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Amazon destruction rising fast

Brazil has launched a $140 million plan to reverse Amazon deforestation, which hit near record levels last year.

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President Luiz InĂ¡cio Lula da Silva has Brazil's greens seeing red.

Earlier this month, the government announced that annual Amazon deforestation had grown 2 percent last year, to 9,169 square miles - an area the size of New Hampshire and the second-highest year since officials started tracking it in 1988.

What concerned critics, in addition to the soaring figure, was the government's reaction to the news. Although officials say they are not happy with the situation, they celebrated the relatively low increase, prompting environmentalists to complain that deforestation was being allowed to stabilize at too high a rate. Many greens expected something different from a supposedly eco-friendly president.

"That 9,169 square miles disappeared last year is unacceptable," says Adriana Ramos, public-policy coordinator for the Socio-Environmen- tal Institute, a nongovernmental organization. "What is extremely worrying is that it has leveled out at a rate so much higher than it was a decade ago."

As in previous years, most of the destruction came along the "arc of deforestation," a swath of land on the southern and eastern borders of the forest that is home to many of Brazil's soy growers and cattle ranchers.

Brazil is the world's second-biggest soy producer and has the second-largest herd of cattle - 57 million of which are in the Amazon. Beef exports have increased fivefold over the past six years, according to a report by the Center for International Forestry Research, and soy production has grown from 32 million tons in 2000 to 52 million tons last year.

Fifteen months ago when Mr. da Silva took office, environmentalists were thrilled that the former socialist would be leading the world's most ecologically diverse nation. Lula, as he is known here, had always voiced strong support for environmental causes. Now the greens are skeptical.

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