BRASILIA, Brazil − An area of Amazon jungle larger than the U.S. state of New Jersey has been destroyed this year and work on a new highway is mainly to blame, environmental group Friends of the Earth and the government said Wednesday.
The preliminary figures, based on satellite images, alarmed environmentalists because they suggest that Amazon destruction has surpassed its second-highest level reached in 2002-2003.
The data is based on a satellite system which has been monitoring Amazon deforestation on a test basis. The government’s yearly figures, released in March, are based on data from a different satellite system.
The images indicated that from 8,920 square miles to 9,420 square miles, or an area bigger than New Jersey, was cut down this year, said Joao Paulo Capobianco, the government’s secretary of biodiversity and forests.
“That number could be bigger or smaller, or the same, we will know in March,” Capobianco told Reuters. But he said these figures and other indications made it clear there was no decline in deforestation this year.
“Either we have stabilized the rate or there is a small increase,” he said.
If confirmed, the total figure for this year’s deforestation will be above the 2002-2003 level of 9,170 square miles, said Roberto Smeraldi, head of Friends of the Earth in Brazil.
The figure was especially worrying because it showed that for the first time in history Amazon deforestation rose despite a slowdown in agriculture during the year, he said.
A record level was set in the mid-1990s in a year marked by an exceptional incidence of fires.
Small farmers have been major culprits in the trend as they hack away at Amazon jungle to expand their fields.
The data showed a big jump in deforestation along a road running through the heart of the Amazon that the government has said it wants to pave.
“The big reason for this (destruction) is the BR-163 road,” Smeraldi said. “The government knew about this; it was warned. What is surprising is that they are not even talking about their anti-deforestation plans.”
In the region of the road, deforestation soared by more than five times, Smeraldi said. Settlers have moved in even before the government started paving it.
Environmentalists have warned that roads, dams and pipeline projects through the Amazon — home to up to 30 percent of the planet’s animal and plant species — represent the biggest threat to the forest because they open up access to large-scale development and settlement.