The destruction of the world's greatest rain forest, the Amazon, is accelerating. Despite concerns raised by scientists, environmentalists, and international lending agencies in recent years, more forest was felled in 1987 than any previous year. And scientists predict that at least a similar chunk will disappear in 1988.
Philip Fearnside, an American ecologist based in Manaus, predicts that 6.7 million acres - an area the size of the state of Maryland - will fall victim to chain saws and bulldozers this year.
Already, an estimated 6 percent of the Amazon forest has been razed. So much of the rain forest, more than half the size of the United States, went up in flames this year that the region's major cities became enshrouded in smoke from slash-and-burn clearing techniques. The smoke forced the closure of airports in the capitals of five states - Rondonia, Acre, Par'a, Mato Grosso, Amazonas - as well as roads and river traffic. In Bras'ilia, hundreds of miles away, vestiges of smoke could be seen on certain days.
Little disturbed by Indians who have occupied the jungle for centuries, the Amazon is now threatened by an array of forces: cattle ranchers, land-starved peasants, gold miners and other mining operations, timber companies, the Brazilian military, and government road-building and hydroelectric projects.
Environmentalists inside and outside of Brazil say the current pace and type of development, unless altered soon, will ensure the steady erosion and eventual destruction of the rain forest.
But top Brazilian officials, in whose hands its future ultimately lies, take a different view.
``Development of the Amazon is very beneficial,'' says Henry Kayath, superintendent of the Amazon Superintendency, a government agency. ``It creates jobs, produces goods both for local consumption and exports, and provides a higher standard of living for the population.''
Officials see the vast region as an outlet for settling millions of landless peasants. They contend that minerals under the forest canopy, worth billions of dollars, should be exploited for a nation that desperately needs new sources of wealth. They insist the region's powerful rivers must be harnessed to create energy for the growing population.
Brazilian President Jos'e Sarney compares the settling of the Amazon to that of the American West, and says its development is needed to help ease the country's crushing social and economic problems.
But Fabio Feldmann, Brazil's leading environmental congressman, complains that the government does not have a central plan to deal with Amazon development. He says this has not only exacerbated the destruction but - because the tropical forest's soil cannot sustain more than two or three years of farming - has meant that deforestation has provided only short-term gains or benefitted just a handful of people.
Mr. Kayath dismisses environmentalists' worries that the government is allowing unchecked deforestation. ``We will not permit the Amazon to disappear,'' he says. ``President Sarney is committed to protecting the environment.''
In the late 1970s and early '80s, Brazilians generally referred to the Amazon as ``the last frontier,'' and focused on the settlement of the vast jungle. But within the last year, some Brazilians have begun to question the way in which the Amazon is being developed and why it is being developed.
International environmentalists attribute much of the destruction to the paving of a 900-mile road, BR-364, connecting the capital of Mato Grosso State with that of Rondonia State. Large areas of three states - Mato Grosso, Par'a, and Acre - have been cleared. But Rondonia has easily suffered more destruction than any of the other eight states or territories that comprise the 1.95 million square miles of Brazil's Amazon region.
Using satellite photo data, Fearnside estimates that 15 percent of Rondonia has been cleared, up from just 0.5 percent in 1975.
``The road brought in hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the poor areas of Brazil, who have chopped down forest indiscriminately,'' explains Wim Groeneveld, a Dutch tropical scientist in P^orto Velho, the capital of Mato Grosso.
While the Amazon's destruction concerns many people simply because they don't like virgin forest being chopped down, there's far more at stake.
Many scientists fear that burning the Amazon releases fossil fuels into the atmosphere that could increase the concentrations of carbon dioxide in the air and make the earth warmer.
Fearnside says no one has proven a link between the drought experienced by much of the United States this past summer and destruction of the Amazon, but he estimates that 5 percent of fossil fuels released into the atmosphere worldwide this year will come from burning the rain forest.
Fearnside and other scientists are also concerned that as man destroys the rain forest, millions of species of plants and animals, the vast majority of which are unknown to science, will become extinct.
``Dozens of medicines have come from tropical plants,'' says Darrell Posey, an American scientist based in Bel'em.
And several new threats to the Amazon have arisen in the past year.
The government has begun putting a string of pig-iron factories in Maranhao State.
Fearnside says the factories will require millions of tons of charcoal fuel, which will be mined at the expense of the natural forest.
Eletronorte, the government electric utility in the Amazon, has begun work on two more massive dams that environmentalists say will inundate large tracts of forest and require the evacuation of more than 1,000 Indians from their homelands.
Brazil's military in the past year has begun settling the country's borders with Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and Suriname. This is the one section of the rain forest that has remained largely unscarred. The project - called Calha Norte (Northern Headwaters) - calls for the establishment of eight military posts of 70 soldiers each, says Col. Osman Godoy, the officer in charge of the project.
It will include airstrips, schools, and medical clinics for settlers and their families, Colonel Goday, an officer at Manaus's Amazon military command, explains.
Godoy says the military wants to establish a presence in the region to discourage both drug traffickers and guerrilla groups in Peru and Colombia from moving into the Brazilian Amazon forest.
``The guerrillas haven't come in yet, but the police have destroyed 2 million coca plants in Brazil, and we know that the cocaine traffickers have contracted Indians to plant coca,'' the colonel adds.
Anthropologists, meanwhile, increasingly worry whether Brazil's Indians can survive the settlement of the Amazon. More and more Indians are coming into contact with the modern world every year and dying from diseases for which they have no immunity.
The Yanomami, the largest primitive Indian group left in the Americas, are particularly threatened. Rich deposits of gold were discovered on their land last year in the far north of Brazil. Since then, some 20,000 men have occupied Yanomami land, searching for gold.