Is Burning of Amazon All Smoke?

Article excerpt

While the world watched a smoky haze from jungle fires engulf Southeast Asia recently, another large tropical forest also saw an increase in fires - the Amazon.

Airports have been repeatedly closed, drivers complain about low visibility, and more people report breathing problems as a portion of the world's largest rain forest has been torched for commerce and subsistence farming.

An area larger than Connecticut is being burned each year, and Brazil now ranks No. 1 in deforestation, according to the Washington-based World Wildlife Fund. Brazil's National Space Research Institute estimates fires have jumped more than a quarter during May to October compared with last year's burning season. But that information has touched off a raging debate about whether the surge in burnings actually means accelerated destruction of the Amazon. "We're finding that 94 percent of these burnings are repeat clearings of already deforested areas, while only 6 percent are in new areas," says Eduardo Martins, president of IBAMA, Brazil's environmental protection agency. "It's just not true that an increase in the number of burnings means increased deforestation," Mr. Martins adds. But environmentalists and some state environmental officials counter that where there's smoke there's deforestation - more, at least, than government officials, sensitive about the international impact of Amazon deforestation, are willing to admit. "It's true there's no one-to-one link {of burned to deforested area}," says Garo Batmanian, executive director of WWF in Brasilia. "But historically speaking, we know there has always been an increase in deforestation when the number of fires has increased." Increase in deforestation? Brazil's Institute for Environmental Research in the Amazon (IPAM), associated with the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, estimates that about 70 percent of the fires this year occurred on already deforested lands. But it also notes that the last time the Amazon experienced a sudden upswing in burnings in 1988, the deforestation rate also increased. The WWF miffed Brazilian officials recently when it issued the report finding that, at 15,000 square kilometers a year (5,776 square miles, based on 1994 figures), Brazil is No. 1 in the world in deforestation. IBAMA's Martins responds with a different study - listing countries by deforested land compared to remaining forest - that places Brazil at No. 68. "I don't really care about rankings, because statistics can always be made to say what you want them to," says Mr. Batmanian. "What I do know is that 15,000 square kilometers is a large area no matter where it is." The controversy about burning and deforestation is abetted by Brazil's tardiness in issuing annual deforestation figures. The latest figures, covering 1994, showed a 34 percent increase in deforestation after several years of a much-trumpeted decline. Brazil's National Space Research Institute in Sao Jose dos Campos, responsible for compiling the figures, has said the 1995 and 1996 figures will be released the first week of December. …