By Jake Spring
BRASILIA, Feb 28 (Reuters) - Brazil's Supreme Court on Wednesday upheld major changes to laws that protect the Amazon and other biomes, reducing penalties for past illegal deforestation in a blow to environmentalists trying to protect the world's largest rainforest.
Congress agreed to sweeping revisions in the law in 2012 that included an amnesty program for illegal deforestation on "small properties" that occurred before 2008 and reduced restoration requirements in others.
The changes effectively reduced deforested land that must be restored under previous rules by 112,000 square miles (290,000 square km), an area nearly the size of Italy, according to a 2014 study published in the journal Science.
Environmentalists said that the revised laws, known collectively as the forest code, would create a culture in which illegal deforestation is acceptable.
"This awards the guy who deforested, awards the guy who disobeyed the law," said Nurit Bensusan, policy coordinator at the Brazilian non-governmental organization Instituto Socioambiental.
"With this amnesty you create a climate that invites deforestation in the future. It creates the impression that if you deforest today, tomorrow you'll be handed amnesty."
Farmers and the agriculture lobby argue that the new laws allowed for continued growth of the sector key to the Brazilian economy, without bogging it down in ajudicating crimes of the past.
The court decision has finally brought legal certainty to rural producers by forgiving penalties for deforestation before 2008 provided they comply with the law as rewritten in 2012, said Rodrigo Lima, director of agriculture consultancy Agroicone.
"If this apparatus had been struck down, for example...everyone who submits information on the rural land registry could be fined at any moment even as they are complying with the (current) law."
The protections in question include those that apply to the Amazon rainforest, the majority of which lies in Brazil, which is vital to soaking up carbon emissions and countering climate change.
Deforestation in the Amazon fell in the August 2016 to July 2017 monitoring period for the first time in three years, although the 6,624 square km (2,557 square miles) cleared of forest remains well above the low recorded in 2012 and targets for slowing climate change.
In televised oral arguments, Attorney General Grace Mendonca defended the 2012 revisions as constitutional saying that they had been designed to strike a balance between environmental protection and economic development.
But many parts of the law designed to protect the environment have not been enforced with measures such as a national registry of rural land still not fully implemented. (Reporting by Jake Spring Editing by Alistair Bell)
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