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Brazil: Amazon Forest Destruction Rate Has Tripled

The Amazon is being deforested more than three times as fast as last year, Brazilian officials said Monday, acknowledging a sharp reversal after three years of declines in the deforestation rate.

Brazilian Environment Minister Carlos Minc said upcoming nationwide elections are partly to blame, with mayors in the Amazon region turning a blind eye to illegal logging in hopes of gaining votes locally.

Nongovernment environmentalists blame the global spike in food prices for encouraging soy farmers and cattle ranchers to clear land for crops and grazing.

Elections no doubt play a part, but "the tendency of deforestation rising is deeply related to the fact that food prices are going up," said Paulo Adario, who coordinates Greenpeace's Amazon campaign.

"When you have elections, the appetite of authorities to enforce laws is reduced," Adario said. "But the federal government has to step in and do its job."

Amazon destruction jumped 228 percent in August when compared to the same month a year ago, according to a report from Brazil's National Institute for Space Research. About 300 square miles of the Amazon was destroyed last month, compared to 90 square miles in August 2007.

The institute, which uses satellite imagery to track illegal logging, said the destruction was likely even worse than its figures show. No information was available for approximately 26 percent of the Amazon because of cloud cover during the month.

Also Monday, Minc released a list of what he said were the 100 individuals or companies responsible for the most deforestation since 2005.

Leading the list was the Brazilian government's own land and agrarian reform agency, Incra.

Greenpeace has accused Incra officials of illegally handing over rainforest to logging companies and creating fake settlements to skirt environmental regulations.

Minc said Incra was responsible for destroying 544,000 acres of the Amazon in the past three years.

But Incra president Rolf Hackbart said all the areas cited by Minc as being deforested by Incra were areas legally settled between 1995 and 2002.

Most of Minc's list comprises Brazilian farmers and ranchers.