A presidential decree Friday will suspend up to an estimated $5.7 billion in fines and give landowners two more years to comply with environmental regulations meant to stop the razing of the Brazilian rain forest.
A presidential decree last year had set Friday as the deadline for landowners to be in line with the laws.
Officials said the new decree will give time to implement a program for educating farmers, ranchers and others across Brazil _ but principally in the Amazon _ on sustainable development and how to increase production without cutting down the forest.
The decree also launches an initiative designed to bring some order to Brazil's countryside by encouraging farmers to formally demarcate and "legalize" their land, chiefly by reforesting areas illegally destroyed.
The initiative will provide loans and environmental education to those who abide by the laws, Environment Minister Carlos Minc said.
"Ninety percent of farmers have been operating illegally for 44 years, since the forest laws were created," Minc said.
In order to participate, landowners will have to sign a contract with the government. If they don't, they will be required to pay the fines and comply with the Friday deadline set by last year's decree. Fines will be reinstated for those who sign up but are still not in compliance with the environmental rules after two years.
While government officials lauded the decree issued by President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, environmentalists called it a step backward in Brazil's fight to save its forests.
"We think this is a Christmas gift that Lula (Silva) has given to the farming bloc in Congress and to illegality in Brazil," said Marcio Astrini, an Amazon campaigner for Greenpeace.
He said Greenpeace, using government statistics on fines, has calculated that up to $5.7 billion in penalties could be suspended.
Government officials did not release the potential amount of the suspended fines. But this year alone, environmental agents have handed out $1.6 billion in penalties.
An official in the presidential office said the decree takes into account all of the fines incurred since forest laws were first enacted more than four decades ago. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he wasn't authorized to discuss the matter.
Astrini worried the two-year delay in enforcing certain forest laws could set a worrisome precedent. "There is no guarantee that another delay won't happen again in the future," he said.
The presidential official said last year's decree was unrealistic.
"We have a situation where some people have been operating in an illegal way for 40 years, but were expected to be in conformity with the laws within a year," he said. "In practice, that was impossible."
Under the law, landowners in central Brazil are allowed to deforest up to 80 percent of their land. But in the Amazon region, only 20 percent may be legally cleared.
Last month, Brazil announced that deforestation in the Amazon dropped nearly 46 percent from August 2008 to July 2009 _ the biggest annual decline in two decades.
Minc and other government officials say that is because of ramped-up policing efforts in the forest. But environmentalists and other critics said the global financial crisis caused demand to plummet for the products most responsible for deforestation: cattle, soy and timber.