BRASILIA, Brazil (AP) — Brazil's lower house of Congress on Wednesday approved a bill that weakens the nation's benchmark environmental law protecting the Amazon and other areas, a move that some fear will lead to a spike in deforestation.
The agriculture lobby waged a 10-year battle in Brazil's Congress to make changes to the law, known as the Forest Code. The measure now goes to President Dilma Rousseff, who is expected to sign it but may use her line-item veto power to strike out portions of the bill.
Deputies approved the main text of the measure in a 247-184 vote. Two lawmakers abstained. The Senate in December passed a version of the bill and the House itself had passed a version earlier last year. Some amendments to the bill were still being debated late Wednesday, but the core text passed.
The bill allows smaller farmers and ranchers to work land closer to riverbanks and on hilltops, which environmental activists say will lead to increased deforestation.
"This vote is a big setback," said environmental lawyer Raul do Valle with the watchdog group Instituto Socioambiental. "What Brazil built for decades, legislation that protected its forests, is being nullified."
Those who support the bill, however, said it is giving long-needed help to Brazilian farmers forced off the land by the strong environmental restrictions on how they can work.
"We intended to create a text that would not expel a single producer nor a single worker from the Brazilian countryside," said Deputy Paulo Piau, who introduced the version of bill passed by the lower House.
Backers of the bill also say recent drops in deforestation indicate pragmatic changes to the law can be made without leading to new destruction, by more effectively enforcing environmental protections that until somewhat recently were virtually ignored by Brazil's government.
About 20 percent of Brazil's Amazon rainforest has been destroyed already. But beginning in 2008, the government stepped up enforcement, using satellite images to track the destruction and sending environmental police into areas where deforestation was happening at its quickest pace.
Amazon deforestation slowed and hit its lowest recorded level from August 2010 through July 2011, when just 2,410 square miles (6,240 square kilometers) were felled.