Annual destruction of the Amazon rain forest fell to its lowest recorded level this year, Brazilian authorities said Monday, hailing an enforcement crackdown for the drop.
The destruction between August 2010 through July 2011 was about 2,410 square miles (6,240 square kilometers), according to the National Institute for Space Research.
That's an area about the size of the U.S. state of Delaware.
The institute has tracked Amazon destruction since 1988 by analyzing satellite images. The destruction peaked in 1995, when 11,220 square miles (29,060 square kilometers) were destroyed.
Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira said the government's fast action to reduce deforestation and carbon emissions led to the drop.
"We'll continue with determination to reduce the illegal deforestation in the Amazon," she told a news conference in the capital of Brasilia.
Brazil's government has stepped up enforcement of environmental laws in recent years, mostly by sending armed environmental agents into the jungle to carrying out large raids on deforestation hotspots.
The announcement of the drop comes as Brazil's Senate prepares to vote this week on changes to the nation's benchmark environmental laws that would loosen restrictions on how small farmers use their land in the Amazon.
Environmentalists fear the bill would bring increased deforestation and warn the current drop is likely due less to the government's crackdown and more to the global economic downturn. They say that has reduced demand for products, such as soy, cattle raised in illegally cleared pastures, and timber, that lead to the destruction.
Operators of small-scale farms and ranches defend the measure as letting them produce to full capacity and boost Brazil's food output.
The bill would let farmers and ranchers with small holdings work land closer to riverbanks and to use hilltops, practices that are currently outlawed. It also grants amnesty from harsh fines levied on farms and ranches of any size that cleared more tree cover than legally allowed before July 2008.
While bigger landholders also would be freed from penalties already levied, they would still have to replant land that they cleared beyond legal limits or buy and preserve the same amount of forested land elsewhere to make up for what they cut. In the Amazon, 80 percent of property is supposed to remain untouched forest. Elsewhere in Brazil, the limit ranges from 35 percent to 20 percent, depending on the area.
Farmers with less than 990 acres (400 hectares) of land would not have to replant forest land cleared before July 2008, but would still have to plant trees in areas illegally felled since then.
The measure already passed Brazil's lower house and is expected to clear the Senate before going before President Dilma Rousseff, who's expected to sign it.
About 20 percent of the Brazilian rain forest has already been destroyed, and 75 percent of Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions are estimated to come from forest clearing as vegetation burns and felled trees rot.
Brazil is estimated to be the globe's sixth-biggest producer of carbon emissions.