Soya spurs rape of Amazon rainforest

Posted: 6 June 2005

With over 26,000 square kilometres lost last year - nearly the size of Belgium - the annual deforestation rate in the Amazon has again increased and is at its second highest ever, according to official figures released in Brazilia.

Around 17 per cent of the natural vegetation in the Brazilian Amazon has already been devastated, much of the recent loss fuelled by the world demand for soya beans for cattle feed .

After falling or staying steady in the eight years before 2003, the rate of destruction jumped by 40 per cent in that year, from 18,000 sq km to 25,500 sq km, as the soya boom took hold. Now the figure has gone up again to 26,130 sq km in the 12 months to August 2004. Between 1995 and 2004 the area cultivated with soya beans increased by 77 per cent in the centre-west of the country, especially in the state of Mato Grosso.

The mayor of that state, Blairo Maggi, who also owns the Maggi Group farming business - the world's biggest soya bean producer - sees no problem in the present level of deforestation. Dubbed the King of Soy by some and King of Deforestation by others, his company plans to double its production in Mato Grosso next year, according to a report in the UK Independent newspaper.

But it says, many volently disagree. "The surival of the Amazon forest which sprawls over 4.1 million sq km (1.6 million sq miles)and covers more than half Brazil's land area may be the key to the survival of the planet. The jungle is sometimes called the world's lung because its trees produce much of the world's oxygen."

Chinese demand

The growing demand for soya is partly the result of the BSE scare which has encouraged European countries to turn to GM free sources of supply, continuing high demand in the United States, and the growing appetite for meat in China which has sent cattle feed imports into that country soaring

According to WWF, the latest figures show that the Brazilian government has not met its objectives, set in 2003, to reduce deforestation of the Amazon. President Lulu, though concerned to preserve the rainforest has promoted soya exports as a means of earning foreign exchange to pay foreign debts and bring the country out of economic depression.

Environmentalists criticize the Brazilian government for promoting such inconsistent policies, which encourage real estate speculation within forest areas in order to expand cattle ranching and industrial-scale farming. According to WWF, this causes environmental and social devastation because of illegal land clearing, exploitation of workers, and criminal activities. It highlights the failure of the federal government and most of the region's states to adopt sustainable development as a policy for the Amazon. Protected areas

"Despite the efforts of the Ministry of Environment, the federal government and state authorities are not committed enough to the fight against deforestation," said Denise Hamu, of WWF-Brazil. "Governmental bodies and business corporations must do much more to reduce such a shocking deforestation rate, otherwise we run the real risk that a considerable part of the Brazilian forest will disappear before it has even been explored."

Although the Amazon Protected Areas Programme (ARPA), launched in 2002, set aside almost 16 million hectares of land for conservation and sustainable use, WWF believes that much more needs to be done to save the world's most important rainforest.

"Creating protected areas is a truly effective conservation measure, but it is not a sufficient mechanism to stop deforestation," added Denise Hamu. "We need to stop the rampant destruction of the forest and ensure that its resources benefit both people and nature."

  • Brazilian police arrested 86 environmental officials and businessmen accused of involvement in a £200 million scheme to get rich from illegal deforestation, just two weeks after the government announced the Amazon jungle was disappearing at a increasingly furious pace.

    Among those arrested was the head of forests at Ibama, the federal agency charged with protecting the environment. Ibama's executive manager in Mato Grosso, the agricultural state where almost half of last year's deforestation took place, was also detained as was the state's environment secretary.

    Officials said the three, along with dozens of other officials and businessmen in five additional states, had worked for up to 14 years to put together an elaborate network of forgers, corrupt officials and false companies that enabled them to cut down trees in areas where deforestation is prohibited.

    All told, the gang was responsible for ripping up 43,000 hectares of jungle, enough timber to fill 76,000 lorries, Brazil's environment minister, Marina Silva, said.

    "Breaking up an organised crime gang that has been operating for decades ... is not a sign that things are out of control," Ms Silva told reporters in the capital Brasilia. "It's the result of an effort that has never before been made in Brazil's environmental history."

    Ms Silva's optimistic words were designed to give a much-needed boost to the beleaguered government of the president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, said a report in The Scotsman. Officials said the operation was the biggest ever mounted by the country's federal police and showed that the government was determined to fight corruption.

    "You never used to see this happening, perhaps because there was not this same intransigence towards corruption," said the justice minister, Marcio Thomaz Bastos. "Even worse would be sweeping corruption under the carpet."

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