Amazon rainforest takes new battering

Posted: 2 July 2003

Figures recently released by the Brazilian government show that Amazon rainforest has received a new battering with deforestation in the region increasing by 40 per cent in the past year.

Statistics based on satellite observations from Brazil's National Institute for Space Research show that in the year to August 2002, 25,000 square kilometres (10,190 square miles) of virgin rainforest - an area the size of Belgium - came under the axe. This is an enormous jump from last year when 18,170 square kilometres (7,266 square miles) - an area the size of Wales - was cut down. Worse still, the government report for the year did not account for destruction to the Amazon caused by forest fires which have been particularly destructive in some states.

Soya farming

According to the Brazilian government, vast new tracts of virgin forest in the states of Matto Grosso and Para are being destroyed and turned into farmland, mainly for cultivating soya beans to meet the demand of European consumers who have rejected GM soya from the United States in preference to the conventionally-grown crop from Brazil. In addition, Brazilian soya beans are being used for industrial cattle feed in Europe. It is expected that Brazil will supersede the US in soya production in the next five years making it the world's leading producer of that crop, offering farmers large profits and export income for the country, but most likely at the expense of the Amazon.

Environmental groups have expressed alarm at the latest figures to emerge from Brazil. "The deforestation figures are at least 30 to 40 per cent higher than historical trends," said David Cleary of the US-based Nature Conservancy. "It is clear that the soya boom is an important element of this in the Southern Amazon, and if ways are not found to minimise the impact it is difficult to see these figures falling in the coming years."

Ariel view of the AmazonA. Bartschi/Still Pictures"It is alarming how the agriculture frontier is growing," said Paulo Adario of Greenpeace Brazil. "Almost 80 per cent of timber is illegally felled, but clearing land for industrial soya farming is now taking over timber as the major driver of forest loss in some regions."

Threatened species

While rainforests cover only 2 per cent of the earth's surface they are home to some 40 to 50 per cent of all plant and animal species. It is estimated that some 30 million species of plants, animals and insects are found in the world's rainforests. The Amazon is of special significance, an area of 4.1 million square kilometres (1.54 million square miles) - an area larger than western Europe - it contains around 30 per cent of all the world's known plant and animal species which are endemic to the region.

Scientists have calculated that there are around 80,000 species of trees and flowering plants; while in a single hectare of forest there may be as many as 300 tree species, more than 10 times that in the most diverse North American forest. In addition, there are more than 2,000 species of birds, around a quarter of the world's total; 2,000 species of freshwater fish and more than 3,000 species of mammals, reptile and amphibians, leave aside the uncatalogued insects which may run into many millions.

Climate change

In an area that produces a fifth of the world's oxygen, the situation bears serious implications for all of us. Scientists warn that the current rate of deforestation would reduce the amount of oxygen produced while, at the same time, increase carbon dioxide emissions, resulting in further global warming and erratic weather patterns.

Brazil's environment minister, Marina Silva, a former rubber tapper herself, announced that there would be "emergency action to deal with this highly worrying rise in deforestation." She has promised new measures to protect the forest, including real-time monitoring of deforestation and to force all ministries to consider the environment in all policy formulation.

Despite her welcomed call for action, environmental groups are sceptical considering the government's current record and future policy towards the region. It plans to invest over US$ 40 billion in new roads, railroads, reservoirs, power lines and gas lines in the Amazon over the next few years. This would result in further dramatic destruction to the rainforest through felling and forest fires. Fortunately for the region the government has not yet fully endorsed the plan.

About 28 square miles of forest is being put to the chainsaw everyday and already 16 per cent of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed for development, timber and mainly farmland. In a country experiencing rapid population growth, extreme poverty and with landlessness for many, the future of the Amazon - often described as "the lungs of the world" - does not bode well.

Sources: The Independent and The Guardian, 28th June 2003.Related link:Amazon may be levelled by the humble soya (Guardian report, December 20, 2003)