Amazon deforestation accelerating

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Figures released by the Brazilian government have shown that the rate of deforestation in the Amazon has increased.

In the period August 2003 to August 2004, 26,000 square kilometres of the rainforest was felled. This number is up 6% from the 12 month period prior to August 2003. The total proportion of felled Amazon now stands at 17.3%, according to the World Wildlife Fund. This has led many environmentalists to worry that the cattle and soy trade are being put above the environment.

The 2003–2004 period saw the second largest tree felling, per area, in the Amazon's history. The worst was 1994–1995. The year prior to August 2003 had been another bad year for deforestation, it now being the third worst in history.

Amazon River near Manaus (Source: satellite photo)
Map of Brazil (Source: CIA World Factbook)
Map of Brazil (Source: CIA World Factbook)

That previous 2002–2003 period led Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's government to adopt an action plan to target deforestation. This included creating some of the largest reserves on earth and making closer satellite surveillance of threatened areas.

"This number is a tragedy and shows that deforestation is not a priority for the Lula government and that its plan [to fight destruction] is not working," said Paulo Adario, Greenpeace Amazon coordinator.

Much of the damage has been done in clearing trees to make space for crop land, especially in the worst hit state of Mato Grosso, where almost half of last year's deforestation occurred. This has led Greenpeace to condemn the governor of the state, a soya business man himself, as "king of deforestation". Much of this crop is exported to Europe and China, which last year led Brazil to declare a trade surplus.

The clearing endangers the world's largest home of wildlife, which claims almost 30% of all animal and plant species.

There are also implications for the carbon cycle and hence for global warming. The respiration of trees involves the intake of carbon dioxide, and produces oxygen as a byproduct. With fewer trees a balance of CO2 and O2 in the atmosphere is harder to maintain. Increased levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide could result in global warming.