City-Size Tract of Amazon Forest Cleared in April

Sabrina Valle in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
for National Geographic News
June 10, 2008
In just a month, an area nearly the size of New York City was cleared in the Amazon rain forest—an "alarming" and "worse-than-imagined" development, the Brazilian government said in a statement.

At least 433 square miles (1,123 square kilometers) were deforested in Brazil in April 2008.

That's eight times more than the 55 square miles (145 square kilometers) destroyed the month before, according to data released last week by the Brazilian National Space Research Institute (INPE), which monitors the Amazon.

The results suggest that the deforestation rate has accelerated, INPE said.

Between August 2006 and August 2007, 1,920 square miles (4,974 square kilometers) were destroyed. From August 2007 to April 2008, this rate climbed to 2,250 square miles (5,850 square kilometers).

"The situation is very alarming. With the data we have, we can be sure that there is a clear increase in deforestation in the Amazon," said INPE's director, Gilberto Camara.

"The process of deforestation is more intense than we imagined."

(Related: "Brazil to Crack Down on Amazon Clearing" [January 25, 2008].)

Detection Systems

The numbers are based on satellite data from Deter, a system that uses low-resolution images to capture frequent snapshots of the region.

Deter, which has offered monthly reports since 2004, does not measure the total extent of deforestation, but instead indicates trends and alerts authorities as to where threats exist.

Deforestation rates are shown by another system, Prodes, which is based on high-resolution images from the dry season and detects twice as much information as Deter.

Prodes is only released once a year, and the next batch of information is due in December.

Although satellites could detect more destruction in April due to low cloud cover, the increase in deforestation was much bigger than the gain in visibility.

INPE has calculated that over the past 20 years, an area equivalent to a soccer field is deforested in the Brazilian Amazon every ten seconds.

A total of 270,000 square miles (700,000 square kilometers) has already been cut down, more than half of this since 1988, when the group began monitoring the forest.

In its pristine state, the Brazilian Amazon once stretched for 1.5 million square miles (4 million square kilometers).

Clearing for Soy

Three reasons exist for the current increase, experts say.

Brazil has been experiencing high commodity prices, a long dry spell, plus 2008 is an election year, when some local governments slow down on measures to stop deforestation. (Get the facts on why rain forests are disappearing.)

In April, 70 percent of the damage occurred in Mato Grosso state. The state's governor, Blairo Maggi, is one of the world's largest soybean producers.

(Related: "Ethanol Production Could Be Eco-Disaster, Brazil's Critics Say" [February 8, 2007].)

Maggi has told local media that soybean production could help to relieve the world food crisis.

But soy is just part of the problem, said Greenpeace Brazil director Marcelo Furtado.

"It is an integrated cycle. First they cut down the wood [to sell], then they graze cattle and then plant crops," Furtado said.

Political Debate

The data also comes amid some political turmoil in Brazil's environment leadership.

In May Environment Minister Marina Silva reportedly resigned her post in frustration. She had been having difficulties in furthering the government's environmental initiatives, news reports said.

New Environment Minister Carlos Minc said at a news briefing that there's no relief in sight for Brazil's forests.

"It is much worse than it seems. The critical months for logging [traditionally June, July, and August] haven't arrived yet," Minc said.

"We don't want to cry over the cut-down jungle," he said. "We will act—time is short."

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