* Eases rules on amount of forest farmers must preserve
* Farm lobby defeats Rousseff gov't, which opposed final
* Rousseff may veto the bill, could spark fight with
* Opponents of new law start drafting alternatives
(Adds government comment, details of the bill)
By Maria Carolina Marcello and Peter Murphy
BRASILIA, April 26 Brazil's Congress passed a
bill easing rules mandating the amount of forest that farmers
must preserve, delivering a long-sought victory to the country's
powerful agriculture lobby and a political defeat for President
Though the bill will require millions of hectares of already
cleared land to be replanted, environmentalists expect it will
make it too easy for farmers, responsible for much of the
deforestation of the Amazon and other swaths of environmentally
sensitive land in recent decades, to comply with regulations
that stipulate how much forest they must preserve or put back.
Rousseff still has the option of vetoing the bill, one of
the most controversial to pass Brazil's Congress in recent
years. Several government sources told Reuters they expect her
to do so because the approved text ditched a hard-bargained
compromise deal the government took months to reach.
"It's absolutely clear that it's not what the government was
expecting. The president will look with a cool head at how
she'll deal with this issue," Gilberto Carvalho, a close aide to
Rousseff, told reporters in Brasília.
The bill made it through the lower house of Congress despite
the Rousseff's overwhelming majority because the powerful
farming lobby within decided to side with agribusiness interests
instead of backing the government.
The law will leave it up to states to decide how much forest
needs to be replaced along riversides, making it possible big
farming states will make only minimal demands of growers to
favor agribusiness, a clause that infuriated environmentalists.
Rousseff had made it clear during months of debate about the
new law that she would veto any bill that could be perceived as
an amnesty for farmers who flouted minimum forest coverage
requirements in the past.
Should she choose to knock the bill down now, the farm lobby
in Congress could overrule that veto in turn with a simple
majority vote of 50 percent plus one vote. The latest law was
passed with 60 percent of lawmakers' votes in favor.
In a bid to undo changes the farming lobby pushed through,
two senators have begun drafting a bill that would cancel out
certain provisions and restore authority to the federal
government to decide the specifics of how much land would have
to be reforested on river margins.
For a FACTBOX on the details of the new law, click:
FARMING VS FOREST
The bill and its likely future impact have been watched
closely in and outside Brazil, home to the world's biggest
rainforest and a country considered a reference for how other
developing nations manage their woodlands.
In June, Brazil will host the Rio+20 summit, a meeting at
which government leaders and policymakers from around the world
will discuss global environmental policy.
Katia Abreu, head of the national agriculture confederation,
defended the new law, saying it did "not necessarily" mean
states would impose softer rules than the central government
would have done on mandatory riverside forest coverage. She said
it would also enable better made-to-measure rules to be set
according to each region's characteristics.
For environmentalists including Greenpeace and the Worldwide
Fund for Nature, the law is a clear step backward no matter how
it will be regulated since it will free farmers from replanting
forest they were obliged to maintain under the old law but often
"The approved bill gives a total and unrestricted amnesty to
those who deforested ... and goes against what the government
itself had wanted," Greenpeace said in a statement. "If
(Rousseff) doesn't react and veto this text, this future will be
A technician involved in drafting the initial bill told
Reuters one drawback of allowing states to regulate it was that
the process would probably take a year or two. That means
replanting would likely be delayed until clear rules were made.
Deforestation in Brazil has slowed in recent years because
of greater law enforcement and the use of satellite imagery to
track areas with the most troubling rates of clearcutting.
A key provision of the forest code, as it is known, would
allow landowners to count woodland on river margins, hilltops
and steep inclines towards a total proportion of forest that
must be preserved on their land. Until now, such land could not
be counted towards their quota.
Farmers argue that uncertainty over existing legislation,
which has effectively been suspended in recent years, impeded
investments. And Brazil's growing output of food crops - and
enviable position as an agricultural powerhouse - could face
setbacks if growers continue to be held back by doubts about how
they can use their land.
Brazil is the world's top producer of coffee, sugar, beef
and orange juice and a major producer of soy and corn.
Agriculture accounts for more than 5 percent of Brazil's GDP.
Environmentalists say farmers would have to reforest land
equivalent to the combined area of Germany, Austria and Italy to
fully comply with the former law. Advocates of the new bill,
however, say it would still result in a net gain of millions of
hectares of forest coverage between riversides and hilltops.
Under the terms of the new bill, growers must sign up for a
reforestation program that will use satellites to track
compliance. Producers falling foul of the new law could be cut
off from rural finance.
One government official estimated last year that 24 million
hectares (59 million acres), roughly an area the size of the
United Kingdom, would be reforested as a result of the new code.
But experts say the area to be replanted will be difficult to
gauge until more data is collected about rural properties.
(Writing by Peter Murphy; Editing by Paulo Prada and Eric