Brazil extended on Tuesday a moratorium on buying soy grown in illegally cleared land in the Amazon rainforest as the government tries to protect the region, Environment Minister Izabella Teixeira said.
Satellite imagery presented by Teixeira showed the area of soy grown on illegally deforested land grew 61 percent to 47,028 hectares in 2013/2014 from the previous harvest.
"There was pressure from high commodity prices that led some growers to plant soy in illegally deforested areas," Teixeira said after signing the moratorium, which runs through May 2016, with a group of Brazil's largest soy exporting and processing firms.
Environmentalists are worried that new soy export pipelines through river ports in the Amazon will add to pressure and further increase deforestation, which accelerated last year for the first time since 2005.
Despite the increase in sown area, industry advocates say the area sown for soy represents just 1.1 percent of total area deforested in the three Amazon states where soy is grown - Mato Grosso, Para and Rondonia - since the moratorium took effect in 2006.
"Clearly, soy is not a driver behind Amazon deforestation," said Carlo Lovatelli, president the Brazilian vegetable oil industry group Abiove, whose members buy 80 percent of Brazil's soy output.
As the agricultural frontier expands in Brazil's Amazon region, mainly in the Mato Grosso state, experts say cattle ranching that feeds Brazil's huge meat industry is still the main cause of deforestation and the burning of trees to open grazing pastures.
In September, Brazil's national space agency, which tracks deforestation via satellite imagery, said deforestation in the measurement year ending July 2013 spiked by 29 percent from a year earlier.
Scientists and rainforest activists have accused President Dilma Rousseff's government of turning a blind eye to renewed abuses by loggers, ranchers and other developers in the region.
The government changed forestry laws, moved ahead with big infrastructure projects in the region and eased rules that protected land long set aside for conservation, they say.
Paulo Adario, senior forest adviser for the environmental group Greenpeace, said the extension of the soy moratorium will help "avoid adding fuel to the bonfire of deforestation in the Earth's largest tropical forest."