Brazil's parliament has issued President Rousseff a bold challenge, convincingly passing a forestry bill that threatens to turn back the clock on the country's efforts to halt deforestation.
Brazil's government would have preferred to have avoided a showdown over the forestry bill, but that's not how things turned out.
President Dilma Rousseff's party lost Wednesday's vote on the law, which critics fear will unleash a wave of deforestation, by 274 votes to 184.
The bill contains few of the revisions recommended by her cabinet. It is now up to her to decide whether or not to veto it.
A division in Brazil
The result confirms the Brazilian parliament's bias for the interests of large landowners.
It also reveals a tension within the current administration. The majority of members of the largest coalition partner, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMBD), voted for the law.
President Rousseff's Workers' Party (PT) voted almost unanimously against it.
Rousseff's supporters have reason to hope that she will veto the law.
In the lead up to the vote, she emphasized her opposition to any changes to the law that could increase deforestation. As host of this June's Rio+20 Conference, the 20-year follow-up to the landmark Earth Summit of 1992, approval of the bill would be a major embarrassment.
Gilberto Carvalho, secretary-general for the presidency, said Rousseff would consider the decision "with a lot of serenity, without animosity."
According to Carvalho, the administration didn't expect this result. He considers the effects of the law on Brazil's future "much more important" than its impact on the UN meeting.
The bill divides Brazilians.
Opponents and supporters have launched a war of words. Organizations like the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Greenpeace see this moment as, "the beginning of the end of the rainforest."
Many farmers welcome the vote, and they have a powerful influence on politics. They are, after all, the largest exporters in a country that is gradually becoming an economic powerhouse.
Deforestation goes unpunished
Environmentalists accuse parliament of bowing to this pressure.
"Brazil has been held hostage to the interests of the agriculture lobby from the outset," said Paulo Adário of Greenpeace in Brazil. "The agriculture lobby has done everything it could to push through its demands."
The vote's result came as a shock to WWF.
"First, we have to digest what just happened here," WWF-Brazil's Secretary General Maria Cecilia Wey de Brito told DW.
The group says the law grants amnesty to those who have destroyed rainforest and opens the floodgates to further destruction.
"We will absolutely help Rousseff to enforce a veto," Wey de Brito said.
Over the past few decades, large agriculture firms have been covering the Amazon rainforest and the central Brazilian savanna with pastures for livestock and soy plantations. Not always legally.
The new law exempts landowners from any fines for deforestation before July 22, 2008, on one condition. Perpetrators must enroll in a government-sponsored conservation program and abide by the rules. There are no clear guidelines for these programs.
In addition to being let off for fines, offenders will not have to pay for reforestation.
Critics of the law say it will also encourage more land clearance because government agencies have proved unable to determine when a plot was deforested.
A small victory
President Rousseff was able to win one point in the bill.
The banks of rivers with a width of 10 meters need to be reforested up to 15 meters in-land. Many landowners reject any type of reforestation.
They say the new ruling reduces the amount of arable land by 33 million hectares, a third of which is used by small farmers.
Whether local governments will implement this rule is not assured.
As far as WWF's Wey de Brito is concerned, the proposed law contains a fatal message for Brazil.
"It has become clear that parliamentarians find it acceptable that law-breakers go unpunished. Law-abiders are the ones being punished by this unjust treatment," she said, referring to farmers who have so far complied with Brazil's much-abused forestry code.
Wey de Brito says the consequences won't just be seen in nature. "At some point, the landowners will start to feel the negative effects, too."
Author: Nádia Pontes / kms
Editor: Nathan Witkop