Deforestation Escalates in Brazilian Amazon

Amazon deforestationSatellite imagery released earlier this week provided further evidence that deforestation in Brazil's Amazon region accelerated dramatically this year.

Between August 2007 and July 2008, 8,147 square kilometers of the Brazilian Amazon were cleared, according to the country's National Institute for Space Research (INPE). This is an area more than twice the size of the U.S. state of Rhode Island.

The expanse of deforested land is about 69 percent greater than last year, when 4,820 square kilometers were removed. "We're not content," Brazilian Environment Minister Carlos Minc told The Associated Press. "Deforestation has to fall more and the conditions for sustainable development have to improve."

Last year's deforestation numbers, however, were the lowest since recording began in the 1970s. The amount of forest cleared this year, while still substantial, is also less than previous years

As world leaders debate a new international agreement on climate change, preservation of the vast Amazon forest, which stores large amounts of carbon, has been identified as a necessary step to avoid accelerated warming. The Brazilian government has taken additional steps in recent months to curb illegal logging, but a growing global market for beef and soybeans encourages the deforestation.

The diverse Amazon forest contains one in ten of the world's known species and enough vegetation to absorb an estimated 10 percent of atmospheric carbon dioxide, not including oceanic carbon sinks. Since the 1970s, about 20 percent of the Amazon forest has been cut, leaving mainly open fields with little diversity in its place.

Illegal deforestation reached its peak this year between August 2007 and April, when satellite images observed about 84 percent of the year's deforestation.

Landowners often cut deeper into the forest to make room for cattle ranches and soybean farms. Both products are experiencing a boom in demand, as Brazilian beef surges in global popularity and soybean prices rise due to global meat consumption and biofuels production.

During the year's hike in illegal activities, the government responded with a variety of new policies. Landowners must provide environmental permits to prove they are not illegally clearing land in order to receive public or private bank loans. Illegal loggers also risk fines and the possibility of being cut off from the domestic and international timber trades.

Industry groups also say they are taking steps to encourage sustainable development. The Brazilian Vegetable Oils Industry Association, a soy industry group, has agreed to ban until July 2009 the purchase of soybeans produced on forestlands cleared after 2006. The government is negotiating similar agreements for saw mills, slaughterhouses, and steel mills that operate in the Brazilian Amazon, according to

Minc, who replaced popular environment minister Marina Silva when she resigned in May, has offered several new policy ideas since his tenure began. The most controversial plan has been the suggestion to create a national "environmental force" of firefighters and military police that would protect Brazil's forests and ecosystems.

In August, President Luiz Inacio Lula de Silva announced plans to raise $21 billion by 2021 for an Amazon conservation fund, which has already received a $100 million donation from Norway. The fund could be the framework of an international carbon credit system - polluters would pay to conserve the forests in place of reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

Lula, however, clearly stated that the fund would accept only voluntary donations, so carbon credits or other forms of compensation would not be allowed. The move reflects concerns within Brazil that an international climate agreement may strip the government of its sovereignty over the Amazon.

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at

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