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The Claims Are Rosy, But Brazil's Rain Forest Is Still Disappearing

Brazil isn't lying to the world about how bad deforestation is in the Amazon. But it is, according to the very people employed by the government to protect the rain forest, "misleading" the international community.

According to the government figures, the rate of deforestation is down dramatically over the past decade. And there's a general consensus this is true. But critics say the numbers don't tell the whole story because so much of the Amazon has already been damaged or destroyed. And the country is still losing about 2,000 square miles of jungle each year.

The problem is that Brazil's Amazon region has a dual identity. On one hand, it is sovereign Brazilian territory. On the other, the world claims it as something vital for all of humanity.

The Brazilian government is caught in the middle.

It needs to develop the economy in a country where many still live in poverty. Much of that growth comes from soy and cattle ranching — activities that directly lead to the cutting of trees.

But Brazil's government also needs to satisfy the international community that it is a good steward of the environment. Many governments around the world actually pay for Brazil to do that — Norway, for example, has given Brazil $1 billion to protect the rain forest.

Our time with the environmental police demonstrated how difficult protecting the rain forest is when there are so many competing interests. Trees were burning all around us. The heat was too intense to continue. And the authorities say they are greatly outnumbered by illegal loggers, farmers and others who are tearing down the jungle.

Some news reports will show flashy raids by helicopter on illegal logging camps deep in the forest.

You won't hear about that below.

In Rondonia, a small Amazonian state in western Brazil, the environmental police just had their only helicopter taken away in budget cuts. The people on the ground tell us that deforestation is "out of control."

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Lulu Garcia-Navarro is the host of Weekend Edition Sunday and one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. She is infamous in the IT department of NPR for losing laptops to bullets, hurricanes, and bomb blasts.