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Rise in Amazon Deforestation Confirmed

New satellite data on the Amazon, collected by the Brazilian government, has confirmed a rise in deforestation over this time last year. 

According to Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE), May 2011 saw a massive rise of 144% over May 2010, amounting to 268 square miles for the whole month. Over a third of the clearing took place in the state of Mato Grosso, one of Brazil's hotspots for agricultural expansion.

INPE uses satellite technology to monitor deforestation almost in real-time. Results are imperfect, but there's little doubt there has been a definite rise in agricultural clearing since 2010, which had the lowest rate of deforestation since records began in 1988.

The deforestation data in Brazil is gathered over a calendar year ending in July, when cloud cover is typically at its lowest point, allowing for higher resolution satellite images. Rainforest clearing is at a peak in the Amazon during the July-October dry season.

The findings are a worrying turnaround from recent trends. Deforestation has been shown to be in a steady decline since 2004. This is put down to several factors, among them macroeconomic trends, improved law enforcement, new protected areas, pressure from NGOs and conservation initiatives from the private sector such as Sky's partnership with WWF through Sky Rainforest Rescue - click the link to find out more about their work in the Amazon rainforest).

Some environmentalists are pointing the finger at Brazil's Forest Code, which is under revision, including proposals to change its current stipulation that landholders maintain at least 80% forest cover in the Amazon rainforest. Analysis from Imazon suggests there has been a 363% increase in forest degradation - the logging and burning of rainforest usually performed as a precursor to outright deforestation. The aforementioned Mato Grosso is the biggest culprit, with 43% of degradation during May 2011. Pará and Rondônia are also responsible, for 27% and 22% degradation respectively. In Acre, home to the Sky Rainforest Rescue project, the May DETER figures were lower than June the previous year (0.4km2 compared with 0.7km2) and well below 1% of the total deforestation recorded, showing the importance of good forest governance in some states.

Deforestation is largely driven by industrial agriculture, ranching and land speculation. Over two thirds of deforested land ends up as livestock pasture. High commodity prices are responsible for incentivizing deforestation.