Brazil's President Signs New Controversial Forestry Law

Brazil’s president has signed one of the most controversial laws in its history, an overhaul of its historic Forest Code.

That code has been responsible for greatly reducing deforestation of the Amazon, but the agribusiness lobby – which holds 25% of the seats in Congress – significantly weakened it earlier this year. 

In May, President Rouseff vetoed key provisions of the weaker bill passed by Congress, but they immediately rolled back her changes, leading to renewed controversy over the final bill.

For the final version, President Rousseff vetoed nine amendments to recover elements in the original Forest Code that were lost as it wound through the House and Senate, and thus "maintain the balance between social and environmental" needs, says Environmental Minister Izabella Teixeira.

She vetoed parts of the legislation that could incentivize more deforestation or give amnesty to illegal loggers.

Both environmental groups and agricultural interests agreed the 1964 Forest Code desperately needed an update. It was toughened in the 1990s, but enforcement has been lax to say the least. And uncertainty of land use rules has been impeding the growth of agricultural industries there.

The final legislation keeps some of the most important regulations of the original law: farmers, ranchers, timber companies and others must maintain forest cover on 80% of their land in the Amazon, 35% in the central savanna region and 20% in other parts of the country.

However, the new version allows property owners to include river buffers and steep hillsides when they calculate their total land area. Since the law already requires sensitive land to be protected to preserve watersheds and prevent erosion, the new version effectively reduces the amount of land that has to be set aside.

It also gives those who illegally cleared land a way out. They can sign an agreement that specifies how they will restore the forest to bring their property into compliance. The land cleared illegally is huge – about the size of Italy at 74 million acres.

"The presidential veto slightly improves the text approved by Congress, which was awful, but the new code is not tough enough for recovery of deforested areas and it reduces forest protection," says Paulo Adario of Greenpeace, one of the groups that’s locked horns with the agriculture lobby for years.

Brazil is a major producer of soy, corn, coffee, oranges, cotton and beef and its sugarcane industry is a major producer of ethanol. As these industries have been expanding, they have illegally moved into the Amazon.

In 2011, deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon fell to its lowest level (still high at 2400 square miles) since monitoring began 23 years ago, dropping 11% for the year and 25% from 2004, when expanding cattle and soy operations reached their peak. The weaker Forest Code would have destroyed this progress.

The Forest Code isn’t all that’s at stake in preserving the Amazon. The government is spending $93 billion to build 20 hydro plants by damming rivers in the Amazon – a plan that will flood 2,462 square miles of rainforest and evict thousands of indigenous people from their ancestral lands.

Construction on one of those dams, the Belo Monte, continues to be halted by blockades of indigenous people. They weren’t even consulted by the government before approving the project. This summer, a judge ordered construction to be stopped but that was quickly overturned by another judge, who was influenced by high level officials.

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