The great rainforest tragedy

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The Independent Online

Of all the world's great environmental tragedies it is the most compelling, and yesterday the deforestation of the Amazon was shown to be taking a huge turn for the worse.

After falling or staying steady for the past eight years, the rate at which Brazil's rainforest is disappearing has leapt by 40 per cent in a single year - and Europe's intensive farming may be a contributory cause.

Vast new tracts of virgin forest in the states of Mato Grosso and Para are being put to the chainsaw, according to figures from the Brazilian government, and turned into farmland - much of it used for growing soya beans, which end up as industrial cattle feed in Europe.

What is being destroyed is the most species-rich habitat on Earth. It provides much of the world's oxygen. It has been the subject of more green protests, and had more voices raised in its defence, than any other piece of ground on the planet. They seem to have availed it nothing.

Data from Brazil's National Institute for Space Research, based on satellite observations, reveal that in the year to August 2002 the amount of rainforest cut down was 25,500 square kilometres, or 10,190 square miles - an area about the size of Belgium. This has leapt from the previous year, when the area cut down had been 18,170 sq km (7,266 sq miles), an area about the size of Wales.

The more recent total was the second highest in the whole 30-year saga of Amazonian deforestation, exceeded only by the exceptional year to August 1995, when 29,059 sq km (12,200 sq miles) were destroyed. Since then the figure has dropped and remained steady at about 18,000 sq km - giving people some hope that the situation was not as hopelessly out of control as once it seemed to be.

But now the sudden increase in the deforestation rate has appalled even hardened Amazon-watchers. "This is shocking," said Mario Monzoni, a project co-ordinator for Friends of the Earth in Brazil. "The rate of deforestation should be falling; instead the opposite is happening."

Brazil's Environment Minister, Marina Silva, herself a former rubber tapper from the Amazon who also worked as a maid by day, said there would be "emergency action to deal with this highly worrying rise in deforestation". Promising an announcement next week, she said the government was considering real-time monitoring of deforestation and, for the first time in Brazil, to force all ministries to consider the environment when enacting policies.

All those who care for the Amazon will warmly welcome her comments, but not hold out excessive hope. The social and economic forces behind deforestation are stupendous, and for three decades have been far beyond the ability of bureaucrats in Brasilia or Sao Paulo to control them. In a huge country with a burgeoning population and oppressive poverty there is insatiable hunger for land, and the Amazon provides a ready answer.

It can take a lot of punishment - its rainforest covers 60 per cent of the territory of Brazil and extends for 1.6 million sq miles, an area as big as western Europe. But already about 16 per cent of it has been destroyed for development, logging and most of all farming.

There now seems to be a new and even more intense agricultural advance into the treeline, especially from large-scale growers of soya beans. Brazil is expected to overtake US soya production in a few years, making it the world's leading producer of a crop that offers its farmers large profits and gives a sizeable boost to its national trade accounts.

David Cleary, director of the Amazon programme at the Brazilian office of the Nature Conservancy, the US green charity, said that last year's deforestation figures were at least 30 or 40 per cent higher than historical trends. "It's 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 coming years," he said.

We may have a role in this ourselves. Much of the soya bean crop is exported to Europe as part of the 55 million tonnes of cattle feed the EU imports annually, attracting strong criticism from environmentalists, who say it is promoting industrial factory farming as well as helping to subsidise rainforest destruction.

That destruction seems even worse if you clothe the new raw data with a little imagination. At the new rate, about 28 sq miles of forest is being obliterated every day. How many trees in 28 square miles, an area seven miles long by four miles wide? A thousand? Ten thousand? Fifty thousand, more? Doesn't matter. They'll all be down by the end of today.

And what a forest it is, containing about 30 per cent of all the world's known plant and animal species, besides the uncatalogued insects, which may run into many millions. There are about 80,000 species of trees and flowering plants; 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. There are more than 2,000 species of birds, almost a quarter of the world's total; there are 2,000 species of freshwater fish and more than 3,000 species of mammals, reptiles and amphibians, ranging from the jaguar to the poison-arrow frog.

And now the chainsaws are slicing it down at a rate that could only be described as frenzied. It is the great green lung of the world, the Amazon rainforest, and the shadow on it is advancing unstoppably.