* President vetoes watered-down reforestation rules
* Forest code meant to give certainty for investment
* Environmentalists see it as too lenient on deforestation
By Anthony Boadle
BRASILIA, Oct 18 Brazil enacted a controversial
law on Thursday meant to protect forests and force farmers to
replant trees on scattered swathes of illegally cleared land
totaling an area roughly the size of Italy.
The law, signed by President Dilma Rousseff, overhauls the
"forest code," a set of laws unchanged for decades that dictates
the minimum percentage and type of woodland that farmers, timber
companies and others must leave intact on their properties.
The new code, following years of tense negotiations with
Brazil's powerful farm lobby, is considered necessary to help
establish clearer rules for the ranchers, soy growers and other
producers who pushed into the Amazon rainforest and other
sensitive climes in recent decades, enabling Brazil to become
one of the world's biggest exporters of food.
The farm lobby, with influential legislators from parties
across the political spectrum, pushed for a new law to end
uncertainty over rules for land use. Doubts about existing law,
they argued, have held back investment in a sector that is
crucial to the world's sixth-biggest economy.
But the lobby, which fought to keep the law lenient, now
says it could challenge the final version in court after
Rousseff late Wednesday vetoed a handful of congressional
Environmentalists have opposed the bill because it reduces
the total forest area many farmers are required to keep intact.
Many critics also believe the law does too little to punish
those who have conducted illegal clearing in the past.
The new law carries over from previous legislation a
requirement to maintain forest cover on 80 percent of rural
properties in the Amazon, 3 5 percent in the central savanna
region and 20 percent in other areas of the country.
The key change is that farmers can now include river margins
and steep hillsides when accounting for the total area of
woodlands they are preserving.
But such land, crucial to preserve watersheds and prevent
erosion of woodland, was already mandatory, so the new law
effectively reduces the total amount of land growers have to
preserve compared with the old statute.
Farmers who have cleared land in excess of the new limits
will have to replant them. Brazil's environment ministry said
that could result in the reforestation of a total land area of
about 30 million hectares (74 million acres), about the size of
It remains unclear, however, whether the government will be
able to successfully enforce the reforestation requirement or
any of the other new provisions.
Back in April, Congress passed a weaker version of the
requirements, leading Rousseff to veto key provisions. Congress
then rolled back her changes, leading to months of wrangling
over a final version.
On Wednesday, just as a deadline to pass the law was
approaching, Rousseff vetoed nine clauses reintroduced by the
farm lobby, including one that would have allowed planting of
fruit trees in place of native forest.
"There should be no amnesty or encouragement of illegal
deforestation," Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira said on
But Homero Pereira, leader of the agricultural caucus in the
lower chamber of Congress, accused Rousseff of ignoring the will
"We only expected surgical vetoes," he said, not wholesale
changes. He said the farm lobby would go to court to challenge
the new law as unconstitutional.
Brazil is a global commodity powerhouse and a major
producer of soy, corn, sugar, coffee, oranges, cotton and beef.
Illegal land clearance has enabled cattle ranchers and producers
of soy, the top export crop, to expand into the Amazon basin.
The rate of deforestation has slowed in recent years because
of tougher law enforcement and the use of satellite imagery to
track areas with the most troubling rates of clearcutting.
But environmentalists fear that trend could reverse as
Rousseff dismantles longstanding environmental policies in a
push to further develop the economy, which began to slow last
year after nearly a decade of steady growth.
The new forest code was published on Thursday along with a
decree that will require landowners to take part in a rural
environmental registry. The registry is a venue through which
landowners, in order to remain eligible for state credit and
other forms of government support, must report on their
compliance with the code.
(Additional reporting by Jeferson Ribeiro; Editing by Paulo
Prada and Eric Walsh)