Britain is to slash its aid programme aimed at saving the Amazon rainforest and preserving the culture of its people to meet the soaring cost of rebuilding Iraq.
Environmentalists fear the Government's decision to review its £16m contribution to the international community's efforts to protect Amazonia could lead to further ecological and cultural devastation.
Britain is one of the leading backers of the G7 Pilot Programme for the Conservation of the Brazilian Rainforests, which helps indigenous peoples to manage the forest in a sustainable way and counter the effects of illegal logging.
The Department for International Development admitted it was scaling back cash for its aid projects to the Amazon in a written parliamentary reply to the Labour MP Barry Gardiner yesterday.
The number of trees felled in the Amazon region has risen by 40 per cent in the past year, with almost 10,000 square miles of virgin forest - an area 1.2 times the size of Wales - cut down. But the Government has admitted "the future" of schemes that were due to continue for another three years, "will have to be reviewed".
The move was made after the Government's decision to pour £540m into the rebuilding of Iraq, which critics say is being spent at the expense of aid projects to some of the world's poorest nations.
Mr Gardiner, MP for Brent North, called on the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to find cash to plug the hole left by the removal of funding from the government aid programme. "I am extremely concerned. The ecological and environmental effects of deforestation are very serious," he said. "I think it is absolutely vital that Defra looks at its responsibility here. This is of huge significance in an environmental context. I think that Defra should be picking this up."
The aid schemes underpin Brazil's own efforts to protect its precious resource, which is vital to prevent further global warming and protect biodiversity. The G7 programme, which is a vital tool in combating global warming, has a total budget of $410m (£246m), of which Britain is a major donor, contributing £16m. It funds programmes to stop illegal logging of virgin timber and to help the indigenous Amazonian peoples protect their native environment from loggers.
The British money also pays for local programmes to sustain the Amazon's flood plains and research into how to ensure "sustainable forestry management" in Brazil.
In addition to the G7 programme, Britain funds a number of other projects to protect the Amazon, which are also under threat because of the reallocation of cash to Iraq. They include backing for the Brazilian Agriculture Research Institute to help small farmers learn about sustainability and forestry management.
The Brazilian Amazon covers 5.2 million sqkm (2 million square miles), more than 60 per cent of the country. It contains about a third of the world's rainforest, and some 30 per cent of the world's biodiversity.
Greenpeace warned of an environmental catastrophe if countries around the world withdrew aid for the Amazon. John Sauven, campaign director, said: "This is a flagship project. Withdrawing funding would be a serious blow and undermines the Government's commitment to stop biodiversity loss.
"The Amazon contains 20 to 50 per cent of the world's land-based resources. It is the most important area for biodiversity in the world. I find it quite incredible that these vital resources are being diverted to rebuild Iraq."
The Department for International Development confirmed yesterday that funding to Brazil, including its rainforest programmes, was no longer guaranteed because of the cutting of aid to "middle income countries". It said that support programmes expected to continue until 2005-06 were no longer assured.
"We do have to look at the budget for middle-income countries. We have made a commitment that we are going to spend 90 per cent of bilateral aid on poorest countries," said a spokeswoman.
The department has already indicated it wants to focus on helping the world's poorest countries by channelling cash from middle-income nations.