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Brazil leader uses veto power to make environment law tougher

RIO DE JANEIRO -- Brazil's president used her veto power to slash through the new Forest Code, making the environmental law a little tougher on large agricultural interests by strengthening reforestation requirements along river banks, a decree published by the government said Thursday.

President Dilma Rousseff's goal was to recover some of the elements that were in the original legislation but were lost as it made its way through the House and Senate, and thus “maintain the balance between social and environmental” needs in the countryside, Environmental Minister Izabella Teixeira said.

One of the most debated items altered by the president restored different rules for reforestation along river banks according to farm size.

With Rousseff's veto, medium-size properties will have to keep wooded areas 20 meters (yards) deep along rivers, and the owners of the largest properties will have to preserve a 30-meter buffer of trees. The congressional text had required medium property owners to maintain 15 meters of vegetation next to bodies of water and larger properties 20 meters. The smallest properties have to maintain at least 5 meters of protected area around rivers.

The size category of each property is determined both by its dimensions and by a complex calculation that includes local conditions and the type of commercial activity pursued there.

Teixeira said this scaled solution is fair because it takes into consideration the size of a property as well as the ability of an owner to maintain or restore vegetation.

“We do not believe the government should cut back environmental protection requirements for large and medium landowners,” she told reporters Wednesday. “There is a balance, and we found that balance.”

The decree published in the government's official daily gazette also instituted a Rural Environmental Registry, an electronic database that will consolidate information from all states and facilitate enforcement of environmental legislation. The decree also bans the use of commercial fruit trees for reforestation within a farm's mandatory protected areas.

Environmental activists and Brazil's agricultural interests both agreed the country was in dire need of a new environmental law. The one being replaced by the new Forest Law was initially passed in 1965 and toughened in the 1990s, but had been long hobbled by lax and in some cases nonexistent enforcement.

It required landowners to keep a portion of their land forested, an amount that varied from 20 percent in some states to 80 percent for states in the Amazon — percentages that have not changed in the new law. Following the law was expensive, and the government offered no incentives for compliance. Since enforcement was poor, many farmers broke the law for years.

The new law seeks to wipe the slate clean, giving those who illegally cleared land an out: They can sign an agreement specifying specific reforestation or other measures that must be taken to bring a property back into compliance.

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