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Brazil Senate OKs easing of rules to limit Amazon deforestation

Beawiharta Beawiharta / Reuter / Reuters file

A view of deforestation on Indonesia's Sumatra island, August 5, 2010. Indonesia and Australia launched a A$30 million project to fight deforestation in Sumatra as part of efforts to cut greenhouse gas emissions and boost a planned forest-carbon trading scheme on March this year. Indonesia, like Brazil, is on the front line of efforts to curb deforestation that is a major contributor to mankind's greenhouse gas emissions that scientists blame for heating up the planet. REUTERS/Beawiharta (INDONESIA - Tags: ENERGY SOCIETY BUSINESS)

Morsaniel Iramari/AFP - Getty Images

A Hutukara Yanomami Association photo shows a deforested area near the settlement of an uncontacted Yanomami tribe, inside the Yanomami territory in Roraima, northern Brazil.

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.

Here are the key features of the new forest code:

Reduction in forest coverage requirements
Brazil has required rural landowners to maintain a minimum amount of forest coverage on their properties for decades, ranging from 20 percent in the southeast to 35 percent for inland savannah areas to 80 percent in the Amazon.

Those percentages are unchanged but growers can now count mandatory coverage of river margins and steep hillsides toward this acreage, reducing the total amount owners with such land will have to preserve.

In a limited number of cases where it is shown to be in the public interest, forest coverage on hillsides can be replaced with other types of vegetation.

Exemption for smaller farms
Properties of between 20 and 400 hectares, depending on the region, will be exempt from any requirement to replace missing forest coverage but are prohibited from any further deforestation. The government says properties in this category make up less than a quarter of total farm land.

A further exemption from the minimum reserve requirements will be made for those who bought an area of land when the law required a smaller area of compulsory coverage. They will have to maintain only the coverage that was required at the time.

Fines suspended, two decades to replace missing trees
Growers who have removed forest beyond the legal minimum, or who were caught out by past changes to these limits must sign up to government programs for the gradual restoration of missing trees over two decades. Fines landowners would face over missing coverage are suspended until this is done, and scrapped once these obligations are fully met.

Rent or replace
Producers will from now on also have the option of renting or buying a nearby patch of forested land should they not wish to replace forest cover on their own property.