AN AREA of the Amazon rainforest bigger than Wales has been destroyed in the past year, with soya bean farmers largely to blame, according to new figures from the Brazilian government.
Satellite images and data show that a near-record area of 26,130 square kilometres (10,088 square miles) of forest was burned or cut down in the year ending in August 2004.
The destruction was nearly 6 per cent higher than in the same period the year before, when 24,600sq km was destroyed, and just 3,000sq km behind the 1995 record of 29,000sq km.
On this occasion, just under half of the deforestation occurred in Mato Grosso, where trees have been replaced with soya fields. The remainder of the destruction was caused by ranchers and loggers.
Last year exports of soya, mostly to China and Europe, propelled Brazil to a record trade surplus, leading campaigners to say that exports are being put ahead of the environment.
As well as the growth in popularity of soya products for direct human consumption, more than 90 per cent of the 200 million tonnes of soya produced around the world each year is used to feed animals. In some parts of the world, soya has long been a part of animal diets, but since the BSE crisis revealed the problems of feeding cattle with animal parts, the soya alternative has been enthusiastically adopted across the globe.
In addition, the forest is destroyed for extraction of rare tropical hardwoods, livestock farming, oil and mineral prospecting and extraction and small-scale subsistence farming.
Paradoxically, the very institutions set up to mitigate loss of the Amazon rainforest can be responsible for prolonging the problem.
Simon Counsell, the director of the charity Rainforest Foundation, explained: "Some of the lead agencies that have been trusted with tackling this problem, in particular the World Bank, are actually themselves responsible for causing and creating the impetus for massive deforestation.
"The World Bank has been funding the expansion of the soya industry in Brazil that we now learn has been causing this massive problem of deforestation in the Amazon."
He added: "This news is going to come as a huge embarrassment to the international community, which only this week is meeting here at the United Nations to continue the discussions that have been going on for more than ten years about how to tackle this problem of global deforestation.
"It comes as a very loud wake-up call to the UN and is the strongest indication yet that these discussions have achieved virtually nothing. While the various governments have been fiddling, the forests have been burning. The way that the UN Forest Forum has so far gone about tackling this is very seriously misguided."
Large-scale mechanised destruction of the Amazon rainforest began in earnest in the 1960s. At that time Brazil's population lived largely in the south of the country and around the coast, thousands of miles away from the deep jungle heartland.
Concerned about losing territory, the military government decided it was going to open up the heartland before anyone else got the chance, and set about a massive road construction project.
The capital, Rio de Janeiro, was supplanted by a new city in the north, Brasilia, and the dissecting roads through the forest were built quickly, running out like arteries into previously isolated and inaccessible territory.
Hylton Murray-Philipson, trustee of the charity Rainforest Concern, said: "In 1966 there were 200 miles of paved road in the Amazon. Today it is in the high tens of thousands, and has spread out like a cancer. Roads dissect the forests everywhere, and they have opened up the heartland for the first time. Naturally people come in, and when they come they cut down the forest to make quick money from soya and beef production."
In September last year the conservation organisation WWF published a detailed report on the impact of soya expansion in South America, which makes depressing reading. It says the crop has triggered soil erosion, siltation of waterways, widespread use of toxic chemicals and pesticides and road building through some of the world's most delicate habitats.
Brazil's environment minister, Marina Silva, said in a statement that the country would "intensify its efforts" to prevent illegal deforestation. But the Rainforest Foundation said much more was needed.
Mr Counsell said: "What has worked in terms of protecting the rainforest is to work with local communities, particularly with indigenous tribes living in the forest, to help them gain legal rights to protect their traditional lands. If you look at satellite images of the area that is suffering the worst deforestation in Brazil, the only places that are surviving are those given over to indigenous tribes for them to protect for their own wellbeing. We need a much greater emphasis on that approach."