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Brazil's Congress approves changes to enviro law

BRASILIA, Brazil — Brazil's lower house of Congress on Wednesday approved a bill that weakens the nation's benchmark environmental law protecting the Amazon and other areas, a move that some fear will lead to a spike in deforestation.

The agriculture lobby waged a 10-year battle in Brazil's Congress to make changes to the law, known as the Forest Code. The measure now goes to President Dilma Rousseff, who is expected to sign it but may use her line-item veto power to strike out portions of the bill.

Deputies approved the main text of the measure in a 247-184 vote. Two lawmakers abstained. The Senate in December passed a version of the bill and the House itself had passed a version earlier last year. Some amendments to the bill were still being debated late Wednesday, but the core text passed.

The bill allows smaller farmers and ranchers to work land closer to riverbanks and on hilltops, which environmental activists say will lead to increased deforestation.

"This vote is a big setback," said environmental lawyer Raul do Valle with the watchdog group Instituto Socioambiental. "What Brazil built for decades, legislation that protected its forests, is being nullified."

Those who support the bill, however, said it is giving long-needed help to Brazilian farmers forced off the land by the strong environmental restrictions on how they can work.

"We intended to create a text that would not expel a single producer nor a single worker from the Brazilian countryside," said Deputy Paulo Piau, who introduced the version of bill passed by the lower House.

Backers of the bill also say recent drops in deforestation indicate pragmatic changes to the law can be made without leading to new destruction, by more effectively enforcing environmental protections that until somewhat recently were virtually ignored by Brazil's government.

About 20 percent of Brazil's Amazon rainforest has been destroyed already. But beginning in 2008, the government stepped up enforcement, using satellite images to track the destruction and sending environmental police into areas where deforestation was happening at its quickest pace.

Amazon deforestation slowed and hit its lowest recorded level from August 2010 through July 2011, when just 2,410 square miles (6,240 square kilometers) were felled.

Opponents of the bill argue that while government enforcement did help slow deforestation, temporary economic factors also played a role — that demand for the cattle, soy, timber and iron ore produced in the Amazon fell in the United States and Europe as the global financial crisis took hold. It's feared the appetite for those goods will increase and lead to a resumption in destruction once the world economy recovers.

The most contentious part of the new bill is that it scraps most protections for riverbanks that were in the Senate's version, including maintaining strips of forest 30 yards (meters) to 100 yards (meters) deep along waterways. The House version, which overrides that of the Senate, mandates only that small rivers maintain 15 yards (meters) of forest along their banks.

The legislation gives individual states the power to determine how much area along larger rivers must be preserved as standing forest. Environmentalists say that would be disastrous since many states in the Amazon are dominated by big agriculture and would likely allow farmers and ranchers to work land right up to a river's edge.

Riverbanks are sensitive to erosion if deforested, leading to degraded land, silty waters and harmed wildlife.

The overhaul also provides an amnesty from harsh fines on farms and ranches of any size that cleared more tree cover than legally allowed, but only for cutting before July 2008. These fines can reach more than $1 million for a single, moderate size ranch of 2,000 acres (800 hectares).

While they would be freed from penalties already levied, bigger landholders would still have to replant most of the land they cleared beyond legal limits or buy and preserve the same amount of forested land elsewhere to make up for what they cut.

Brazil's agriculture lobby insists the new bill would help ease what they call an unfair burden placed on farmers and ranchers who were once pushed by the government itself to clear the rainforest. Beginning in the 1960s, land was given away as long as 50 percent of a plot was cleared. Other incentives didn't end until the 1990s.