|BRASILIA, Brazil - After an 11-year fight, Brazil\'s lower house of Congress on Wednesday voted for tougher protection of one of the world\'s most endangered rain forests which runs along the nation\'s tropical Atlantic coastline.|
The legislation is meant to control centuries of plantation farming, logging and settlement that has decimated Brazil\'s lush Atlantic rain forest, which was once a third the size of the Amazon rain forest.
\"This guarantees the 7 percent that remains will be protected,\" said Fabio Feldmann, the former lower-house deputy who first proposed the legislation in the early 1990s.
The Mata Atlantica, home to 5 percent of the world\'s fauna and 7 percent of its flora, is now the second-most endangered rain forest in the world after the near extinct jungles of the island of Madagascar.
While environmentalists cried out against destruction of the Amazon during the last decade, Brazilians leveled the Atlantic rain forest at twice the rate, deforesting an area the size of Jamaica.
Brazilian congressmen allied to powerful landowners battled against the scope of proposed environmental legislation. The former government of President Fernando Henrique Cardoso failed to pass Feldmann\'s bill even though it held an absolute majority in Congress for its eight years in office.
The new legislation approved by Brazil\'s lower house, expected to be passed by the senate and go into law, regulates sustainable use of what remains of the forest.
Sponsors of the bill were able to break a deadlock in Congress by agreeing not to include areas of the forest that have been cleared for use as plantations, pasture, urban developments or infrastructure.
\"This won\'t bring any type of impediment to economic activity,\" said Claudio Langone, executive secretary of Brazil\'s Environment Ministry.
The forest is today home to 1.6 million species of animals and insects. It has the highest recorded tree diversity in the world.
Some 70 percent of Brazil\'s population, or 120 million people, now live in areas where the forest once stood.
They have cleared huge swaths to build cities like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Families continue to carve small farms out of the jungle, while highways, industry and beach developments take over other areas.
Feldmann hopes new legislation can halt deforestation - currently at a rate of one soccer field per four minutes - by clarifying and raising enforcement of environmental law.
\"This is a huge advance... We\'ve protected an Atlantic rain forest that is still the size of many European countries,\" said Feldmann, a leading Brazilian environmentalist.
Story by Andrew Hay
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE