Brazilian lawmakers have approved legislation that eases restrictions on the amount of forestland that farmers must preserve, a move critics say threatens the Amazon and other environmentally sensitive lands.
The bill, approved late Wednesday night by the lower house of Congress by a vote of 274-184, revises Brazil's four-decade old Forest Code. The new rules allows farming and other activities alongside fragile river banks and on hilltops, while giving individual states the authority to determine how much land to preserve.
The changes were sought by the powerful agricultural lobby, which insisted the changes were needed to clarify what the farmers could do on their land and to ensure the emerging nation's food security - a position echoed by Paulo Piau, the bill's chief sponsor in the Chamber of Deputies.
"The new forestation code was approved and represents, first and foremost, the commitment of rural producers," said Piau. "They will have more stability and more political support. The production and the environment will only benefit from that. With a confused law there is no benefit.''
But Deputy Sarney Filho, a former environment minister, says the changes will erase decades of efforts to combat the destruction of the Amazon rainforest through deforestation.
"This represents an enormous step back," said Filho. "Brazil is the fourth country responsible for emitting gas to the greenhouse effect. But unlike other countries, we emit the gas by generating energy, not because of the industries, we do it because of the deforestation. Throughout the years we have slowed the deforestation and intensified the production. Now, we will modify all of the things that resulted in the decrease of the deforestation by changing the legislation.''
Brazil has reduced deforestation of the Amazon in recent years, as law enforcement utilized satellite imagery to track areas with the greatest amount of deforestation.
The Senate passed a similar version of the bill back in December. The measure now heads to President Dilma Rousseff, who could veto the entire package or reject parts of the bill she feels are unacceptable.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.