Brazil's Amazon Rainforest Shrinking Fast

BRASILIA, Brazil, May 15, 2001 (ENS) - Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon was greater last year than at any time since 1995, according to new satellite data released by the government today.

Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE), which monitors deforestation by satellite, issued a provisional estimate for the period August 1999 to August 2000, based on a sampling scheme.

The mean annual rate of gross deforestation in the 1999 to 2000 time period equalled 19,836 square kilometres (7,658 square miles).

From August 1998 to August 1999, the mean annual rate of forest cut down was 17,259 square kilometres (6,663 square miles), a rate based on INPE's complete and final assessment.


Brazil's Minister of Environment, José Sarney Filho (Photo courtesy government of Brazil)
Environment Minister José Sarney Filho, said that there are a series of factors which cause deforestation. He cited settlements and the building of roads as examples of how the enviroment is harmed.

Sarney said, "The federal government has done its homework and is doing everything it can to stop deforestation in Brazil."

The government will introduce an environmental licensing system for properties in areas of the rainforest where deforestation is greatest, an environment ministry official said today.

The satellite TM-Landsat, used by INPE, does not include deforestation of areas smaller than 6.4 hectares (.02 square miles). This means that the impacts of hundreds of thousands of small scale farmers and selective logging of lucrative species are not included.

"The new figures clearly show that efforts by the Brazilian government have failed to stop, or even to slow, deforestation of the Amazon," Greenpeace Amazon campaigner Paulo Adário said from Manaus where he monitors illegal logging in cooperation with the Brazilian environment agency IBAMA.


Logs in the Brazilian Amazon awaiting transport to market (Photo courtesy Greenpeace)
"This loss of forest cover in the Amazon is unacceptable and unsustainable. Scientific studies have repeatedly shown that Amazon soil is not suitable for agriculture and cattle ranching. The biological richness of the region lives only in the standing forest. To continue unchecked deforestation means to condemn the Amazon to inevitable environmental and social crises," said Adário.

Greenpeace is calling on the government of Brazil to reduce deforestation to zero by the year 2010. "In 1970, only one percent of the Brazilian Amazon had been deforested. By 2000 almost 15 percent has been destroyed. This means a forest area the size of France was lost in only 30 years. Stopping forest destruction has become a global priority. It must become a Brazilian priority before it is too late to act," Adario warned.

But the current electricity crisis in Brazil might mean the construction of more power plants which will require clearing of more of the rainforest. President Fernando Henrique Cardoso today officially created an agency for management of the energy crisis that will implement emergency measures to ensure a supply of electricity in the country.

Environment Minister Sarney said today that the decision by the government to use an emergency bill signed by the president that goes into effect immediately and that, later, will be voted on by Congress to speed up studies on the environmental impacts of emergency construction in the electricity sector, specifically the building of fossil fuel generating plants, is not going to change legal procedures.


Roads like this open the rainforest for logging, agriculture and possibly generating stations. (Photo courtesy Rain-Tree Pharmaceuticals)
"No procedure will cease to exist, the law will be carried out in all its details," stated the minister.

But some groups want national forest protection laws changed. Since 1999, the farmers' lobby group of the Brazilian National Congress, represented by Federal Deputy Moacir Micheletto and by the National Confederation of Agriculture, has been lobbying for a proposal to change Brazilian legislation on forest protection, the Forest Code. If successful, this would allow, among other things, deforestation of up to 50 percent of private properties in the Amazon region. If it becomes law, Areas of Permanent Preservation might be reduced or eliminated.

The Brazilian Amazon comprises the states of Acre, Amapá, Amazonas, Mato Grosso, Pará, Rondônia, Roraima, Tocantins and portions of Maranhão and Goiás, totaling an area of approximately five million square kilometers, roughly equal to the size of Western Europe. Of this, approximately four million square kilometers is covered by forest.