Brazilian lawmakers revise code that protects the Amazon

Controversial changes allow for farmers to clear more land and offer amnesty to those convicted of deforestation

In a controversial vote, the Brazilian Senate late Tuesday approved a bill that opens the door for automatic pardons to small land-owners who have been convicted of crimes related to clearing out the Amazon forest.

The changes to the country's Forestry Code will also offer flexibility in the way the Amazon jungle is preserved, which many opponents claim will give farmers carte blanche to clear areas of one of the world's pristine ecological zones.

The 58-to-eight vote came one day after Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) announced on Monday an historic reduction in Amazon deforestation. About 347,000 square kilometers of Amazonian rainforest were cleared between 1990 and 2010. But from August 2010 until July this year, only 6,238 square kilometers were cleared - 11 percent from the same period one year before and the lowest figure since the government started monitoring the region in 1988.

The Senate's surprise vote on Tuesday had been delayed for days after scientists, environmentalists and artists launched an international campaign against the changes to the code.

There was only one issue about which both supporters and opponents agreed: the 1965 code, which had never been changed, badly needed revisions to clear up vast legal loopholes.

Lawmakers were pushed by agriculture industry officials who want more accessible farming land. Environmentalists, however, argued that the land that has already been cleared over the past years was enough space to cultivate Brazil's food needs for years to come.

The changes go back to the lower Chamber of Deputies where the first version was approved.

The proposed revisions made by the deputies in the first round include limiting tracts of land known as government protected Areas of Permanent Preservation so as to free up plots if they are deemed viable for "social interest" projects or if their use has a low environmental impact.

If the bill survives a second vote in the lower chamber, it will go to Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff for signing. Rousseff has said on various occasions that she is against any changes to the Forestry Code that pave the way for more land in the Amazon to be cleared.

A deforested area in the Amazon.
A deforested area in the Amazon.R.ROGERS (CORDON PRESS)
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