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Rainforest loss in the Amazon tops 200,000 square miles, new figures from Brazilian government

Rainforest loss in the Amazon tops 200,000 square miles, new figures from Brazilian government

Rainforest loss in the Amazon tops 200,000 square miles, new figures from Brazilian government
May 20, 2005

New figures from the Brazilian government show that 10,088 square miles of rain forest were destroyed in the 12 months ending in August 2004. Deforestation in the Amazon in 2004 was the second worst ever as rain forest was cleared for cattle ranches and soy farms.

Deforestation Figures for Brazil

[sq mi]
[sq km]
1978-1988* 8,158 21,130
1989 6,944 17,985
1990 5,332 13,810
1991 4,297 11,130
1992 5,322 13,786
1993 5,950 15,410
1994 5,751 14,896
1995 11,219 29,059
1996 7,013 18,160
1997 5,034 13,040
1998 6,501 16,840
1999 6,663 17,259
2000 7,658 19,836
2001 7,027 18,130
2002 9,845 25,500
2003 9,500 24,605
2004 10,088 26,129
TOTAL 203,882 528,005

All figures derived from official National
Institute of Space Research (INPA) figures

*For the 1978-1988 period the figures represent
the average annual rates of deforestation.

Scientists are concerned that widespread deforestation in the Amazon could have global consequences through species extinction and climate change.

Nearly half the total deforestation last year took place in Mato Grosso state, where rain forests are being converted into large soy plantations. Blairo Maggi, the governor of the state, is world’s single largest soy producer. Soy has become Brazil’s biggest farm export — equal to about $10 billion in 2004 — thanks to a booming market fueled by high demand from China and, as the result of a new variety of soybean developed by Brazilian scientists to flourish rainforest climate, the country is on the verge of supplanting the United States as the world’s leading exporter of soybeans. Each year Brazil is opening up an area of cropland the size of Maryland.

Significant areas of the Amazon are also cleared for cattle pasture. According to The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), in 2003 80 percet of the growth in Brazilian cattle production was in the Amazon region but much of this land clearing is used for land speculation purposes. In Brazil, developers can gain title to Amazon lands by clearing forest and placing cattle on the land. Thus cattle are a vehicle for land ownership in the Amazon.

Environmentalists worry that new infrastructure projects will only fuel further destruction. Typically, roads encourage the expansion of development activities like logging and commercial agriculture while spurring settlement by rural poor who look to the rainforest as free land for substistence agriculture. Satellite data in 2004 showed a marked increase in deforestation along the BR-163 road, a highway the government has been paving in an effort to help soy farmers in Mato Grosso get their crops to export markets. Brazil and Peru have embarked on a similar road project to construct a highway that would link the new agricultural zones of the Amazon to the ports of Peru to feed growing food demand from China.

Rondônia, Brazil. Top:June 1985, Bottom: August 1992

These photograph, showing the destruction of tropical rain forests, provides a visual indication of the rate of deforestation that is taking place in the state of Rondônia, which has been especially hard hit by deforestation. The amount of clear-cut area now exceeds the area of remaining rain forest timber stands. The solid dark green areas show the remaining tropical rain forest canopy. Two urban areas separated by a small river can be seen near the center of the photograph

Photos and text are courtesy of the Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center.

Since 1978 about 205,000 square miles (531,000 square kilometers) of the Amazon have been destroyed. Studies from NASA suggest that these estimates of Amazon deforestation may be low since some satellite images fail to capture areas degraded by logging and accidental fire. At present, the Amazon covers about 1.6 million square miles (4.1 million square kilometers).

Global environmental role

The Amazon forest plays a key role in the global environment, supplying a portion of the world’s oxygen and locking up massive amounts of carbon. As forest is cut, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere contributing to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Further, scientists have found that the reduction of forest cover has affected local weather patterns. Less rain tends to fall in deforested areas and scientists fear that continued forest clearing could turn much of the region into savanna. A recent study in Science warned that a prolonged drought in the Amazon could lead to a massive die-off in the world’s largest rainforest.

Home to up to 30 percent of the world’s plant and animal species, including a new species of monkey discovered earlier this year, the Amazon holds a great deal of promise in the development of drugs and other useful products derived from its biodiversity. Through bioprospecting this economic potential is increasingly being realized and a number of pharmaceutical products have been derived from plants in the region. Indigenous populations have tradtional uses for thousands more.


The new figures were announced three months after the prominent slaying of American nun Dorothy Stang in February. Stang had been working with the rural poor in Para state when she was gunned down by men with ties to large land developers. In response, the government set aside new protected areas, but many believe that this move will do little to slow forest loss. Some analysts believe deforestation in the Amazon and surrounding regions will continue to escalate as the country looks to expand its exports, especially to the Far East.

    Last week the government of Brazil released figures showing deforestation in the Amazon rainforest reached the 10,088 square miles (26,129 square kilometers) for the year ending August 2004. Deforestation in the Amazon in 2004 was the second worst ever as rain forest was cleared for cattle ranches and soy farms.

    The background image shows deforestation associated with the Tierras Bajas project in eastern Bolivia where people have been resettled from the Altiplano to cultivate soybeans. The photo is from NASA’s Earth Observatory.