Destruction of Amazon rainforests accelerating - 17:01 27 June 03
by Shaoni Bhattacharya

Newly released satellite imaging data has revealed a 40 per cent jump in deforestation in Brazil's Amazon rainforests.

The massive leap is the worst acceleration in the loss of the tropical jungle since 1995 and is in sharp contrast to the drive to preserve the world's largest area of continuous rainforest. The forest harbours enormous biodiversity and plays a significant role in the world's climate.

The data from Brazil's National Institute of Space Research (INPE), published on Wednesday, reveals that forest clearing jumped from just over 18,000 square kilometres in the year to August 2001 to almost 25, 500 sq km by August 2002.

"It's huge," says Sandra Charity, interim chief executive of WWF Brazil. She points out that the loss in the single year to August 2002 makes up five per cent of the area lost over the last 500 years. Mario Monzoni, a project coordinator for Friends of the Earth in Brazil, told Reuters. "The rate of deforestation should be falling, instead the opposite is happening."

The Brazilian government immediately pledged to take action. "We are going to take emergency action to deal with this highly worrying rise in deforestation," said Brazilian Environment Minister Marina Silva on Thursday.

The new Brazilian government has set up an interministerial committee to tackle the problem alongside non-governmental organisations and is considering real-time monitoring of deforestation. But Charity warns these policies will take time to work. "It's quite likely we will have large rates again next year."


Soya export

Much of the destruction has been blamed on the illegal logging of land for soya production, say experts at Nature Conservancy in Brazil. Only the US now produces more of the profitable crop.

Charity agrees. "There have been large government incentives to increase the export of soya from Brazil [in 2002]," she told New Scientist. The election of a new president in Brazil in January might also have had an effect on forest clearance, she speculates: "In the year before a new government comes in, the office is usually characterised by a lack of enforcement."

But increasing the production of soya and preserving the rainforest are not incompatible, she says. Thirty per cent of the deforested land is left empty and could be used for crops. Also, improving agricultural practices could increase productivity meaning less land is needed for the same harvest.

WWF is launching a large rainforest protection programme that aims to designate 12 per cent of Brazil's rainforests as protected land over the next 10 years.

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