WASHINGTON - One of the world's largest environmental organizations is calling for urgent action to halt the rapid rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, following a government report Wednesday that nearly 10,000 square miles of rainforest was chopped down in the 12-month period that ended last August.
The amount of rainforest lost during 2002-2003--roughly equivalent to the territory of the Massachusetts--was close to the record year of 1995-96, when 11,600 square miles of forest were cut down, according to Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which based its conclusions on satellite studies.
But the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) called the most recent loss "shocking," and called on the government of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, which has long favored far-reaching steps, to slow the destruction of the Amazon rainforests.
"It is extremely alarming that the rate of deforestation shows no sign of slowing for the second year running," said Denise Hamu, who heads WWF in Brazil. "The government of Brazil needs to urgently respond to this crisis by fulfilling its commitment to triple the area of rainforest under legal protection."
The new figures also prompted expressions of concern by the government in Brasilia. "These figures are serious and need to be confronted," said Environment Minister Marina Silva, who stressed that the government began implementing its policy to slow deforestation rates only last July.
Smoke billows from the Amazon rainforest near the city of Sao Felix do Xingu, in the northern Brazilian state of Para, in this Aug. 14, 2002 file photo. Ranchers, soybean farmers and loggers burned and cut down a near-record area of the Amazon rainforest last year. (AP Photo/Dado Galdieri)
Environmentalists are concerned about deforestation rates in the Amazon not only because they threaten one of the world's great treasures of biodiversity, but also because of the rainforests' function as the Earth's "lungs" and as a "carbon sink" that helps slow global warming.
Two new studies on global warming released earlier this week found that the Greenland ice sheet was likely to disappear, causing a 23-foot rise in sea level, within several hundred years unless carbon emissions were sharply reduced. Climate change caused by those emissions will reduce annual rainfall along the West Coast of the United States by as much as 30 percent by the year 2050, causing severe water shortages throughout the region.
The major culprits behind deforestation in the Amazon region include cattle-ranching, soybean farming, and subsistence agriculture, as well as logging, according to recent studies.
Brazil's growing success as an exporter of beef and non-genetically modified (GM) soybeans may be the single greatest factor in the doubling of average annual deforestation over the last several years compared to the previous decade.
According to a report previewed earlier this week by the Indonesia-based Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), the number of cattle in the Amazon has more than doubled--from 26 million in 1990 to 57 million in 2002.
The report, 'Hamburger Connection Fuels Amazon Destruction,' showed that the overwhelming majority of new cattle are concentrated in the Amazon states of Mato Grosso, Para, and Rondonia--which were also the states with the great deforestation over the past two years.
"This research provides the first substantial data to support recent speculation about the role international demand for Brazilian beef is playing in Brazil's skyrocketing deforestation rate," David Kaimowitz, CIFOR's director, told the Science and Development Network. "Cattle ranchers are making mincemeat out of Brazil's Amazon rainforests."
Brazilian beef exports have exploded as a result of fears of mad cow disease in other beef-exporting nations.
"The international and domestic market forces currently promoting the cattle-driven deforestation described in the report are much stronger than ever," said Benoit Mertens, one of the authors. "Even with the most determined policy response, it might be hard to decisively curb deforestation."
Rising international demand for non-GM soya products--particularly in Europe and China, and Japan--as well as for cattle feed in Brazil, also helps explain the explosion in the soybean production.
WWF's greatest concern is the impact deforestation is having on the Amazon's biodiversity and its conservation.
According to the new data, the greatest rate of deforestation is occurring in those areas identified by government and independent scientists as critical to the conservation of species in the region.
In 1998, the government committed itself to tripling the amount of rainforest then under protection by setting aside at least 12 percent of the Amazon for conservation by 2013. The Amazon Regional Protected Areas (ARPA) program was co-sponsored by the World Bank, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), and WWF itself.
In 2002, the Tumucumaque National Park was declared a protected area under ARPA, but although a number of biologically critical areas have since been identified for inclusion in the plan, no new protected area has been declared over the past year.
Moreover, WWF is concerned that some Amazonian states have actually reduced the size of their national parks, while others have failed to stop the incursion of illegal settlers into areas that were supposed to be protected for their indigenous population.
"The government deforestation data is alarming, and underscores the need to move rapidly with plans to zone the most biologically important parts of the Amazon into both strictly protected areas and those where resource us is regulated and sustainable," said Chris Elliott, director of WWF's International's Forest Program. "Research shows that protected areas, buffered by other zones of sustainable land use are the most effective means of controlling deforestation."
WWF said it welcomed a new $140 million government plan that calls for a crackdown on illegal logging and mining, new zoning restrictions, and stiffer penalties for offenders. But it said the government has yet to put these plans into practice.
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