GOING, GOING, GONE? New Satellite Images Reveal a Shrinking Amazon Rainforest

Washington, D.C.- Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon may be on the rise, according to high-resolution images released by an agency of the Brazilian government. The images suggest an end to a widely hailed three-year decline in the rate of deforestation and have spurred a public controversy among high-level Brazilian officials, writes Tim Hirsch, author of "The Incredible Shrinking Amazon Rainforest" in the May/June 2008 issue of World Watch magazine.

Deforestation accounts for approximately one-fifth of global greenhouse gas emissions and is responsible for significant species loss worldwide. Recent anti-deforestation measures under the administration of Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva have led to a marked drop in the rate of forest loss over the past three years.

"What matters most to people is whether deforestation is coming under control, or whether this magnificent ecosystem is doomed to relentless decline, with all the implications for the millions of unique species it harbors, for the survival of precarious indigenous cultures, and for the global climate," writes Hirsch.

Using satellite imaging, the Brazilian National Space Research Agency (INPE) estimated a probable rainforest loss of 7,000 square kilometers between August and December 2007, a figure on track to surpass last year's total of 11,000 square kilometers.

The announcement by INPE garnered conflicting reactions from government officials. President Lula expressed doubts regarding the validity of the findings, while Governor Blairo Maggi of Mato Grosso, the state which accounted for more than half the deforestation registered by the images, accused the INPE of releasing false information.

Discussion of financial incentives to reward developing countries that protect their forests suggests that a downward trend in deforestation may one day prove profitable for Brazil. As an emerging economic force, and as a candidate for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, Brazil has much to lose if the rate of deforestation increases.

"It is too soon to judge whether the emergency action taken by the Lula government in the Amazon will be sufficient to do what it claims is possible: bear down strongly enough on deforestation to keep the annual rate below last year's figure," wrote Hirsh. "One thing is certain: this is a crucial turning point for the Amazon, and the outcome matters hugely to us all."


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(for more Matters of Scale, see the May/June issue of World Watch.)