by Staff Writers
Brasília (AFP) Nov 27, 2015
Illegal logging and clearing of Brazil's Amazon rainforest increased 16 percent in the last year, the government said, in a setback to the aim of stopping destruction of the world's greatest forest by 2030.
The area of deforestation grew to 2,251 square miles (5,830 square kilometers) between July 2014 and August 2015, the environment ministry said.
The biggest increases were in the states of Amazonas, with a 54 percent rise, Rondonia with 41 percent and Mato Grosso with 40 percent, the ministry said.
The sharp deterioration came despite Brazil's attempts to increase policing of the rainforest, which is seen as a key element in the fight to keep greenhouse gases under control -- the subject of a major climate change summit starting in Paris on Monday.
"We have to investigate what is happening," said Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira. "We will ask the states to tell us formally what was authorized and what was illegal."
Preliminary reports suggest that expansion of cattle ranching and agriculture is to blame for the clearances.
The Amazon is a giant trap for carbon that would otherwise be released, contributing to global warming. It is also one of the world's greatest remaining sanctuaries for rare and often still barely studied flora and fauna.
Top civil servants probed over hardwood traffic in Gabon
Some of the officials have been taken into custody by the General Directorate for Research (DGR) agency in the past week, while others were questioned and later released, the source told AFP.
A special court set up to deal with the abuse of protected wildlife resources in the densely forested tropical nation has opened a "preliminary inquiry" into illegal exports of Kevazingo, a rare hardwood much prized in Asia, added the source.
DGR agents this week raided the ministry of water and forests in Gabon's capital Libreville, taking about 10 officials into custody, the source said, asking not to be named.
Those under investigation include former minister of water and forests Nelson Messone, who has been an advisor to President Ali Bongo Ondimba since a government reshuffle in September. Messone was questioned in his office at the presidential headquarters.
Minister for the Protection of the Environment Flore Mistoul has meanwhile decided to "suspend temporarily and as a preventive measure the exploitation of Kevanzingo across the whole territory" while making an inventory of the precious trees with a view to better protecting them.
Environmental associations have reported that about 20 people, including several Chinese nationals and two provincial forest managers, were arrested near Makokou in northeast Gabon in connection with the illegal exploitation of Kevazingo wood.
"The ramifications of these investigations and tip-offs led to the arrest of people at the ministry," said the source close to the government, who added that the northern provinces of Woleu Ntem and Ogooue-Ivindo are the "epicentre of a huge forestry crime racket".
Also known as Bubinga and locally regarded as sacred, Kevazingo trees take many years to mature and can grow to more than 40 metres (130 feet) tall. The Japanese and Chinese use the timber to make furniture and items such as specialty guitars, which they sell to the West.
Gabon legally exports almost 18,000 cubic metres (635,000 cubic feet) of Kevazingo timber each year, under strict supervision. Rising demand has inflated the price. In China, one cubic metre can sell from between 1,500 to 3,000 euros (almost $1,600-$3,200), according to non-governmental organisation Conservation Justice.
For months the NGO has denounced "a veritable mafia organisation" behind illegal trafficking in Kevazinga, along with money laundering.
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