Controversial Changes to Forest Law Pass Brazilian Senate

Deforestation in the state of Rondônia, Brazil, seen in a 2000 satellite image. Intact rainforest is red, while cleared land is pale red or brown.


Brazilian senators yesterday approved major changes to a law governing forest conservation. The version is less drastic than one passed by the other chamber of Congress in May, but it could still spell trouble for the rainforest. "There is a serious risk that this version of the forest code will stimulate an increase in deforestation," says tropical ecologist Daniel Nepstad, director of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute's International Program. The bill will head to the president early next year.

Brazil's Forest Act, enacted in 1965, spells out how much forest must be left intact on private land: 80% in the Amazon, as well as on steep hills and 30-meter-wide buffers along streams. The law went unenforced for decades while land was illegally cleared. In the 1990s, however, the government began to get tougher. And demand increased for soy, beef, and cotton grown on land that was certified as in compliance with the law.

The farm lobby campaigned for changes to the forest code, including amnesty for farmers who had cleared land illegally. In May, the Chamber of Deputies approved a bill that included amnesty, reductions to the amount of forest that must be preserved, and other changes. The implications of the Senate bill, which includes some 70 amendments, are not entirely clear yet. But it does remove a provision that would have given federal authority for approving land-management plans to local authorities, which critics said could have led to more deforestation.

In addition, Carlos Joly of the State University of Campinas/UNICAMP in Brazil notes that landowners would be required to restore deforested river banks and hillsides, a policy recommended by scientists. "I would prefer to return to the original code," he says, but the Senate version is "better than what came from the lower house."

Environmental groups are not happy with the Senate bill, which would weaken protections for streams and hillsides. It also exempts farms smaller than 400 hectares from the requirement to keep forest intact. "Unfortunately, we are about to see Brazil make the most serious step back on forest protection in decades," claimed a statement from a group of more than 30 Brazilian and international conservation organizations.

The bill now heads back to the Chamber of Deputies, which is expected to approve it without major alterations. President Dilma Rousseff has threatened to veto parts of the bill that provide amnesty, but given the changes in the Senate version, Joly expects that she will sign it.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Senate version scaled back the amnesty program.