Brazil Senate OKs easing of rules to limit Amazon deforestation

Brazil\’s Senate passed a landmark reform of the country\’s land law on Tuesday, infuriating environmentalists who say it could spark a new wave of deforestation in the Amazon region.

The new so-called Forest Code relaxes requirements on the amount of forest coverage farmers must maintain on their properties, a change that producers in the agricultural powerhouse say is needed to end years of legal uncertainty.

The Senate approved the basic text of the bill late Tuesday, leaving dozens of proposed amendments to be voted on later.

The government says environmentalists\’ fears are mostly unfounded and that strict enforcement of the new rules will result in the restoration of 24 million hectares of forest, equal to the size of the United Kingdom.

Debate over the changes to the law first proposed a decade ago has pitted green campaigners who oppose what they see as an amnesty on environmental crimes against a powerful farming lobby that says Brazil needs more space to produce food as exports rise.

Brazil is the world\’s top producer of coffee, sugar, beef and orange juice and a major producer of soy and corn. Expansion of cattle and soy farming has been the biggest driver of destruction of the world\’s largest forest in recent years.

The law is now expected to be approved by the lower house of Congress and sent to President Dilma Rousseff, who is likely to sign it into law despite calls from environmental groups for her to veto the bill.

Rousseff pledged during her election campaign last year not to allow deforestation to rise. Signing the bill would put her government\’s international image at risk ahead of the major \”Rio+20\” environmental summit in Rio de Janeiro next June.

But she is able to point to several elements of the new law the government says ensure there will be no amnesty on illegal deforestation and no surge in destruction.

Under the new code, thousands of the country\’s farmers who had removed forest coverage on their property beyond the limits of the previous legislation must sign up to a 20-year plan to replace the missing coverage.

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