RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — As deforestation in Brazil's Amazon rain forest declined over the past three years, the country's leaders crowed that they'd found the recipe for stopping the destruction of the world's most diverse ecosystem.
By expanding the area of protected rain forest by more than 60 percent while allowing controlled logging, Brazil's government said it had cracked down on the illegal clearing that's consumed a fifth of the rain forest.
The celebration ended cold last month, however, when satellite images revealed that deforestation had exploded late last year in areas that regulators thought were under control.
As much as 2,700 square miles of the forest were cleared over the last five months of 2007, an area bigger than the state of Delaware and equal to more than 60 percent of the total deforestation registered over the previous 12 months.
Even more worrisome, the deforestation intensified in November and December, a period usually marked by heavy rains and a drop in forest clearing.
Now, Brazilian officials are going back to the drawing board to figure out what went wrong and how to tackle monumental problems such as endemic lawlessness and land disputes, which have long stymied governments.
After releasing the numbers, the federal government launched emergency measures that have included banning logging and possibly cutting government farm credits in 36 cities whose boundaries stretch far into the jungle. The cities accounted for more than half of the total area confirmed lost throughout the Brazilian Amazon during the last five months of last year.
The country's environment minister, Marina Silva, has blamed agriculture for the spike in deforestation and challenged farmers to halt all jungle clearing.
Even as he warned against overreacting to the data, President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said the federal government needed to enlist the help of cities, governors and civil society to reverse the trend.
"Ending deforestation is a very complicated goal," said Jose Heder Benatti, the president of the land management agency of the northern Brazilian state of Para, where much of the deforestation has taken place. "I would say reducing deforestation to zero is impossible. So we have to look at what we can do."
Whether Brazil succeeds will have global consequences.
Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases released from cleared and burned tropical forest worldwide are a quarter of all such emissions.
Brazil is the world's fourth biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, almost solely on the strength of emissions from deforestation, according to the World Resources Institute of Washington. The top three emitters are the United States, China and Indonesia.
"This demonstrates that the government has less control than they realized," said Thomas E. Lovejoy, the president of the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment in Washington. "They underestimated the market forces and overestimated the effectiveness of enforcement."
Critics ranging from environmentalists to ranchers said regulators couldn't monitor a wilderness the size of the entire western United States, especially as the prices of soybeans, beef and other commodities produced on cleared forest land rose. A drought in the area also made areas deep in the forest more accessible.
Other economic factors, including a slump in commodity prices, explain why deforestation dropped in previous years, said Paulo Barreto, senior researcher for the Brazilian environmental group Imazon.
"The government took some good actions, but the economics have more power," Barreto said.
Agriculture industry groups have rejected the recent numbers as inaccurate, although some admit rising commodity prices could increase pressure to deforest.
"We don't want to advance a single meter into the forest," said Armando Soares, environment director for Para's main agriculture industry federation. "But instead of working against us, the government needs to sit down and work with us on what we can do."
Adding to the problem is the lawlessness that rules the forest, where attempts to enforce environmental laws or settle land title disputes often prompt shootouts. Of the 36 cities placed under the recent deforestation ban, 23 rank among the most violent 10 percent of Brazilian cities.
In many cases, who owns what isn't even clear in the Amazon. Only 16 percent of land managed by the Para state government is legally titled, with the rest illegally occupied or under dispute, Benatti said.
"We need to increase our efforts to bring more land under the legal umbrella," Benatti said. "Once that happens, the other pieces will fall into place, and illegal deforestation will stop."
Such claims, however, are greeted skeptically by environmentalists such as Paulo Moutinho, research coordinator for the nonprofit Institute for Brazilian Environmental Research.
Even protected parks and forest reserves have been destroyed, he said, showing that government control is negligible throughout the forest.
"The government's plan to command and control was a problem in itself," Moutinho said. "Saving the Amazon means having to create economic incentives to leave the forest alone. Without that, there's no way this government can stop it."
Already, state governments are trying to make it more profitable to leave trees alone than cutting them down. The country's biggest state, Amazonas, last year even began paying people about $500 annually to not clear their land.
The country of Guyana on Brazil's northern border has taken the idea further by inviting the United Kingdom to administer and preserve all of its 50 million acres of forest in return for development aid.
Farmers in the western Brazilian state of Mato Grosso want to take the idea in another direction. The new data showed more than half of the recent deforestation happened in the state.
If the government builds more roads into the jungle, transportation costs for farms would go down and the need to clear more land would diminish, said Rui Prado, president of the Mato Grosso agriculture federation.
Environmentalists, however, have long warned that building roads opens more territory for destruction.
"We need infrastructure and paved roads that will help us add value to our products," Prado said. "There's already a consciousness among the farmers that we can't destroy the forest, and we aren't."
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