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Tuesday, 4 September, 2001, 22:18 GMT 23:18 UK
Brazilians protest over Amazon bill
Amazon River
The future of the Amazon is at stake
By Jan Rocha in Sao Paulo

Environmental groups have protested in Brasilia against a controversial bill which will change Brazil's forest law and allow farmers to clear larger areas of the Amazon rainforest for agriculture.

The minister for the environment has warned that the future of the Amazon is at risk.

While protests were held on the lawns in front of the Congress building, the powerful landowners lobby, who are well represented in most of the political parties, argued that to bar the advance of agriculture in the Amazon was to bar progress.

Under existing laws, farmers in the Amazon are only allowed to clear 20% of the forest for farming.

The bill now under debate would greatly increase the amount to 50% or even 80%.

Carbon emissions

For Environment Minister Jose Sarney Filho, this would be a disaster.

Almost half the total Amazon area is already in the hands of farmers, large and small.

If the law is passed, clearing of the forest will quickly reduce it to a fraction of its present size - over one million square miles (about three million square kilometres), Mr Sarney says.

The minister also points out that if Congress approves the bill, it could mean a huge increase in carbon emissions as the forest is burnt to clear it for farming.

This would be in direct contradiction of Brazil's official position in favour of the Kyoto protocol.

Ashes and smoke

The minister says the destiny of the world's largest tropical forest runs the risk of being decided by the immediate interests of a few landowners.

It is up to public opinion, as well as to the government, to prevent the Amazon being turned into ashes and smoke, says Mr Sarney.

But the director of a leading environmental organisation says the problem in Brazil is that the forest is still seen merely as unproductive land.

Farmers reject the argument that the forest can actually be more productive and more lucrative if left intact, but with sustainable exploration of its incredibly rich biodiversity.

The bill is now at committee stage and a vote on it has been postponed for 24 hours.

But if it is approved within the next few days, it will then go to the floor of the Congress for the final vote later this month.

 WATCH/LISTEN
 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Bill Hayton
"The pressure to develop the Amazon has become intense"
See also:

25 Jun 01 | Sci/Tech
Amazon forest 'could vanish fast'
15 May 01 | Americas
Amazon destruction surges
15 Sep 00 | Americas
Amazon tribe wins legal battle
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