 159.3 million hectares of environmentally sensitive areas that under the law should have been left untouched.

More than half the 100 million hectares of forest bordering rivers that’s protected under the previous code has to date been cleared, Antoniazzi said.

From June 20-22, Brazil will host the Rio+20 conference commemorating the landmark 1992 UN environmental summit also held in Rio de Janeiro. More than 100 heads of state including Russia’s Vladimir Putin and France’s Francois Hollande have confirmed they’ll attend, though U.S. President Barack Obama and Germany Angela Merkel are expected to skip it.

Greater Urgency

Brazil’s Congress has been laboring on revisions to the Forestry Code, originally passed in 1965, for 11 years. The task gained greater urgency in July 2008, when then-President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva issued a decree imposing fines on farmers who had illegally cleared land. Implementation of the decree was repeatedly postponed while Congress revamped the code.

Last May, at the urging of the so-called ruralista bloc representing states where agro-industry is paramount, the lower house passed a bill that granted amnesty for illegal deforestation before July 2008. The Senate in December toughened the bill’s environmental protections, requiring farmers to replant next to rivers or face fines. Despite the large majority held by Rousseff’s Workers’ Party and its allies, the lower house last month watered down those protections.

Rousseff’s veto and accompanying decree restores parts of the Senate version, including a requirement for farmers to replant forest next to rivers more than 10 meters wide.

The new code reduces the amount of land farmers in the Amazon must keep pristine by allowing them to count land they own elsewhere to meet requirements for obligatory forest cover.

Welcome Relief

The legislation is a welcome relief for many farmers who cut forests on land that only later became protected as regulators ratcheted up environmental protections, Senator Katia Abreu, who also heads the National Confederation of Agriculture, said in a telephone interview before Rousseff’s veto.

About 90 percent of producers have in some way breached rules set by environmental regulators, often unintentionally, which restricts their access to loans from state-run banks, she said.

“We’re very happy with this code,” she said.

Despite the veto, green activists argue that the new forest code weakens Brazil’s environmental credentials.

Reflecting popular anger the legislation has generated, actress Camila Pitanga broke protocol at an event she was emceeing this month and called on Rousseff, who was in attendance, to veto the bill. A video of her comments quickly spread on the Internet.

“This is the first time since 1934,” when Brazil passed its first legislative measure to protect forests, “that we have taken a step back,” said Tatiana de Carvalho, an Amazon campaigner at Sao Paulo-based Greenpeace Brazil.

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