RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — The Brazilian Senate voted 59-7 Tuesday to approve new environmental legislation that would loosen restrictions on deforestation in the Amazon and give amnesty to those who illegally cleared land before July 2008.
At least 70 amendments were tacked onto the bill and must still be voted on. But sponsors of the legislation swore to knock down anything that changes the text's main points, and they have the support to make good on the threat.
The bill now goes back to the lower house, which already passed one version of the measure.
President Dilma Rousseff must also sign any legislation approved by the Congress. She pledged during her campaign for the presidency last year to veto any portion of an environmental bill that provides amnesty for those who illegally cleared land in the past. She now faces a tough political battle dealing with a strong agriculture lobby.
Brazil is the world's second-largest agricultural producer behind the U.S., and farmers say Brazil could easily be first if it weren't for the legal hurdles imposed by environmental legislation.
"This is the first time we're ending the monopoly, that we're ending the environmental dictatorship, where half a dozen (non-governmental organizations) controlled the Environmental Ministry," said Sen. Katia Abreu, who is also president of Brazil's National Agriculture and Livestock Federation.
But Marcio Astrini, a spokesman for Greenpeace's Amazon campaign, said the measure would "reduce the area required for conservation, and actually allow new deforestation."
"It's based on the concept that the forest gets in the way, on the argument that developed countries cut their forests, so we need to do the same. That thinking is centuries old now," he said.
The Senate vote comes a day after Brazil's government reported its lowest recorded annual level of Amazon deforestation. From August 2010 through July 2011, about 2,410 square miles (6,240 square kilometers) were destroyed, according to the National Institute for Space Research.
The government credited stepped-up enforcement against illegal cutting for the success. But some environmentalists warn it was likely due less to the government's crackdown and more to the global economic downturn, as demand lessened for products linked to deforestation, such as soy, timber and beef.
Environmentalists and agricultural interests have both pushed for a refurbishing of Brazil's current environmental law, initially passed in 1965 and toughened in the 1990s.
The law requires landowners to keep a certain percentage of their land forested, an amount that varies between 20 percent in some areas to 80 percent for states within the Amazon.
Farmers have long argued the current law's gradual tightening pushed them out of compliance and hobbled production. Staying on top of the law proved expensive, farmers say, and the government has offered no incentives to comply.
Environmental advocates agreed with the need for a new, updated law, but say the code as approved by the Senate sends a message that deforestation will be forgiven, and encourages further flouting of the law by illegal loggers and land grabbers. They argue the bill as it stands would lead to cutting down virgin forests, erosion of hillsides and riverbeds, and extensive, irreversible environmental damage to the rain forest, an area the size of the U.S. west of the Mississippi River that absorbs the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
About 20 percent of the Brazilian rain forest already has been cut down. Burning and rotting trees account for 75 percent of Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions.
The base text approved by the Senate would reduce the preservation requirement to 50 percent in states where 65 percent of the land is already included in indigenous reservations or conservation units. Just one state, Amapa, falls under that category. Two others, Amazonia and Roraima, are close to reaching it.
The new law would also allow agriculture and cattle grazing closer to environmentally fragile areas: riversides, the tops and flanks of hills, and the land around springs. Currently, hillsides can't be cleared to prevent erosion, and a minimum of 98 feet (30 meters) must be kept forested around rivers.
The new code allows logging on slopes of up to 45 degrees, and reduces the preservation area around rivers by half.
It also redefines riverbeds as areas covered by water most of the year, instead of during peak flow times, shrinking the amount of protected area around them. In vast, flat forests like the Amazon, the water level of a river can rise 32 feet (10 meters) during the wet season. Each year, flooding covers 154,441 square miles (400,000 square kilometers) in the Amazon, said Maria Tereza Piedade, head of the ecology, monitoring and sustainable use group within the National Institute for Amazon Research.
This new definition would open vast untouched tracts of forest to deforestation, she said.
All who have a stake in the regulation of land use in Brazil wanted new legislation that would include incentives and subsidies for those who keep forests intact.
The pending bill would do some of that by suspending fines issued for land cleared illegally before July 2008, allowing infractors to replant more cheaply, using vegetation that is only half native and employing tax breaks.
Small farmers — those with less than 990 acres (400 hectares) of land — wouldn't need to replant anything cleared before 2008.
Ranchers and farmers had demanded that Brazil make it easier and less costly for those who'd infringed the law to pay back their debt, said Laura Antoniazzi, a researcher at Rede Agro, an agriculture research center.
In a push through the 1970s for quick development, Brazil's military dictatorship offered free land to anyone willing to clear at least half of it for agriculture.
Deforestation laws were seldom enforced in the decades that followed, creating a long history of tolerance for illegality, said Antoniazzi. Farmers and ranchers felt betrayed when the government started demanding to see preserved areas before granting agricultural credit in the 1990s, she said.
About 309,000 square miles (800,300 square kilometers) of land, an area larger than Italy, are being used for farming or grazing that are supposed to be covered by trees, Antoniazzi said.
As for the suspension of fines for those who cut down the forest, she said, "We don't see this as an amnesty." She emphasized the government has failed to enforce legislation in the past, allowing land to be cleared with impunity.
"This history of noncompliance is due to the actions of land owners, but also to the negligence of government," she said.