June 4, 2008 in Nation/World

Images reveal vast Amazon deforestation

Jack Chang McClatchy

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil – New satellite photographs show that the destruction of Brazil’s fragile Amazon rainforest has exploded this year, fueling fears that the government’s efforts to stop deforestation have been fruitless.

Brazil’s DETER real-time monitoring system found that more than 430 square miles of forest, an area a bit smaller than the city of Los Angeles, vanished in the month of April, while about 2,300 square miles, larger than the state of Delaware, were destroyed between August and April.

That nine-month total surpassed the entire acreage in the Amazon that was destroyed over the previous 12 months, according to DETER data. What’s worse, the satellites couldn’t see about half of the forest in April due to cloud cover, suggesting that actual deforestation likely was much greater.

That’s raised red flags among environmentalists, who say that soybean farming, cattle production and illegal logging are destroying the world’s largest rainforest despite the government’s attempts to halt the deforestation.

Chopping down and burning the rainforest releases tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to global climate change. Brazil is the world’s fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, largely because of deforestation, according to the U.S.-based World Resources Institute.

Worse is yet to come, environmentalists said.

The Amazon’s dry season, when farmers do most of their burning and clearing, starts this month. That means the 12-month total ending in August will surely climb, said Marcelo Marquesini, a Brazil-based forests expert with the international environmental group Greenpeace.

Marquesini said rising prices for soybeans, beef and other commodities are pushing farmers to clear more land in the sprawling rainforest, which is about the size of the western United States.

A more complete deforestation picture will come out later this year, when Brazil’s PRODES monitoring system, which studies the Amazon over a longer period, produces more detailed results.

Brazil’s government already has responded to rising deforestation by cracking down on loggers, charcoal producers and others working illegally in the forest. While critics question whether such actions have done any good, government officials insist that the crackdown’s effects are only now being felt.

The fate of the Amazon has been at the center of a growing debate here over how this nation of 185 million people can both protect the forest and feed its booming economy, which depends on exporting soybeans and other commodities.

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