Brazilian vetoes upset rainforest activists

Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s president, has dealt a blow to environmental groups by blocking only parts of a controversial new forestry bill that critics say will speed up the destruction of the Amazon rainforest.

The bill, which updates a law passed in 1965 dictating how much vegetation farmers must preserve on their land, has been discussed by the government for over a decade but looked set to be concluded last month when a final version was passed by Congress.

However, environmental groups have called for a full veto of the text, which was pushed by Brazil’s powerful agricultural lobby.

The Latin American country is already under intense pressure to prove its environmental credentials ahead of Rio+20, the UN conference on sustainable development, when world leaders will descend on Rio de Janeiro in June .

The presidential office said on Friday that Ms Rousseff would veto only 12 of the bill’s articles, making 32 alterations in total, adding that the full details of the vetoes would be announced on Monday.

“The legislation was not made for the environmentalists, nor for the farmers,” said Mendes Ribeiro Filho, Brazil’s agriculture minister. It’s for the person with common sense, who believes that Brazil can continue to produce but while respecting the environment.”

Farmers say the bill will provide some much-needed legal certainty in the world’s largest producer of coffee, sugar, beef and orange juice, helping to consolidate Brazil’s position as an agricultural superpower.

Congress will have 30 days to overturn the president’s veto, but many doubt that there will be enough votes to do that.

Senator Katia Abreu, president of the Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock, said she viewed Friday’s decision as an “acceptable” outcome for producers, attacking the criticism from green groups as “apocalyptic”.

“They won’t be happy until everything is green,” she said.

However, environmental groups have raised particular concerns over the question of granting amnesty to farmers who had illegally deforested land in the past. On Friday it was not clear to what extent Ms Rousseff’s vetoes would address this issue.

Marina Silva, a former environment minister who during her term was credited with cracking down on illegal clearing, said Ms Rousseff’s decision was a step backwards for Brazil. “From what was said today, everything indicates that the forests remain under threat,” she said.

Under the version of the text passed by Congress last month, if landowners replanted vegetation to comply will legal limits, they would be exonerated from potentially paying billions of dollars in fines.

“From the environmental point of view, it benefits those who cut down forest in the past; in other words it’s a prize for those who always disobeyed legal standards,” said Marcelo Buzaglo Dantas, an environmental lawyer in Florianópolis.

“Economically, it hurts those who always obeyed environmental laws and had higher costs as a result … It also sets a dangerous precedent,” he said.

By Samantha Pearson in São Paulo
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