Brazilian ministers claim victory in war on illegal loggers

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil – The destruction of the world's largest rainforest last year fell to its lowest rate in nearly two decades, according to figures announced by the Brazilian government.

Between August 2005 and July 2006, around 5,400 square miles of Amazon forest were felled - a 25% reduction on the previous 12 months, government officials said. Initial figures for the 2006-2007 period, compiled with the useofsatellite images, predicted a further reduction to under 4,000 square miles.

"The numbers show that we are starting to take account of environmental governance in one of the world's most important eco-systems," the environment minister, Marina da Silva, told reporters in Brasilia, the capital. "It's a great achievement for Brazilian society," she added.

She claimed that a government clampdown on illegal loggers had saved around 600m trees, 20,000 birds and 700,000 primates in the Brazilian Amazon.

It is estimated that around 20% of the Amazon rainforest has already been destroyed.

Ms da Silva attributed the figures to the government's anti-deforestation plan, launched in 2004. She also highlighted 20 federal police operations targeting illegal logging mafia as, in which 560 people were arrested and more than a million cubic metres of wood seized.

Environmental groups welcomed the figures, but warned that the fall in deforestation levels owed more to a drop in soya bean prices and a rise in the value of Brazil's currency than to government action. Economic factors had made razing the forest to grow soya less profi table, activists claimed.

In a statement, the Brazilian wing of the WWF described the figures as "good news", but said the country's president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, had still presided over higher levels of deforestation than his predecessors. "In the first term [of President Lula's government] around [33,000 square miles] were cut down. Compared to previous governments this number is a record," the statement said, adding that it was not yet clear how the forest would be protected from "the new wave of development that sees the environment as an obstacle".

Earlier this year the government launched an ambitious plan intended to boost economic growth, known as the PAC. The plan outlines the construction of major road networks and several hydroelectric plants in the Amazon, which environmentalists fear will have negative consequences both for the country's rainforest and the Indigenous tribes there.

In a recent interview in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, Greenpeace's Amazon director, Paulo Adario, said one of the biggest challenges faced by the Brazilian government remained law enforcement in the vast Amazon jungle, where illegal loggers continue to tear down vast tracts of forest and gunmen are often hired to protect remote parts of the forest.

"Respect for the law is a very complicated thing in Brazil," he said, comparing the government's diffi culty in clamping down on Rio de Janeiro's drug traffickers and the Amazon's illegal loggers. "It is, for example, illegal to sell cocaine, but in Rio you can go to any favela in Ipanema and buy it," he said.

According to the government study the Amazon state of Para was the worst affected by deforestation, losing more than 2,000 square miles of its forest.

In Mato Grosso, the state that is at the cent re of Brazil's soya industry, nearly 1,700 square miles were cut down. Environmentalists there fear that an expected rise in the price of soya could cause the destruction levels to grow again.

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