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Updated: Brazilian president vetoes parts — but not all — of controverial forestry bill

Updated on 29 March: Confusion continues four days after Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff announced her partial veto of a controversial forest code bill. Some lawmakers are now pushing for a congressional override, which would require a simple majority vote by both chambers and could target the 12 sections vetoed by the president individually (note: an earlier version of this post said 2/3 majority was required, but this is apparently in the case of an outright veto of the entire bill). The Congress must also approve (or else reject) an executive order proposing several changes to the legislation, including more-detailed language about conservation requirements along streams and rivers.

Accounts about how all of this will unfold vary, evidence of the fact that the legislative process has now entered rarely-charted territory. In some scenarios, it would appear that lawmakers could even propose new language in place of the vetoed language, but that too must get past Rousseff’s veto. At the same time, some lawmakers are challenging Rousseff’s authority to issue the executive order, and many are already predicting that the details will be settled in court. Further analysis to come.

Seeking the ever-elusive middle ground, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff carefully wielded her veto to eliminate the most controversial provisions of a landmark forestry bill on Friday. But she stopped short of the outright veto sought by many in the environmental and scientific communities at home and abroad.

Rousseff made nearly three dozen modifications before signing the bill into law. In many cases, those changes were intended to remove provisions approved earlier this month by the lower house of the Brazilian Congress, including one that would have granted blanket amnesty for any deforestation that took place before July 2008. In doing so, she sought to essentially restore the bill to an earlier version passed in December by the Senate. That bill also drew the ire of environmentalists, however, who paraded effigies (pictured) of Dilma (centre), and Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira (right), through the streets of Brasilia in protests earlier this spring.

The consequences may not be clear for years to come, but the new Forest Code runs counter to — and is in many respects a result of — several years of truly remarkable progress in slowing deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. The clearance rate hit a historic low last year, plummeting 78% below the recent spike in 2004 and 68% below Brazil’s long-term baseline. Rousseff has vowed to maintain the country’s pledge to cut deforestation by 80% by 2020, and so far, despite heavy criticism in other areas, she has been true to her word. The latest analysis by the non-profit research institute Imazon, based in Belem, Brazil, suggests that overall deforestation may be dropping again this year. But rural resentment is on the rise, and even with Rousseff’s veto, the new law is certain to scale back existing forestry rules.

Early responses to Rousseff’s decision were mixed. The Union of Concerned Scientists credited Rousseff with fending off the worst provisions and said Brazil can still build on its past progress. The WWF said Rousseff’s decision sends a “murky message” and will make it difficult for Rousseff to stand tall on sustainable development at next month’s Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. No word yet from the Brazilian Agriculture and Livestock Confederation, which has been a primary force driving the legislation.

The final language is expected to be released Monday along with an executive order, so details are scant. But even the earlier Senate version exempted smaller landholders in the Amazon (up to 400 hectares, which would be large almost anywhere else) from a requirement to maintain forest on 80% of their land; that version also granted smaller landholders limited amnesty. As discussed in our prior coverage, an analysis by researchers at the University of Sao Paulo found that an earlier version of the bill would legalize the clearing of an area nearly the size of the United Kingdom.

Environmentalists are bracing for additional deforestation as landowners take advantage of the new rules. Or worse, they fear that landholders will begin clearing land with impunity in the belief that the government simply doesn’t have the stomach to take on rural agricultural interests and enforce the law. Going forward, that includes both illegal deforestation and a requirement that many landowners regrow the forests that were cut down in the past, which could have a sizeable impact on overall forest extent (discussed in more detail here). As such, much will depend on the signals that the government sends regarding enforcement in the weeks and months ahead. Stay tuned.

Photo credit: WWF-Brasil

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    Chris Bort said:

    May God, and our grand children forgive us for destroying our planets lungs

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