BRASILIA, Brazil – Deforestation in the Amazon (search) rain forest in 2004 was the second worst ever, figures released by the Brazilian government showed Wednesday.
Satellite photos and data showed that ranchers, soybean farmers and loggers burned and cut down a near-record area of 10,088 square miles of rain forest in the 12 months ending in August 2004, the Brazilian Environmental Ministry (search) said.
The destruction was nearly 6 percent higher than in the same period the year before, when 9,500 square miles were destroyed.
The deforestation hit record numbers in 1995, when the Amazon shrank a record 11,200 square miles, an area roughly the size of Belgium (search) or the American state of Massachusetts.
The Amazon forest — which sprawls over 1.6 million square miles and covers more than half the country — is a key component of the global environment. The jungle is sometimes called the world's "lung" because its billions of trees produce oxygen and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Environmentalists were shocked with the new figures, which were announced nearly a year after the Brazilian government announced a $140 million package to curtail destruction.
"It's a tragedy, a demonstration that more needs to be done by the government," said Paulo Adario, the head of Greenpeace's Amazon program. "Clearly, Amazon deforestation is not one of the government's priority right now."
Government officials were expecting an increase in destruction of only about 2 percent.
"We will intensify our actions to fight illegal deforestation in the most critical areas," Environment Minister Marina Silva (search) said in a statement.
She noted that deforestation in several Amazon states decreased compared to the previous period thanks to the government's efforts to implement "more lasting and effective" measures.
Brazil's rain forest is as big as western Europe and covers 60 percent of the country's territory. Experts say as much as 20 percent of its 1.6 million square miles has already been destroyed by development, logging and farming.
Last year, the government announced that 9,170 square miles of rain forest had vanished in 2003, but on Wednesday it corrected the figure to 9,500 square miles.