RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — New satellite photographs show that the destruction of Brazil's fragile Amazon rainforest has exploded this year, fueling fears that the government's efforts to stop deforestation have been fruitless.
Brazil's DETER real-time monitoring system found that more than 430 square miles of forest, an area a bit smaller than the city of Los Angeles, vanished in the month of April, while about 2,300 square miles, larger than the state of Delaware, were destroyed between last August and April.
That nine-month total surpassed the entire acreage in the Amazon that was destroyed over the previous 12 months, according to DETER data. What's worse, the satellites couldn't see about half of the forest in April due to cloud cover, suggesting that actual deforestation likely was much greater.
That's raised red flags among environmentalists, who say that soybean farming, cattle production and illegal logging are destroying the world's largest rainforest despite the government's attempts to halt the deforestation.
Chopping down and burning the rainforest releases tons of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, contributing to global climate change. Brazil is the world's fourth-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, largely because of deforestation, according to the U.S.-based World Resources Institute.
Worse is yet to come, environmentalists said.
The Amazon's dry season, when farmers do most of their burning and clearing, starts this month. That means the 12-month total ending in August will surely climb, said Marcelo Marquesini, a Brazil-based forests expert with the international environmental group Greenpeace.
Marquesini said that rising prices for soybeans, beef and other commodities are pushing farmers to clear more land in the sprawling rainforest, which is about the size of the western United States.
"Those prices have been growing, and so has deforestation," Marquesini said. "We need to bring order to this area. We need to legalize land ownership and enforce environmental laws. Otherwise, the problem won't stop."
A more complete deforestation picture will come out later this year, when Brazil's PRODES monitoring system, which studies the Amazon over a longer period, produces more detailed results.
That system had found deforestation rates plummeting by more than 50 percent between Aug. 2004 and July 2007, a trend that Brazil's government credited to tougher enforcement of environmental laws and the creation of more forest reserves.
The new DETER data, however, suggests that the drop will end this year, environmentalists said.
Brazil's government already has responded to rising deforestation by cracking down on loggers, charcoal producers and others working illegally in the forest. While critics question whether such actions have done any good, government officials insist that the crackdown's effects are only now being felt.
"I'm not saying this new data isn't worrying, but the impacts of our strategy are just beginning," said Andre Lima, the anti-deforestation policy director at Brazil's Environment Ministry. "Of course, we have a problem but we have a good strategy."
The fate of the Amazon has been at the center of a growing debate here over how this nation of 185 million people can both protect the forest and feed its booming economy, which depends on exporting soybeans and other commodities.
That debate has raged even within Brazil's government, with President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva at times striking an environmentalist line and at other times downplaying the dangers of agribusiness to the Amazon.
The internal struggle claimed its most high-profile victim last month when Environment Minister Marina Silva, a celebrated environmentalist, resigned, saying that she was fighting a losing battle against pro-development policies.
Her replacement, Carlos Minc, said Monday that he'd continue Silva's fight and announced that environmental officials would start seizing any cattle found grazing on illegally deforested land.
Agribusiness leaders have lashed out at such initiatives and questioned the government's deforestation numbers, saying their own estimates show that much less forest has been cleared.
More farmers are using state-of-the-art machinery and methods to increase yields and avoid expanding into forest, said Amado Oliveira, an environmental consultant for the main agricultural federation of Mato Grosso state in western Brazil.
The DETER data found that 70 percent of deforestation in April occurred in Mato Grosso.
"We think the government is making a mistake releasing these flawed figures," Oliveira said. "This paints a bad picture of Brazil in the world, and we insist it's not happening."