updated 8/14/2007 11:47:27 AM ET 2007-08-14T15:47:27

Brazil's recent success in slowing the pace of Amazon destruction shows that preserving the environment need not slow economic growth, President Luiz Inacio da Silva said Monday.

In his weekly radio address, Silva said the 25 percent drop in the rate of Amazon deforestation in the 12-month period that ended in July 2006 should improve Brazil's credibility abroad.

The government expects data to show a further drop in the deforestation rate for the year that ended this July.

"I am plainly convinced that it is possible to grow while preserving the environment," Silva said. "The challenge that we face is how to use the forest and environmental preservation to improve the lives of people."

On Friday, the Environment Ministry announced the Amazon lost a total of 5,400 square miles of forest cover between August 2005 and July 2006, 25 percent less than the same period the year before.

Environmental officials said they expect deforestation to drop by about a third in the August 2006-July 2007 period, to about 3,700 square miles.

Brazil's economy grew by 3.7 percent last year.

Environment Minister Marina Silva, who is not related to the president, joined Silva on his radio address and attributed the drop largely to increased government enforcement of Brazil's strict environmental laws.

Activists not so sure
Environmental groups concede that the government has advanced in the fight against deforestation. But they said much of the reduction was due to a drop in the price of soybeans and the strengthening of Brazil's currency, making it less profitable to clear forest to grow the crop.

"The government should take advantage of this favorable moment to deepen the program to combat deforestation," said Paulo Adario, coordinator of Greenpeace's Amazon campaign.

Greenpeace noted that a rise in soy bean as well as beef prices was likely to fuel more deforestation this year and next. An upswing in Amazon burning since June seemed to support this trend.

Another factor that could to drive deforestation in the Amazon is the growing international interest in biofuels such as ethanol, which in Brazil is made from sugarcane, and biodiesel made from grains, oily fruits and seeds.

But the president denied demand for agriculture land always results in rain forest destruction.

"It is possible to grow our agriculture without invading the Amazon, it is necessary to grow agriculturally without cutting down more than has already been cut down," Silva said. "We have enormous areas that are already degraded that can be used for planting without having to enter areas that we need to preserve."

Brazil is home to the bulk of the world's largest remaining tropical wilderness, the Amazon, which covers about 1.6 million square miles, about 20 percent of which has been cut down.

Copyright 2007 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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