The Amazon is being cut down to feed the world's demand for soya [EPA]

The rate of destruction of the Amazon rainforest has risen sharply over the last five months of 2007, the Brazilian
government says.

About 366sq miles of the Amazon, known as "the lungs of the world", was destroyed in December compared to just 94sq miles in August, according to satellite images taken of the area.

Environment ministry officials said that preliminary figures could double as satellite images with higher resolution are analysed.

"We've never before detected such a high deforestation rate at this time of year," said Gilberto Camara, the head of the National Institute for Space Research (Inpe), which provides the satellite imaging.

Between August and December, 1,250sq miles of the world's largest rain forest were destroyed.

Joao Paulo Capobianco, the ministry's executive secretary, said the figures were "extremely worrying".

Conflicting claim

Only a few months ago, Luiz Inacio "Lula" da Silva, Brazil's president, said his country had managed to reduce deforestation by 50 per cent in the two years up until July 2007.

Most of last year's destruction took place in November and December and was concentrated in the three Amazon region states of Mato Grosso, Para and Rondonia.

Following an emergency cabinet meeting called by "Lula" to discuss the issue, Marina Silva, the Brazilian environment minister, said the government would combat rising deforestation, the Associated Press reported.

This would be done by sending extra federal police and environmental agents to areas that have suffered illegal logging, Silva said.

Authorities also plan to monitor the areas where the deforestation has occurred in an attempt to prevent anyone from trying to plant crops or raise cattle there, he said.

About a fifth of the forest - an area bigger than France - has already been destroyed since the 1970s.

Grain prices link

Conservationists have warned that the recent rise in grain prices would lead to an increase in the deforestation, as farmers and ranchers go deeper into the Amazon in search of cheap land.

Mato Grosso is the centre of Brazil's soya production industry, and Latin America's largest nation is second only to the US in soya production.

Forest is usually cleared in the Amazon to provide pasture for cattle, with soya farmers moving in later to cultivate their crops.

Brazil also has a booming beef export industry, and cattle ranchers have expanded their operations in the Amazon.

Source: Agencies