Watch CBSN Live

Amazon Axing Increases

Destruction of Brazil's Amazon rain forest jumped last year to the highest levels since 1995, prompting the government Tuesday to pledge new controls to reduce deforestation.

Logging in the world's largest tropical forest reached 7,659 square miles last year, up from 6,664 square miles in 1999, according to preliminary figures from the government's National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

Environmentalists were angered by the rise, saying more action was needed quickly to reverse what they see as the unsustainable destruction of the Amazon, home to up to 30 percent of the world's animal and plant life.

"The beginning of the new millennium could not have been worse for the Amazon, the figures are worrying if we look to the future," said the World Wildlife Fund in a statement.

The annual INPE figures, based on satellite images of the Amazon, showed 0.56 percent of total jungle was cut down in 2000. Most of the Amazon — which is larger than all Western Europe combined — is in Brazil, although it stretches to neighboring countries like Venezuela and Colombia.

The area of the Amazon lost was about the size of Belgium.

Destruction of the Amazon, which is sometimes considered to be the "lungs of the planet" due to the huge amounts of oxygen produced by its trees, had been gradually falling from the highest rate in recent years of 0.8 percent in 1995.

INPE said last year's increase in deforestation was mainly due to increased logging on small properties, owned by farmers trying to make a living from the land.

Responding to the figures, the environment ministry's secretary of coordination for the Amazon, Mary Allegretti, said the government would introduce an environmental-licensing system for properties in areas were deforestation is worst.

To enforce controls on logging in the worst areas, the right to cut down trees would only be granted if the property owner has an environmental license, Allegretti said.

"At first we will concentrate our work in the worst-affected areas, but the demand for licenses on rural properties will apply for all of Amazonia," Allegretti said.

INPE's annual figures coincided with an increasingly intense campaign by environmentalists to block a proposal to increase the amount of the Amazon that can be legally cut down. The proposed change to Brazil's so-called forest code will be voted in a congressional commission on May 30.

Environmentalists are fearful that a chronic energy shortage, which will likely lead to rationing, could put more environmental pressures on the Amazon as the government considers building more energy plants in the area.

A study published this year warned that an economic development program by the government could destroy up to 42 percent of the Amazon if it goes ahead.

© MMI Reuters Limited. All Rights Reserved

View CBS News In