Logs cut from the Amazon rainforest are transported by barge to a shipping port, just off Marajo Island near the mouth of the Amazon River. REUTERS/Raimundo Pacco
After years of gains against destruction of the Amazon
rainforest, Brazil appears to be suffering from an increase
in deforestation as farmers, loggers, miners and builders
move into previously untouched woodland, according to data
compiled by the government and independent researchers.
Imazon, a Brazilian research institute that tracks
deforestation through satellite imagery, said in a recent
report that destruction in the world's largest rainforest
climbed for the fourth consecutive month in December.
In the last five months of 2012, Imazon detected clearings of
497 square miles (1,288 square km) of woodland - a Los
Angeles-size total that is more than twice as big as the
combined areas detected in the last five months of 2011.
Preliminary data from Brazil's space agency, which produces
its own monthly estimates, also suggests an increase in
deforestation between August and October, the last month for
which its figures have been released.
Researchers and government officials say more data is needed
to confirm that a full-fledged reversal is under way after
what had been a sustained reduction in deforestation in
recent years. Among other variables, clouds from the ongoing
rainy season hinder definitive imagery. Additional data could
also clarify whether new gaps in the rainforest canopy are
the result of deliberate clearcutting and fires or of natural
If the increase continues, it would confirm fears raised by
scientists and ecologists that changes to Brazil's
environmental policies, growing inroads by developers and
government-backed infrastructure projects are eroding gains
in the fight to protect a region that has about 12 percent of
the planet's fresh water, is an abundant source of oxygen and
is home to an untold number of plant and animal species.
"The context is ripe for the destruction to intensify," said
Paulo Moutinho, executive director of the Amazon
Environmental Research Institute, a well-known not-for-profit
group. "It's clear that the levels could easily continue to
Government officials urge caution, noting the long-term trend
in progress against deforestation. "It's too early to sound
an alarm," said Francisco Oliveira, the director of policies
against deforestation at Brazil's environment ministry. "A
fuller picture will emerge once the clouds are gone."
Many factors drive deforestation.
Loggers and miners have long exploited hardwoods and ores in
a jungle the size of Western Europe. As Brazil became an
agricultural powerhouse in recent decades, soybean growers,
cattle ranchers and others increasingly farmed cleared
Then there is the ongoing push to tap the Amazon region's
rivers with hydroelectric dams - a process critics say lures
people to areas that would otherwise remain untouched.
Tracking deforestation is a challenging science that relies
on a mix of satellite data and on-the-ground reconnaissance.
Brazil's government and scientists at Imazon, a privately
funded institute in the Amazon city of Belem, get preliminary
evidence through satellite imagery. More conclusive data
takes longer to compile and relies on slower
higher-resolution visuals and on-site surveys by scientists
and environmental inspectors.
The government releases an annual tally through July, when
the region is driest and aerial views are the most clear.
Data showed that deforestation, through July 2012, had fallen
to record lows for four consecutive years, largely because of
stricter environmental enforcement.
A spike in 2007, when a surge in commodity prices sparked a
rush for cropland, was curtailed after the government
introduced steeper fines and blocked credit for offenders.
In response, loggers turned to smaller, more focused felling
in efforts to evade satellite scans.
Now, scientists and environmental activists warn that
violators are emboldened by regulatory changes, high global
prices for agricultural exports and a scramble by settlers to
get in on the economic activity around hydroelectric dams and
other big infrastructure and industrial projects.
"You are going to see an increase in deforestation very
soon," Marina Silva, a former environment minister and
longtime Amazon activist, warned in a Reuters interview last
She and other critics have lambasted the government of
President Dilma Rousseff, whose drive to revive Brazil's
once-booming economy has wrought changes that
environmentalists fear unleash destruction. Rousseff, for her
part, has said the policies are both necessary and
Among other regulatory changes, Brazil in late 2011 gave
local officials more authority over the enforcement of
environmental laws and in the process closed many of the
federal outposts where forestry agents, especially in the
vast and remote rainforest, represented the only obstacle to
Last year, Brazil revamped its "forestry code," longstanding
rules for the types of woodland that must be preserved around
developments. While the new code theoretically remains strict
in the conservation it mandates, critics argue that
enforcement will be difficult because of the handover to
Oliveira, the environment ministry official, said the federal
government can still respond swiftly. Instead of relying on
fixed bases, he explained, new units of environmental agents
were created in recent months that can be deployed when
needed -- making them "more agile" as violators clear smaller
"Our methods and strategies are evolving," he said.
Still, scientists fear some of the damage could be happening
before the government's very eyes. Government-backed dams,
roads and mines are speeding a reversal, they argue, because
they grant passage to previously isolated swaths of the
"You have all these factors coming together making it much
easier to gain access to the forest," said Paulo Barreto, an
Imazon researcher. The recent numbers have spiked so quickly,
he added, "it will be difficult for the annual figures to