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Amazon destruction rising fast

Brazil has launched a $140 million plan to reverse Amazon deforestation, which hit near record levels last year.

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President Luiz InĂ¡cio Lula da Silva has Brazil's greens seeing red.

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Earlier this month, the government announced that annual Amazon deforestation had grown 2 percent last year, to 9,169 square miles - an area the size of New Hampshire and the second-highest year since officials started tracking it in 1988.

What concerned critics, in addition to the soaring figure, was the government's reaction to the news. Although officials say they are not happy with the situation, they celebrated the relatively low increase, prompting environmentalists to complain that deforestation was being allowed to stabilize at too high a rate. Many greens expected something different from a supposedly eco-friendly president.

"That 9,169 square miles disappeared last year is unacceptable," says Adriana Ramos, public-policy coordinator for the Socio-Environmen- tal Institute, a nongovernmental organization. "What is extremely worrying is that it has leveled out at a rate so much higher than it was a decade ago."

As in previous years, most of the destruction came along the "arc of deforestation," a swath of land on the southern and eastern borders of the forest that is home to many of Brazil's soy growers and cattle ranchers.

Brazil is the world's second-biggest soy producer and has the second-largest herd of cattle - 57 million of which are in the Amazon. Beef exports have increased fivefold over the past six years, according to a report by the Center for International Forestry Research, and soy production has grown from 32 million tons in 2000 to 52 million tons last year.

Fifteen months ago when Mr. da Silva took office, environmentalists were thrilled that the former socialist would be leading the world's most ecologically diverse nation. Lula, as he is known here, had always voiced strong support for environmental causes. Now the greens are skeptical.

"This government has taken a long time to do anything - and not just with the environment," says Rosa Lemos de Sa, conservation director for the Brazilian branch of the World Wildlife Fund. "So far there have been a lot of meetings, a lot of talking, a lot of planning. I am starting to get nervous. I want to see things happening."

Although the Lula government says it needs time for its antideforestation measures, launched last month, to take effect, environmentalists say that if the government's other promises are anything to go by, then they are right to be wary. Since taking power, Lula has done about-turns on several key environmental issues - such as flip- flopping on genetically modified foods and possibly opening another nuclear reactor outside Rio - prompting activists to openly question his commitment to protecting the environment.

"Lula has been dazzled by power," says Fernando Gabeira, a former Green Party legislator who joined Lula's Workers' Party before the election but resigned last year because, he says, "Lula was speaking like someone who wants development at all costs. He cheated us in that he gave us the impression that we were allies and today he is much more allied with our adversaries. But then again he cheated many sectors. He got into government and changed positions."

Presidential candidates who say one thing on the campaign trial and then do another when they get into power are nothing new. But there were many reasons to believe Lula was different. A former shoeshine boy and union leader who won a landslide victory by promising to make Brazil a kinder and fairer nation, he was elected in large part because of his personal and political integrity.

Now, however, with the economy stagnant, unemployment high, and corruption scandals forcing the government to spend more time defending itself than actually tackling problems, people are starting to question both his credibility and competence. They say he has turned a blind eye to the destruction because exports help keep the economy afloat.

Economic growth has historically been one of the main catalysts for the deforestation. A boom during the mid 1990s prompted unprecedented destruction - in 1995, more than 11,220 square miles were cut down - and turned saving the rain forest into a trendy international cause. The forest fell off Western radar screens and the destruction continued in the area that is home to 80,000 kinds of trees and plants, more than 2,000 different birds, and more species of fish than in the whole of Western Europe. The Amazon has lost 16 perecnt of it's original tree cover.

Government officials say their latest plan is designed to protect as much of the remaining forest as possible and prevent the destruction that has led Brazil to lose eight species of animals and birds since 1990.

Launched last month, the "plan of action" removes the burden solely from the Environment Ministry and for the first time charges other related ministries such as agriculture, transport, industry, and labor with responsibility for halting the deforestation. The $140 million plan - which also calls for new sustainable development programs, better early monitoring, and tougher penalties for offenders - was well received by environmentalists.

Now they will be watching closely.

"It is common that when a new government moves in it takes time to adjust, but 15 months is too long," says Ms. Lemos de Sa. "This is the time for them to show that they are serious and that they are going to really make a difference. If they don't show any results soon they are going to lose credibility."

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