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ANALYSIS-Proposed law seen as new threat to Brazil´s Amazon

United Kingdom
Stuart Grudgings

RIO DE JANEIRO, July 26 (Reuters) - A proposed overhaul of Brazilian forest policy being considered in Congress is raising concern that the world's largest forest could be left more vulnerable than in decades to razing by farmers despite recent progress in protecting it.

Destruction of the forest, which is a vital global climate regulator due to the vast amount of carbon it stores as well as a caldron of biodiversity, is driven mainly by farmers who clear Amazon land for crops and livestock.

Supported by the powerful farming lobby, the proposed changes to Brazil's 1965 Forest Code would take away important powers to set forest protection policy from the federal government and give them to states. Environmentalists say this would spark a race to laxer standards.

The measure also would give amnesty to people fined for violating the current forest code up to 2008 and sharply cut the amount of land that owners would have to save as forest.

The legislation could cause problems for President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva or his successor to be chosen in October's presidential election in which Lula cannot run.

A special committee in Congress passed the measure this month. It is expected to be voted on by the full Congress this year, likely after the elections.

"It will be a huge embarrassment for whoever gets into office," said Fabio Scarano, the executive director of the Conservation International Brazil environmental group.

"Environmentally it's a disaster from what science tells us, and from the agricultural point of view it's also a disaster. The water they use for irrigation is the water that is protected by these very reserves. All sides lose," Scarano added.

Supporters of the bill say it would make Brazil's agriculture sector more competitive by giving farmers more access to productive land. They point to language in the bill that would require a five-year moratorium on new deforestation as evidence that the measure, if made law, would not herald a new wave of Amazon destruction.

Farmers say that stricter protection rules over the years have left many of them outside the law, even though they themselves may not have been responsible for clearing the forest land now used for farming.

"The law allows states to legalize their lands. In areas that are producing and were deforested, states can allow them to continue producing," said Assuero Doca Veronez, head of the environment commission at Brazil's Confederation of Agriculture and Cattle. "The law in no way weakens environmental protection in the sense of allowing new deforestation."


Under the bill, farmers in Amazon states would need to keep only 20 percent of their land as forest, down from 80 percent now.

"The proposed forest code is very dangerous because it creates the expectation you're always going to have these amnesties so people can get away with breaking the law," said Philip Fearnside, an ecologist at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon, a private research institute.

The fierce debate between environmentalists and farming interests in Latin America's largest country comes as destruction of the Amazon has been on a sustained decline.

The reduction in forest destruction has allowed the government to argue it is on track to meet a target, which Lula touted at the global climate summit in Copenhagen last year, of reducing by 2020 its annual rate of Amazon deforestation by 80 percent from high 1996-2005 levels.

Preliminary satellite data released last week showed that deforestation of the Amazon fell 47 percent between August 2009 and May this year compared to the same period a year earlier. That follows a confirmed 42 percent fall in the 2008-09 period to 2,900 square miles (7,464 square km).

Supporters of the legislation say the forest does not need any more protection than is already provided. But a spike in commodity prices as the world economy rebounds could stoke more deforestation as farmers clear more land, Fearnside said.

El contenido de las noticias que se presentan en esta sección es responsabilidad directa de las agencias emisoras de noticias y no necesariamente reflejan la posición del Gobierno de México en este u otros temas relacionados.


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