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Brazil losing fight to save the Amazon
Updated: 2005-05-24 20:19

ALTA FLORESTA, Brazil - In the heart of what is known in Brazil's Amazon as the "arc of deforestation" it is clear that the fight to save the jungle is being lost.

During a tour by plane of the area, this reporter could see vast tracts of cleared land with grazing cattle or cultivated fields that have been gouged out of the forest.

The land is irresistible for farmers seeking to expand and benefit from Brazil's agricultural boom.

The arc is the front line in the battle over the Amazon.

In 2004 the government decided to make a stand in this half-moon shaped area stretching along the southern and eastern edges of the Amazon. A year later, environmentalists and government officials have little to show for the effort.

The government said on Wednesday that deforestation jumped to its second highest level on record in 2003-2004, to 10,088 square miles -- an area nearly the size of Belgium and slightly bigger than the U.S. state of New Hampshire.

Just under 20 percent of the world's largest tropical forest, which is home to an estimated 30 percent of the world's animal and plant species, has now been destroyed.

Even if last year was below the deforestation record of 11,216 square miles reached in 1994-1995, the deforestation levels during the past three years have never been so consistently high, all above 20,000 square km.

The Green Party quit President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva's center-left ruling coalition on Thursday in anger at the figures.

"The terrible data reflects not just a failure of implementation of the government's plan but also the contradiction the government has in containing deforestation or promoting agriculture for exports," Greenpeace Amazon coordinator Paulo Adaria said.

On the ground in Alta Floresta, a hot spot for deforestation in the southern Amazon, the government's environmental agency Ibama has just three full-time employees to monitor an area of 21,621 square miles.

"Since January (the end of the rainy season) the chainsaws have started roaring and we don't have the necessary agility," said Mauro Baldini, an Ibama environmental analyst in Alta Floresta.


"We are arriving after the fish have died and the trees have been felled," he said.

An estimated 350 logging companies operate in the region.

A preliminary report by Greenpeace found that just three of 19 Ibama posts earmarked to get extra funding have received anything from the government's plan to fight deforestation since it was launched in March 2004. Baldini's post is one of the three.

Environmentalists say deforestation is driven by illegal loggers first moving in, followed by land speculators or farmers. In the Alta Floresta region their arrival is spurred by the planned paving of a road linking Cuiaba in Mato Grosso state to Santarem, hundreds of miles further north through virgin forest.

Environmentalists say the pattern is familiar -- when loggers and farmers know roads are coming they race to cut down forest to get land which they will make a profit on.

The building of a highway from capital Brasilia in the center of Brazil to Belem on the mouth of the Amazon River several decades ago led to mass destruction of the eastern Amazon.

The pattern can be seen perfectly in the town of Novo Progresso, just north of Alta Floresta in the state of Para, where an estimated 80 percent of land registrations are illegal, according to the Greenpeace report. Logging represents 17 percent of the poor state of Para's economic output.

"Who comes here dreams of becoming rich quickly," said Baldini. "In their dreams there is no forest, which can be cut down to create the fields of their dreams, with cattle and soy."

High world prices for Brazil's leading farm goods, such as soy which fetched around $10 billion in exports last year, are making farming very attractive in Brazil.

The powerful farm sectors' soaring profits are making the government's job of controlling deforestation that much harder, not least because many government officials see the sector as key to Brazil's soaring export boom.

Environmentalists fear this may represent an insurmountable challenge for the government. The fact that the government did not discuss the deforestation figures with environmentalists, as they do every year, before releasing them this time could have been an ominous sign.

"It looks like they no longer believe in the possibility of calling on society to react to this and they are trying to diminish the importance of the deforestation," said Roberto Smeraldi, director of Friends of the Earth in Brazil.

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