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Brazil Lawmakers Debate Bill to Allow More Tree Cutting in Amazon - 2001-09-04

An environmental struggle is underway in Brazil over a proposed change in the country's forestry code. The proposal would allow farmers to cut down more trees in the Amazon rainforest. Rural lawmakers are pushing for the forestry code change and are hoping to get the backing of the full Congress.

The proposed change to the forestry code would increase the amount of land that could be legally cleared of trees. Under current law farmers and ranchers must keep 50 percent of their property covered by forest. The proposal would reduce that figure to just 20 percent. Rural lawmakers say their farm constituents believe the current forestry code is too restrictive, and hampers production.

As a Congressional commission prepared to vote on the measure, a coalition of environmental groups Tuesday staged a symbolic protest in the Brazilian capital. Gathered in front of the Congress building, demonstrators dressed as farmers and carrying chain saws stood behind a large green cake, baked in the shape of the Amazon rainforest. Their action was meant to symbolize how the rainforest would be devoured if Congress approves the measure.

Organizations such as the World Wildlife Fund and Greenpeace, concerned about deforestation of the Amazon, say changing the forestry code would make matters worse. The government's Environment Minister, Jose Sarney Filho, also opposes the proposal. "We believe the Amazon, and its environmental riches, should be utilized to improve the quality of life and for future generations," he said.

The government is reported to be trying to reach a compromise on the issue. Lawmakers of the governing coalition parties say the current proposal is unacceptable, but can be negotiated.

The head of Greenpeace's Amazon office, Paulo Adario, says environmental groups are trying to mobilize public opinion against the proposed forestry code change. But he told VOA the whole debate over protecting the Amazon rainforest is now caught up in the political maneuvering surrounding next year's congressional and presidential elections.

"At the end of the day this will not be just about only forest protection, but will depend upon the forces that are fighting for influence in the next federal elections, including for president," Mr. Adario said. "The majority of the local politicians in the Amazon are in favor of reducing the protection, while the local public opinion according to studies are against. So this is a political game, and I think we are good players . . . but they are good players also. But it will be the Congress who will take the final decision, and the Congress should be, at least, sensitive to the political opinion, or mood."

The Congressional commission, which is dominated by rural lawmakers, was scheduled to vote on the proposed changes to the forestry code on Tuesday, but it agreed late in the day to postpone the vote, to allow time to study the opposition arguments.