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Wednesday, April 29, 1998 Published at 08:16 GMT 09:16 UK

World: Americas

Amazon rainforest finds unlikely guardian

The area is roughly the size of Great Britain and represents one-tenth of Brazil's rainforest.

This week the Brazilian government will announce plans to buy up and protect vast tracts of the Amazon rainforest with help from the World Bank.

The bank has promised to finance the purchase about 10% of the rainforest - an area roughly the size of Great Britain - to protect it from the encroachment of hardwood loggers, ranchers and mineral prospectors.

The purchase marks a significant departure for the World Bank, which has been criticised in the past for funding vast infrastructure projects that harmed the rainforest.

[ image: From the Mir space station it is easy to see the smoke from hundreds of man-made fires]
From the Mir space station it is easy to see the smoke from hundreds of man-made fires
The Amazon is the world's largest tropical rainforest and river system. It contains one million species of indigenous wildlife.

Meanders for 4,000 miles

Figures describing the rainforest are hard to take in. One thousand tributaries run into the Amazon, which meanders for nearly 4,000 miles and deposits 170 billion gallons of water an hour into the sea. That's 60 times more the volume of water carried by the Nile.

The Amazon area, which covers parts of Venezuela, Peru and Bolivia, covers 2.7 million square miles.

A typical four square mile patch of jungle contains 750 species of tree, 400 types of birds and 125 mammal species.

[ image: One-fifth of the rainforest is permanently deforested]
One-fifth of the rainforest is permanently deforested
It is not uncommon to find butterflies with eight-inch wings, caterpillars as long as snakes and carnivorous plants which exude the stench of rotting meat in order to trick flies into pollinating them.

But the rainforest has been on the retreat for years. In 1987, at the height of the "slash and burn" offensive, 320,000 square miles of jungle were razed.

In recent years, that figure fell gradually to around 11,000 square miles a year. But new satellite data suggests burnings are up again this year by 28%, possibly as a result of Brazil's economic recovery.

Unique biodiversity

Environmentalists fear the loss of the rainforest's unique biodiversity. They point out the Amazon is home to plant species which provide everything from chocolate to today's most important medicines. And they warn that if the area is destroyed, its untold secrets will never be revealed..

The destruction of the forest also poses a huge global climate threat.

Scientists believe global warming will speed up because the vast amounts of cloud produced by the jungle help mask the heat of the sun.

[ image: President Cardoso...agreed deal with World Bank]
President Cardoso...agreed deal with World Bank
The forest also traps large numbers of carbons which, if lost to the atmosphere, exaggerate the "greenhouse effect".

The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) is at the forefront of the World Bank deal, details of which will be announced simultaneously on Wednesday in Brazil, the US and Britain.

WWF spokesman Ed Wood-Matthew says the area that would be protected is "absolutely massive" and the sums involved huge.

Huge foreign debt

Mr Wood-Matthew says the deal, which has been agreed by the head of the World Bank James Wolfensohn and Brazil's President Fernando Enrique Cardoso, would not add to the country's foreign debt of around £65bn ($110bn).

[ image: The Amazon rainforest is home to thousands of indigenous tribes]
The Amazon rainforest is home to thousands of indigenous tribes
Mr Wood-Matthew says the deal, coming only weeks after a series of devastating fires destroyed large swathes of the jungle state of Roraima, showed Brazil was serious about protecting forests.

He says: "The World Bank agreement means they will really have the resources to make it work."

Mr Wood-Matthew says previous Brazilian governments have made a string of "broken promises" on combating deforestation but he is confident this will not be another.

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