By MARCO SIBAJA
BRASILIA, Brazil — Brazil has set up a crisis center to combat increased deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, the nation’s environmental minister said Wednesday.
Minister Izabella Teixeira said officials had to take action after satellite data showed a significant increase in deforestation over the past two months. In the previous year, Brazil recorded the lowest annual deforestation rates since records started being kept more than two decades ago.
“We created a crisis committee … to determine and combat the causes of this increase,” Teixeira said.
The committee, which will meet weekly, is made up of environmental agents, federal police, highway federal police and state agents, Teixeira said.
The committee will coordinate about 700 agents and police officers in the region to fight deforestation, she said.
Satellite images from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research showed 230 square miles (590 square kilometers) of deforestation in March and April, nearly six times more than in the same period last year.
Deforestation in the Amazon last year dropped to its slowest pace in 22 years, Brazilian officials said. Between August 2009 and July 2010, 2,490 square miles (6,450 square kilometers) of forest were deforested, a 14 percent drop from the year before, and the least since 1988.
Government officials hailed the numbers as a sign that stepped-up enforcement of environmental laws were working.
Some environmental experts, however, warned that simple economics were driving the deforestation rates, and that as the global economy recovers from financial crisis, the rates would rise again as demand for soy and cattle raised in the Amazon increases. Farmers and ranchers would likely clear more land to produce those products.
Teixeira said the biggest challenge awaits in the western state of Mato Grosso, which had contained deforestation over the past two years but saw a significant increase in April and March.
Brazil’s environmental protection agency Ibama said it’s increased the number of operations to control deforestation and has seized in this year alone 40 tractors and 76 trucks used in illegal logging in Mato Grosso.
Brazilian farmers, meanwhile, have been demanding the country’s Congress ease environmental laws in the Amazon region. They support a bill that would let them clear half the land on their properties in environmentally sensitive areas. Current law allows farmers to clear just 20 percent of their land in the Amazon zone.