The burning of an area of tropical Amazon rain forest bigger than most European countries poses a serious threat to the atmosphere's ozone layer, according to Brazilian space researchers.

Marcos de Costa Pereira of the National Space Research Institute (INPE) told reporters on Friday that the huge fires were likely to cause changes in the global climate and damage the ozone layer which blocks out ultraviolet radiation.He said that while authorities had predicted a maximum of 30 million acres would be burned in 1987, U.S. satellite images show 49 million acres burned.

The thick forest is burned by peasants who wish to make the land productive for crops. Burning is the cheapest and simplest method of clearing the vegetation.

"The consequences are terrible, for the soot crosses the country and travels as far south as Antarctica," Pereira said, adding that satellite images showed smoke clouds 1.5 million yards long above the Amazon region.

Though land burning is illegal, the debt-strapped Brazilian government lacks the resources to hire enough personnel to patrol the three-state area.