By Paulo Prada
RIO DE JANEIRO | Thu Jan 24, 2013 1:25pm EST
(Reuters) - After years of gains against destruction of the Amazon rainforest, Brazil appears to be suffering from an increase in deforestation as farmers, loggers, miners and builders move into previously untouched woodland, according to data compiled by the government and independent researchers.
Imazon, a Brazilian research institute that tracks deforestation through satellite imagery, said in a recent report that destruction in the world's largest rainforest climbed for the fourth consecutive month in December.
In the last five months of 2012, Imazon detected clearings of 497 square miles (1,288 square km) of woodland - a Los Angeles-size total that is more than twice as big as the combined areas detected in the last five months of 2011.
Researchers and government officials say more data is needed to confirm that a full-fledged reversal is under way after what had been a sustained reduction in deforestation in recent years. Among other variables, clouds from the ongoing rainy season hinder definitive imagery. Additional data could also clarify whether new gaps in the rainforest canopy are the result of deliberate clearcutting and fires or of natural thinning.