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The vanishing forests
Figure 1: Satellite images of deforestation 2000–2003.

Source: MODIS Land Rapid Response Team at NASA GSFC

Satellite data from the Brazilian Institute for Space Research (INPE, Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais) showed that an estimated 25 476 km2 of forest vanished between August 2001 and August 2002, the highest total in any of the past six years, and the second largest since record-keeping began in 1978 (INPE 2003). Agricultural and livestock expansion continue to be the main factors reducing forested areas in South America’s tropical regions, as seen in the Cerrado and the Amazon in Brazil (UNEP 2003a) (Figure 1).Slash-and-burn activities continue to be important, but the expansion of soybean cultivation is exacerbating the situation.
Brazil is becoming a major soybean producer. In 1990, the area sown was more than 11.4 million ha. By 2002–03, it had reached 17.9 million ha (Conab 2003). As the area under this crop increases, traditional agriculture and livestock activities shift to marginal wilderness areas. A similar process is taking place in central Argentina, where soybean is the dominant crop, so other crops and cattle are taking over marginal areas, with increased impacts on water, soil and biodiversity.
The expansion of agriculture and livestock is, more than anything else, due to export opportunities and technological changes. In September 2003, the Brazilian government issued a provisional regulation (MP 131) permitting transgenetic soybean cultivation (WWF 2003a). This measure is a major issue in itself, and also allows further expansion of the area cultivated for soybean production.

This image shows the extent of deforestation in the state of Rondonia, Brazil. Tropical rainforest appears bright red, while pale red and brown areas represent cleared land. Black and gray areas have probably been recently burned. The Jiparaná River appears blue. Most of the clearing is done for agriculture – grazing cattle, and planting crops. Large cattle pastures often replace rainforest to grow beef for the world market. Commercial logging is another common form of deforestation, cutting trees for sale as timber or pulp.

Sources: NASA/ GSFC/ METI/ ERSDAC/ JAROS, and US/ Japan ASTER Science Team

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