Amazon Deforestation Increases by 28%; Brazilian Environmental Minister Calls For Action

By Gabrielle Jonas on November 15, 2013 3:00 PM EST

From Paradise to Inferno
This photo, taken September 23, 2013, shows the aftermath of a burnt portion of the Amazonian forest near Novo Progresso, Para State. It was being cleared for use as cattle pasture. (Photo: Nacho Doce, Reuters)

Deforestation in the world's largest rain forest has increased by 28 percent in just 12 months, the Brazilian government had announced Thursday. 

Brazil's minister of environment demanded urgent action to reverse dramatic rises in the rate of deforestation in the Amazon over the past year. Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira urged action from regional authorities after satellite data showed that the total amount of forest ripped down for 12 months through the end of July 2013 amounted to 5,843 square kilometers (2,256 square miles), the Agence France Presse reported.

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High global prices for agricultural commodities, encouraging the felling of trees to make way for farmland and massive governmental infrastructure projects, appear to be the main culprits for the drastic deforestation rates, Reuters reported.

Teixeira has called for emergency sessions with regional environment officials upon her return from a United Nations climate change summit in Warsaw next week. Brazil would respect international conventions calling for a stark reduction in Amazonian deforestation, Teixeira said, adding that Brazil's commitment is not only to overturn any increase in deforestation but to eliminate deforestation altogether, according to Agence France Presse.

That's easier said than done. Brazil is industrializing rapidly, and projects including the building of huge railways, roads, and hydroelectric dams have the Brazilian government itself, despite its protestations, ripping out acres of rainforest. In addition, extensive farming and soybean production in the northern state of Para increased deforestation by 37 percent and in the central western state of Mato Grosso by 52 percent over the year before, according to Teixeira. The sheer size of the country alone — 8.5 million square kilometers (3.3 million square miles) — around three-fifths of which is forest, renders enforcement of anti-deforestation laws forbidding. The country's population of almost 200 million, all with mouths to feed, puts another irresistible pressure on Brazil's forests, according to Agence France Presse.

Adding to those pressures is the powerful Brazilian agribusiness lobby, which presents a formidable threat against efforts to curb deforestation, according to Agence France Presse. And recently, a revised forestry code from 2012 allows landowners to cultivate riverbanks and hillsides that had previously been off-limits, upsetting environmentalists. And, though they expected as much, local environmentalists are upset by Thursday's reversal of their country's recent positive trends in deforestation.

"This is not alarmist," Marcio Astrini, coordinator for the Amazon campaign at the Brazilian chapter of Greenpeace, the environmentalist group, told Reuters. "It's a real and measured inversion of what had been a positive trend."

The federal government seems to be placing the blaming squarely on the backs of local authorities. "The Brazilian government does not tolerate and does not accept any rise in illegal deforestation," Teixeira said, Agence France Presse reported.

All in all, the past year's figure is actually the second-lowest annual tally since Brazil's space agency began tracking deforestation. For example, the worst year on record was 2004, when 27,000 square kilometers of forest was lost — nearly five times as much as this year. Nevertheless, it was also the first time in 10 years that deforestation has gone up, fulfilling predictions by environmentalists that Brazil's good track record of steady progress over the last 10 years was reversing itself.

Teixiera reminded the public of the long-term decrease in deforestation over the past decade and said the overall trend was "positive." The government's goal, Teixeira told a news conference in Brasilia, "is to eliminate illegal deforestation in the Amazon." 

Institute Amazon spokesman Adalberto Veríssimo said the government had delivered "a very positive reduction in Amazon deforestation over the past decade."

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