Brazil's lower house passed legislation Tuesday night that would loosen restrictions on how small farmers use their land in the Amazon forest, but lawmakers dropped a change that most worried environmentalists.
Environmentalists still fear the revision bill would bring increased deforestation. Operaters of small-scale farms and ranches defend the measure as a way to let them produce to full capacity and boost Brazil's food output.
The measure, which had been debated off and on in the House of Deputies for nearly two years, easily passed 410-63, but is expected to face a tougher fight when it goes before the Senate.
The bill would let farmers and ranchers with small holdings work land closer to river banks and to use hilltops.
It also provides for an amnesty from harsh fines on farms and ranches of any size that cleared more tree cover than legally allowed, but only for cutting before July 2008. President Dilma Rousseff has promised to veto that provision.
While they would be freed from penalties already levied, bigger landholders would still have to replant land that they cleared beyond legal limits or buy and preserve the same amount of forested land elsewhere to make up for what they cut. In the Amazon, 80 percent of property is supposed to remain untouched forest. Elsewhere in Brazil, it ranges from 35 percent to 20 percent, depending on the area.
Smaller farmers _ those with less than 990 acres (400 hectares) of land _ would not have to replant forest land cleared before July 2008, but would still have to plant trees in areas illegally felled since then.
Legislative leaders dropped a provision that environmentalists feared most which would have removed all limits on preserving trees for small farmers and ranchers.
Environmentalists warn that the changes that remain in the legislation would lead to flooding, silty rivers and erosion and say the full package will inflict severe damage on the rain forest, an area the size of the U.S. west of the Mississippi River that absorbs the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.
About 20 percent of the Brazilian rain forest already has been destroyed, and 75 percent of Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to come from forest clearing as vegetation burns and felled trees rot.
Farmers, though, feel betrayed by the tough environmental rules imposed in the late 1990s. Two decades earlier, Brazil's military dictatorship, seeking to speed development, had encouraged them to enter the Amazon, offering them free land if they would clear up to 50 percent of their land of trees.
Environmentalists and farmers alike say Brazil's government is unable to adequately patrol the vast and inhospitable Amazon region to enforce the laws in any consistent manner.
Congressman Aldo Rebelo, who introduced the measure, said the current law makes it impossible for farmers to make a living and said that almost no one now complies with it.
"The environmental ministers are only looking at the environmental side, not mentioning any concern about that fact that almost 100 percent of farmers are illegal," he said. "Our concern is with the environment, but also with the situation of the farmers in our country."
Brazil's agricultural industry says the environmental laws keep the nation from meeting its economic potential. The country is the world's No. 2 producer of agricultural products while using just a third of its arable land and farmers say they could easily surpass the U.S. if they were not shackled by the laws.
Backers say the amnesty for tree-cutting fines is justified because many farmers cleared land well before the tighter limits were imposed, but environmentalists said it sets a bad precedent.
"The proposed amnesty upholds a long tradition in Brazil of legalizing the illegal. People believe they can deforest illegally because sooner or later all will be forgiven," said Philip Fearnside of the government's National Institute for Amazon Research.
Satellite images from Brazil's National Institute for Space Research indicated deforestation in the Amazon last year dropped to its slowest pace in 22 years.
Between August 2009 and July 2010, 2,490 square miles (6,450 square kilometers) of forest were lost, a 14 percent drop from the year before, and the least since 1988 when the agency began recording the destruction. It is down from a peak in 2004 when 10,723 square miles (27,772 square kilometers) were felled.
Last week, however, the government announced that 230 square miles (590 square kilometers) of deforestation were recorded in March and April, nearly six times more than in the same period last year.
Associated Press writers Marco Sibaja in Brasilia and Stan Lehman in Sao Paulo contributed to this report.