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Title:    Brazil quiet as evidence of Amazon's demise mounts
Source:   Associated Press
Status:   Copyright, contact source for reprint permission
Date:     Monday, December 15, 1997    
Byline:   By Michael Astor 

RIO DE JANEIRO -- No one disputes that the Amazon rain forest is shrinking, but just how fast it's disappearing is a mystery -- and a political hot potato in Brazil.

A new report by a congressional committee investigating foreign logging companies says the Amazon is vanishing at a rate of 20,000 square miles a year. That's more than three times the rate of 1994, the last year for which official figures are available.

About 12 percent of the 2 million-square-mile wilderness is gone. Scientists say the loss -- mainly from wildfires and logging -- adds to the greenhouse effect that is believed to cause global warming.

"If nothing is done, the entire Amazon will be gone within 50 years," said the 110-page report's author, Rep. Gilney Vianna of the leftist Worker's Party in the Amazon state of Mato Grosso.

Although the numbers are only estimates, it's hard for the government to refute them without figures of its own. That's another problem, because the official numbers have been under wraps for nearly three years. 

 The government had promised to release its figures Dec. 1. They were withheld after Eduardo Martins, president of Brazil's Environmental Protection Agency, asked for more data on the average size of deforested areas and the types of vegetation affected.

"The rate of deforestation is only good for a headline but does nothing to resolve the problem," said Martins. "I wanted to look at the causes."

Vianna and several leading environmentalists say the release was delayed to avoid potential embarrassment for Brazil at the international conference on greenhouse gas emissions in Kyoto, Japan.    Martins denied it, but he admitted the government's numbers will show that Amazon destruction is on the rise. He said figures on western Rondonia state reflect the deforestation trend across the Amazon: deforestation rose sharply in 1995 before leveling off slightly in 1996 and 1997.

Determining the extent of deforestation is the job of the government's National Space Research Institute. At its headquarters in Sao Jose dos Campos, 190 miles southwest of Rio, 120 analysts have spent the last five months toiling over photos from NASA's Landsat-TM satellite showing deforestation from 1995 to 1997.

In 1994, 80 percent of Amazon deforestation was revealed in 38 of the 229 satellite images that cover the Brazilian Amazon. This year, the number of images that captured the same percentage of deforestation climbed to 47, said Ulf Walter Palme, the project's technical director. The increase means the area of destruction has expanded since then by 122,544 square miles -- an area roughly the size of Italy.  

The government relies solely on satellite images in compiling its figures. Vianna's report arrives at substantially higher figures by including estimates on the cutting of lots smaller than the 16-acre minimum measurable by the satellite photos. Vianna has called for a 10-year moratorium on cutting and burning in the Amazon.

    "We need the moratorium because the government has no coherent policy in the Amazon," he said. "Seventy percent of the burnings are authorized by the government and so is the vast majority of the deforestation."


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