Brazil Introduces Law to Protect Environment
By William Schomberg BRASILIA - Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso signed a new environmental law on Thursday and said it would prove a turning point in preserving natural resources, including the Amazon.
The law sets down fines of up to $50 million and jail sentences for crimes ranging from illegal logging and killing wild animals to industrial pollution and graffiti.
Until now, those punishments have been laid down by decree, making it easy for environmental offenders to overturn them in the courts. Only six percent of fines issued by the government's environmental agency IBAMA are actually paid.
The new law will also disqualify offending companies or individuals from government tax incentives and loans, a long-standing demand of environmentalists.
"Some ambassadors present here might be shocked to hear it, but in Brazil we have a saying -- some laws stick and some laws don't. Well this one has already stuck," Cardoso told a gathering of lawmakers, foreign dignitaries and schoolchildren.
He said Brazilian public opinion was increasingly in favor of improved protection of the environment.
"Given the immense responsibility that we have to humanity...we are obliged to put into practice everything this law sets down," he said.
The law finally cleared Congress in January, seven years after it was submitted amid international concern over the Amazon in the run-up to the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro.
Since the summit deforestation in the world's biggest rainforest has raged on virtually unchecked. Satellite data released by the government last month showed an area twice the size of Belgium was destroyed between 1995 and 1997.
"We are consummate predators of nature because our legal framework has been weak," Environment Minister Gustavo Krause told reporters.
"But there is a tremendous difference between what we had before this law and what we have now," he said.
Krause said nine items within the law had been vetoed by the president, despite a campaign by environmental groups to keep the bill intact.
Activists say Asian and other foreign logging companies which have recently set up operations in the Amazon stand to benefit from the scrapping of an item which would have held controlling shareholders responsible for environmental damage.
An item dealing with noise pollution was vetoed to avoid angering congressmen who represent Brazil's evangelical churches, which blast out sermons into streets around their temples.
The support of the evangelicals and of lawmakers representing powerful agricultural interests has been key to the government's recent success in getting major reforms of the civil service and of the social security system through Congress.
"The law is definitely an advance but it has been watered down to suit the interests of big business," said Fernando Gabeira, the lone Green Party representative in Congress.
Officials refuted suggestions that environmental offenders would find loopholes in the new law.
"There is not one type of crime against the environment which is not covered by this law," said Krause.
He said the new law came on top of recent legislation to improve the use of Brazil's water resources and a new tax to rationalize the use of land by the country's biggest landowners. A bill which would beef up protection of conservation areas was awaiting approval in Congress, Krause said.
from the Reuters News Agency.