Nearly 9,000 square miles of the Amazon has been destroyed this year, the government said on Wednesday, while an environmental group blamed work on a new highway as the chief reason.
The preliminary figures, based on satellite images, alarmed environmentalists because they suggest that Amazon destruction has surpassed its second-highest level reached in 2002-2003.
The data is based on a satellite system that has been monitoring Amazon deforestation on a test basis. The government’s yearly figures, released in March, are based on data from a different satellite system.
The images indicated that from 8,920 square miles to 9,420 square miles, or an area bigger than New Jersey, was cut down this year, said Joao Paulo Capobianco, the government’s secretary of biodiversity and forests.
No decline in deforestation
“That number could be bigger or smaller, or the same, we will know in March,” Capobianco told Reuters. But he said these figures and other indications made it clear there was no decline in deforestation this year.
“Either we have stabilized the rate or there is a small increase,” he said.
If confirmed, the total figure for this year’s deforestation will be above the 2002-2003 level of 9,170 square miles, said Roberto Smeraldi, head of Friends of the Earth in Brazil.
The figure was especially worrying because it showed that for the first time in history Amazon deforestation rose despite a slowdown in agriculture during the year, he said.
A record level was set in the mid-1990s in a year marked by an exceptional incidence of fires.
Small farmers have been major culprits in the trend as they hack away at the Amazon to expand their fields.
The data showed a big jump in deforestation along a road running through the heart of the Amazon that the government has been paving.
“The big reason for this (destruction) is the BR-163 road,” Smeraldi said. “The government knew about this; it was warned. What is surprising is that they are not even talking about their anti-deforestation plans.”
In the region of the road, deforestation soared by more than five times, Smeraldi said. Settlers have moved in even before the government started paving it.
Environmentalists have warned that roads, dams and pipeline projects through the Amazon -- home to up to 30 percent of the planet’s animal and plant species -- represent the biggest threat to the forest because they open up access to large-scale development and settlement.
Some 47 percent of the world's largest forest has either been settled, totally deforested, burned or is being used for mining, logging or agriculture, according to a satellite survey by Brazilian environmental group Imazon.
Amazon police force
Brazil's environment agency, Ibama, last month launched an environmental police academy deep in the Amazon.
Ranks of young camouflage-clad federal police agents lined up in a rain forest clearing to learn how to raid illegal mining and squatter camps, nab foreigners stealing plant and animal species and shoot straight in the jungle.
“You are going to learn how to protect the jungle and stay alive,” Kilma Manso, an Ibama instructor, told trainees as she held up a big furry spider.
Environment Minister Marina Silva reminded agents of their mission when she opened Latin America’s biggest environmental police training camp.
Silva, a former maid and human rights activist, said Brazil had wiped out 97 percent of its second-biggest natural treasure -- an Atlantic rain forest once a third the size of the Amazon -- and could destroy the Amazon.
“What happened in the Atlantic rain forest could also happen in the Amazon if it becomes just another resource deposit for our economic demands,” Silva said.
Activists don't like president's plan
Four hours by riverboat from the Amazon capital of Manaus, the academy, sprawled across 135 square miles, is part of Brazil’s push to stop destruction and theft of plants, animals and natural medicines that cost it billions of dollars a year.
Brazil has some of the most rigorous environmental laws in the developing world but struggles to enforce them in a continent-sized nation with a cash-strapped government and business and agricultural elites that regard environmental protection as a barrier to progress, Silva said.
The ruling Workers Party, a traditional ally of the environmental movement, failed to prevent Amazon destruction reaching its second-highest level in 2003.
Rather than seek outright conservation, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s government wants sustainable environmental use to slow disintegration of indigenous and rural communities and create long-term economic growth.
But environmentalists have accused him of speeding Amazon destruction in his haste to create jobs for the 53 million Brazilians who live on less than $1 a day.
One of Lula’s most controversial projects is the BR 163 paving project.
Silva expects 31 miles of rain forest to be destroyed on either side of BR 163 unless the project is given environmental safeguards and strict policing.
Federal Police Agent Delano Lopes expects to serve on the front line in that fight.
“The wealth of this country is the environment and the federal police has been told to protect that wealth,” he said.