The governmental National Institute of Space Research (Inpe) says that in the 12 months from August 1999, the rate of deforestation increased by 14.9%, meaning that some 20,000 square kilometres (7,800 square miles) of forest were destroyed, the highest in the last five years. Deforestation levels may, however, be even higher than this as Inpe’s satellite data does not include deforestation of areas smaller than 6.4 hectares, meaning that the impacts of many thousands of small-scale farmers, who live in the Amazon region, are not included. Indeed, the environment ministry’s Secretary for the Co-ordination of the Amazon Region, Mary Allegretti, has admitted that deforestation increased in small plots, while it decreased in larger tracts of land.

The data also ignores the impacts of selective removal of commercially valuable species by the thousands of illegal loggers operating in the region, which according to some estimates impacted on 15,000 square kilometres (5,900 square miles) in 1997 alone.

The reason for the increased deforestation, Allegretti says, is the unexpectedly healthy recovery from a recent recession, sparking more demand for timber and land by logging companies and farmers. Despite increased actions by the Brazilian government to counter the loss of the world’s largest rainforest, including seizing control of vast tracts of land which had been illegally sold off (see related story) and a new radar surveillance system (see related story), an independent report said that 42% of the Amazon region could be either totally deforested or heavily degraded by the year 2020 (see related story).

However, Allegretti said that the battle was being won, with the highest-deforesting municipalities being forced to licence activity on rural properties and to collect information on land use and the area of each property. If deforested areas extend beyond property boundaries severe fines would be imposed from the following year, she said. The system has already been applied in the vast state of Mato Grosso, a large chunk of which is rainforest, with a resulting 20% drop in deforestation, Allegretti said.

“The new figures clearly show that efforts by the Brazilian Government have failed to stop, or even to slow, deforestation of the Amazon,” said Paulo Adário, Greenpeace Amazon Campaigner. “In 1970, only 1% of the Brazilian Amazon had been deforested. By 2000 almost 15% 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.”

Greenpeace and other environmental organisations have heavily criticised proposed changes to Brazil’s Forest Code, which, if successful, would allow, deforestation of up to 50% of private properties in the Amazon region, and would reduce so-called Areas of Permanent Preservation. Greenpeace is urging the Brazilian government to implement national and international commitments made during Eco-92 within the Convention on Biodiversity to protect its forests, to establish mechanisms to fund sustainable activities in the forest sector, to conserve forest biodiversity, to guarantee that benefits from sustainable exploitation are reverted to local populations and to assure the survival of indigenous peoples.

The organisation is also calling on the government to embark on a series of domestic measures to curb deforestation:

  • appropriation of land held illegally, which according to the government, totals approximately 100 million hectares or 20% of the Amazon region, for conversion to protected areas such as parks and reserves for sustainable use;
  • establishment of conservation units that have already been approved but have not yet been created;
  • redirection of landless people being relocated through the National Program of Agrarian Reform to already deforested areas;
  • strengthening of the institutions charged with environmental protection such as the Brazilian environment agency, IBAMA, and State Secretaries of Environment;
  • adoption of systems and controls to deter production of timber from deforestation and benefit timber production from areas under sustainable forest management;
  • financial and institutional strengthening of community based forest management;
  • expansion of governmental programs to fight forest fires; and
  • demarcation of all indigenous lands.

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