A fifth of the Amazon rainforest — the world’s biggest carbon sponge — has disappeared since the 1970s. The Brazilian government has succeeded in recent years in slowing the deforestation rate, but its efforts have recently been faltering.

Bungle in the jungle

Bungle in the jungle.
Photo: iStockphoto

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In the last four months, 2300 square miles of rainforest got leveled, Reuters reports. In the year before that, the forest surrendered 3700 square miles. If the current rate holds over a full year, that would mean a 9200-square-mile loss — an alarming acceleration and the first rise in four years.

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What’s driving the trend? Traditional factors like demand for timber and land for cattle grazing remain in place, but the real culprit appears to desire for cropland. Rising prices of crops, fueled by the biofuel boom, is inspiring people to clear trees.

And the trend could intensify.

[A government scientist] also warned that continued high world oil prices were likely to result in a surge in demand for Amazon land to produce ethanol, the alternative transport fuel for which global demand is already booming.

"If oil prices keep increasing there will be an explosion of biofuel production in the Amazon, contrary to Brazilian government policy," Nobre said.

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There’s a bitter irony here. Many governments — including our own — have mandated steep rises in biofuel use as a green alternative to crude oil. But if meeting those mandates means amputating the "world’s lungs," the cure could prove worse than the disease.

As Reuters puts it:

Destruction of forests produces about 20 percent of man-made carbon dioxide emissions, making conservation of the Amazon crucial to limiting rises in global temperatures.