BRASILIA, Brazil, May 20 (UPI) -- Brazil says hundreds of environmental protection officers are being deployed in the Amazon after satellites showed a sudden, unexpected surge in deforestation.
Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira announced a "crisis cabinet" to crack down on illegal logging in the world's largest tropical rainforest after government satellite images showed at least 714 square miles had been destroyed between August 2010 and April this year, compared with 560 square miles a year earlier, Britain's The Guardian reported Friday.
"The order is to suffocate environmental crime," Teixeira said.
The most dramatic situation was in the soy-growing state of Mato Grosso, where officials said farmers are using tractors and giant chains to rip up vast areas of native forest.
Teixeira's announcement follows successive years in which Amazon deforestation fell dramatically, and just last December she publicly hailed reaching "the lowest level of deforestation in the history of Amazonia."
Teixeira has admitted the sudden reversal was "scary" and "atypical."
"Until this deforestation is reduced, none [of our agents] will leave the field," she said.
Environmentalists say the sudden increase in deforestation is linked to an ongoing and highly controversial debate over changes to Brazil's forest code that Amazon farmers and ranchers believe will enable them to expand their properties and boost economic development.
Andre Muggiati, an Amazon-based Greenpeace campaigner, said anticipation of such changes had sparked a "deforestation frenzy" by many ranchers and deforesters convinced they would be forgiven for newly razed areas.