The Financial Times
Based on an almost complete evaluation of satellite imagery of the region, at least 22,000 sq km were deforested in the 12 months to May 2003. That figure is expected to rise to around 24,200 sq km when all data from Brazil's institute for space research (Inpe) are processed by the end of May, a senior environmental official told the Financial Times.
"These rates are unacceptable and worrisome," said Flavio Mantiel, director at Ibama, the environmental protection agency. "But they don't yet reflect this government's efforts to curb them."
Most of the period under study preceded the administration of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose leftwing Workers' party has drawn on its strong ties with environmental organisations, including the rubber tappers in the Amazon.
Only from July of last year did the government begin implementing its own policy to slow deforestation rates, Mr Mantiel argued.
During the previous year a record 25,000 sq km were logged - 55 per cent more than the yearly average since 1998. Already some 640,000 sq km of Amazon rainforest have been destroyed, an area nearly the size of Germany and Poland combined.
Underlying the accelerated deforestation rates is an advancing agricultural frontier, population growth, and illegal logging by timber companies. The illegal occupation and clearing and sale of land often occurs with the help of local politicians and registrars who falsify property titles.
Beyond cattle ranching, the planting of soybeans is the fastest growing problem for conservationists, Mr Mantiel says. Large-scale landowners account for most of the damage, though millions of impoverished settlers also practice slash and burn for subsistence agriculture.
Not all deforestation in the Amazon is illegal. Clearing up to 20 per cent of a forest on private property is legal in the Amazon and that alone could ensure the continuation of current deforestation rates for years. In addition, under a government settlement policy, impoverished peasants are given a plot of land for housing and small-scale horticulture.
The current administration says it has launched an extensive campaign to document land ownership in the Amazon region, a pre-condition to effective control.
In addition, it now uses a powerful new system of satellites, radars, aircraft and hundreds of remote sensors to track deforestation, water contamination, and flash floods in the region.
Last year, instant satellite photography spotted cattle ranchers ploughing a road through the jungle, thereby helping Ibama fine and sue the perpetrators, confiscate their machinery and prevent the planned deforestation of an estimated 100,000 ha.
Ibama has stepped up large-scale inspection and raids in the area but is still vastly under-financed and under pressure from politicians and businessmen in the region. Conservationists in the Amazon are hoping for increased international aid not only to finance control efforts but also alternative, environmentally sustainable development projects.
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