Brazil has taken a big step towards passing laws that will loosen restrictions on the amount of Amazon rainforest that farmers can destroy, after its lower house of Parliament voted in favour of updating the country's 46-year-old forest code.
In a move conservationists describe as disastrous, the nation's congress backed a bill relaxing laws on the deforestation of hilltops and the amount of vegetation farmers must preserve.
The law also gives partial amnesties for fines levied against landowners who have illegally destroyed tracts of rainforest.
The legislation, which must be passed by the Brazilian Senate and approved by President Dilma Rousseff, aims to help owners of smaller farms and ranches compete with under-regulated rivals in countries such as the United States and Argentina.
Under Brazil's forest code passed in 1965, 80 per cent of all property in the Amazon basin is supposed to be left as untouched forest. In other parts of the country, that figure ranges from 20 to 35 per cent, depending on the ecosystem of the region.
Farmers breaching the regulations have been required to pay large fines and plant trees to bring their landholdings up to required standards.
But the system is scrappily enforced and only 10 per cent of landowners are believed to be in complete compliance with the rules.
Under the new code, forest illegally cleared between 1965 and 2008 will be exempted from regulation. Farmers will, for the first time, be allowed to count land along rivers and lakes as part of their legal preserves, and strict rules governing deforestation of hilltops and slopes will be relaxed.
"It's a disaster. It heightens the risk of deforestation, water depletion and erosion," said Paulo Gustavo Prado, head of environmental policy at Conservation International-Brazil.
He believes the bill will result in the loss of 10 per cent of Brazil's remaining rainforest.
Philip Fearnside, of the Government's National Institute for Amazon Research, said the "amnesty" for farmers who broke the law before 2008 would result in further illegal deforestation.
"The proposed amnesty upholds a long tradition in Brazil of legalising the illegal."