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Deforestation in the Amazon

By Rhett Butler   |  Last updated July 9, 2014

Since 2004 the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has fallen nearly 80 percent to the lowest levels recorded since annual record keeping began in the late 1980s. Importantly, this decline has occurred at the same time that Brazil's economy has grown roughly 40 percent, suggesting a decoupling of economic growth from deforestation.

While this is welcome news for Earth's largest rainforest, it is nonetheless important to understand why more than 580,000 square kilometers (224,000 square miles) of Amazon forest has destroyed in Brazil since 1980. Why has Brazil lost so much forest? What can be done to stop deforestation?

Deforestation in the Amazon
DEFORESTATION IN BRAZIL: 60-70 percent of deforestation in the Amazon results from cattle ranches while the rest mostly results from small-scale subsistence agriculture. Despite the widespread press attention, large-scale farming (i.e. soybeans) currently contributes relatively little to total deforestation in the Amazon. Most soybean cultivation takes place outside the rainforest in the neighboring cerrado grassland ecosystem and in areas that have already been cleared. Logging results in forest degradation but rarely direct deforestation. However, studies have showed a close correlation between logging and future clearing for settlement and farming. [Português | Español | Français]

Why are rainforests in the Brazilian Amazon being destroyed?

Deforestation Figures for Brazil
year sq km change
1988 21,050
1989 17,770 -16%
1990 13,730 -23%
1991 11,030 -20%
1992 13,786 25%
1993 14,896 8%
1994 14,896 0%
1995 29,059 95%
1996 18,161 -38%
1997 13,227 -27%
1998 17,383 31%
1999 17,259 -1%
2000 18,226 6%
2001 18,165 0%
2002 21,651 17%
2003 25,396 19%
2004 27,772 9%
2005 19,014 -31%
2006 14,285 -49%
2007 11,651 -18%
2008 12,911 11%
2009 7,464 -42%
2010 7,000 -6%
2011 6,418 -8%
2012 4,571 -29%
2013 5,891 29%
2014 5,012 -15%
2015 6,207 24%
2016 7,893 27%
2017 6,624 -16%

All figures derived from official National Institute of Space Research (INPE) data. Individual state figures.

NOTE: For the 1978-1988 period the figures represent the average annual rates of deforestation. 2013 data is preliminary
In the past, Brazilian deforestation was strongly correlated to the economic health of the country: the decline in deforestation from 1988-1991 nicely matched the economic slowdown during the same period, while the rocketing rate of deforestation from 1993-1998 paralleled Brazil's period of rapid economic growth. During lean times, ranchers and developers do not have the cash to expand their pasturelands and operations, while the government lacks funds to sponsor highways and colonization programs and grant tax breaks and subsidies to forest exploiters.

But this has all changed since the mid-2000s, when the link between deforestation and the broader Brazilian economy began to wane.

The reasons for the decline in Brazil's deforestation rate are debated, but most would agree that several factors come into play, including macroeconomic trends (a stronger Brazilian currency reduces the profitability of export-driven agriculture), increased enforcement of environmental laws, improved forest monitoring by satellite, new incentives for utilizing already deforested lands, expanded protected areas and indigenous reserves, heightened sensitivity to environmental criticism among private sector companies, and emerging awareness of the values of ecosystem services afforded by the Amazon.

A Closer Look at Brazilian Deforestation (Update: Future threats to the Amazon)

Like other places in the tropics, deforestation in Brazil is increasingly the result of urban consumption and trade rather than subsistence agriculture.

Today deforestation in the Amazon is the result of several activities, the foremost of which include:
  1. Clearing for cattle pasture
  2. Colonization and subsequent subsistence agriculture
  3. Infrastructure improvements
  4. Commercial agriculture
  5. Logging

Clearing for Cattle Pasture
Causes of deforestation in the Amazon
Cattle ranches 65-70%
Small-scale, subsistence agriculture 20-25%
Large-scale, commercial agriculture 5-10%
Logging, legal and illegal 2-3%
Fires, mining, urbanization, road construction, dams 1-2%
Selective logging and fires that burn under the forest canopy commonly result in forest degradation, not deforestation. Therefore these factor less in overall deforestation figures.

Causes of deforestation in the Amazon

The above pie chart showing deforestation in the Amazon by cause is based on the median figures for estimate ranges.

Cattle ranching is the leading cause of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. This has been the case since at least the 1970s: government figures attributed 38 percent of deforestation from 1966-1975 to large-scale cattle ranching. Today the figure is closer to 60 percent, according to research by Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and its Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa). Most of the beef is destined for urban markets, whereas leather and other cattle products are primarily for export markets.

Brazil is today the world's largest exporter and producer of beef. Much of its expansion has taken place in the Amazon, which currently has more than 90 million head of cattle, up from 26.6 million in 1990 and equivalent to more than 90 percent of the total U.S. herd. The Brazilian Amazon has more than 214,000 square miles of pasture, an open space larger than France.

Several factors have spurred recent Brazil's growth as a producer of beef:

  • CURRENCY DEVALUATION—In the 1980s and 1990s the devaluation of the Brazilian real against the dollar effectively doubled the price of beef in reals and created an incentive for ranchers to expand their pasture areas at the expense of the rainforest. The weakness of the real also made Brazilian beef more competitive on the world market. But this has changed since 2004 as the real as strengthened, reducing the competitiveness of Brazilian beef overseas.
  • CONTROL OVER FOOT-AND-MOUTH DISEASE—The eradication of foot-and-mouth disease in much of Brazil has increased price and demand for Brazilian beef.
  • INFRASTRUCTURE—Road construction gives developers and ranchers access to previously inaccessible forest lands in the Amazon. Infrastructure improvements can reduce the costs of shipping and packing beef, while larger and more modern slaughterhouses have made cattle processing more efficient.
  • INTEREST RATES—Rainforest lands are often used for land speculation purposes. When real pasture land prices exceed real forest land prices, land clearing is a good hedge against inflation. At times of high inflation, the appreciation of cattle prices and the stream of services (e.g. milk) they provide may outpace the interest rate earned on money left in the bank.
  • LAND TENURE LAWS—In Brazil, colonists and developers have traditionally been able to gain title to Amazon lands by simply clearing forest and placing a few head of cattle on the land. As an additional benefit, cattle have historically been a low-risk investment relative to cash crops which are subject to wild price swings and pest infestations. Essentially cattle are a vehicle for land ownership in the Amazon and land cleared for pasture is generally significantly more valuable than forest land, facilitating land speculation.
  • CULTURAL TIES—Cattle ranching has a long history in the Brazilian Amazon and is as much a part of culture as an economic activity.

    Aggregated deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon from 1988-2013
    Aggregated deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon from 1988-2013

    Colonization and subsequent subsistence agriculture
    A significant amount of deforestation is caused by the subsistence activities of poor farmers who are encouraged to settle on forest lands by government land policies. In Brazil, each squatter acquires the right (known as a usufruct right) to continue using a piece of land by living on a plot of unclaimed public land and "using" it for at least one year and a day. After five years the squatter acquires ownership and hence the right to sell the land.

    Farmers typically use fire for clearing land and every year satellite images pick up tens of thousands of fires burning across the Amazon. The deforestation process usually starts with logging of high value trees, which are sold to local dealers or used by the farmer for construction. Understory shrubbery is then cleared and remaining trees are cut. The area is left to dry for a few months and then burned. The land is planted with crops like bananas, palms, manioc, maize, or rice. After a year or two, the productivity of the soil declines, and the farmer may move on to to new forest areas for more short-term agriculture. The old, now infertile, fields are often used for small-scale cattle grazing or left for waste.

    Between 1995 and 1998, the government granted land in the Amazon to roughly 150,000 families, but incentives for colonization have waned in recent years as the government has shifted support to larger entities and infrastructure projects.

    Smallholders are sometimes used as a proxy by large development interests to gain access to land. In these cases poor migrants, usually from Brazil's Northeast, are paid by ranchers to occupy forest land (sometimes indigenous reservations or legal forest reserves belonging to other landowners). The ranchers eventually acquire the land from these squatters, who then move on clear other areas.

    Deforestation or cattle pasture in the Brazilian Amazon
    Deforestation or cattle pasture in the Brazilian Amazon.

    Infrastructure projects
    Road construction in the Amazon has historically led to deforestation. Roads provide access to logging and mining sites while opening forest frontier land to exploitation by farmers.

    Brazil's Trans-Amazonian Highway was one of the most ambitious economic development programs ever devised, and one of the most spectacular failures. In the 1970s, Brazil planned a 2,000-mile highway that would bisect the massive Amazon forest, opening rainforest lands to (1) settlement by poor farmers from the crowded, drought-plagued north and (2) development of timber and mineral resources. Colonists would be granted a 100-hectare (250-acre) lot, six-months' salary, and easy access to agricultural loans in exchange for settling along the highway and converting the surrounding rainforest into agricultural land. The plan would grow to cost Brazil US$65,000 (1980 dollars) to settle each family, a staggering amount for Brazil, a poor country at the time.

    The project was plagued from the start. The sediments of the Amazon Basin rendered the highway unstable and subject to inundation during heavy rains, blocking traffic and leaving crops to rot. Harvest yields for peasants were dismal since the forest soils were quickly exhausted, and new forest had to be cleared annually. Logging was difficult due to the dispersed distribution of commercially valuable trees. Rampant erosion, up to 100 tons of soil per hectare (40 tons/acre) occurred after clearing. Many colonists, unfamiliar with banking and lured by easy credit, went deep into debt.

    Adding to the economic and social failures of the project, are the long-term environmental costs. After the construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, Brazilian deforestation accelerated to levels never before seen and vast swaths of forest were cleared for subsistence farmers and cattle-ranching schemes. The Trans-Amazonian Highway is a prime example of the environmental havoc that is caused by improperly planned road construction in the rainforest.

    Road construction and improvement continues in the Amazon today. For updates, please see rainforest roads and the roads news feed.

    Industrial soy next to a wetland area in the Brazilian Amazon
    Industrial soy next to a wetland area in the Brazilian Amazon

    Commercial agriculture
    Soy production in the Amazon exploded in the early 1990s following the development of a new variety of soybean suitable to the soils and climate of the region. Most expansion occurred in the cerrado, a wooded grassland ecosystem, and the transition forests in the southern fringes in the Amazon basin, especially in states of Mato Grosso and Pará — direct conversion of rainforests for soy has been relatively limited. Instead, the impact of soy on rainforests is generally seen to be indirect. Soy expansion has driven up land prices, created impetus for infrastructure improvements that promote forest clearing, and displaced cattle ranchers to frontier areas, spurring deforestation.

    In recent years soy growers, crushers, and traders have taken steps to reduce the environmental impact of their crop in the Amazon biome. After a damaging Greenpeace campaign in 2006, leading players in the industry agreed to a moratorium on soy grown on newly deforested lands. Independent analysis has shown that growers are mostly abiding by the ban: only 12 of 630 sample areas (1,389 of 157,896 hectares) deforested since July 2006 — the date the moratorium took effect — were planted with soy.

    In theory, logging in the Amazon is controlled by strict licensing which allows timber to be harvested only in designated areas. However, there is significant evidence that illegal logging is quite widespread in Brazil. In recent years, Ibama—Brazil's environmental enforcement agency—has made an increasing number of large seizures of illegally harvested timber.

    Logging in the Amazon is closely linked with road building. Studies by the Environmental Defense Fund show that areas that have been selectively logged are eight times more likely to be settled and cleared by shifting cultivators than untouched rainforests because of access granted by logging roads. Logging roads give colonists access to rainforest, which they exploit for fuelwood, game, building material, and temporary agricultural lands.

    Other causes of forest loss in Brazil
    Historically, hydroelectric projects have flooded vast areas of Amazon rainforest. The Balbina dam flooded some 2,400 square kilometers (920 square miles) of rainforest when it was completed. Phillip Fearnside, a leading expert on the Amazon, calculated that in the first three years of its existence, the Balbina Reservoir emitted 23,750,000 tons of carbon dioxide and 140,000 tons of methane, both potent greenhouse gases which contribute to global climate change. The Belo Monte dam now being built on the Xingu river is expected to drive regional deforestation by miners and industrial farmers, in addition to flooding tens of thousands of hectares of forest and impeding the flow of one of the mightiest tributaries of the Amazon. Developers are already targeting the Tapajos River basin for more dams.

    Mining has impacted some parts of the Amazon Basin. During the 1980s, over 100,000 prospectors invaded the state of Parà when a large gold deposit was discovered, while wildcat miners are still active across vast area in the Brazilian Amazon (and perhaps even more active outside Brazil's borders, where law enforcement is even more lax). Typically, miners clear forest for building material, fuelwood collection, and subsistence agriculture.

    Aggregated deforestation by state in the Brazilian Amazon, 2000-2013
    Aggregated deforestation by state in the Brazilian Amazon, 2000-2013

    Virtually all forest clearing, by small farmer and plantation owner alike, is done by fire. Though these fires are intended to burn only limited areas, they frequently escape agricultural plots and pastures and char pristine rainforest, especially in dry years like 2005. Many of the fires set for clearing forest for these purposes are set during the three-month burning season and the smoke produced creates widespread problems across the region, including airport closings and hospitalizations from smoke inhalation. These fires cover a vast area of forest. In 1987 during a four-month period (July-October), about 19,300 square miles (50,000 sq. km) of Brazilian Amazon were burned in the states of Parà, Rondonia, Mato Grosso, and Acre. The burning produced carbon dioxide containing more than 500 million tons of carbon, 44 million tons of carbon monoxide, and millions of tons of other particles and nitrogen oxides. An estimated 20 percent of fires that burn between June and October cause new deforestation, while another 10 percent is the burning of ground cover in virgin forests.

    Fires and climate change are having a dramatic impact on the Amazon. Recent studies suggest that the Amazon rainforest may be losing its ability to stay green all year long as forest degradation and drought make it dangerously flammable. Scientists say that as much as 50 percent of the Amazon could go up in smoke should fires continue. Humidity levels were the lowest ever recorded in the Amazon in 2005.

    Deforestation by state in the Brazilian Amazon. Data from INPE.
    Deforestation by state in the Brazilian Amazon. Data from INPE.

    Slavery and Violence in the Amazon
    The Amazon has been a place of violence since at least the arrival of European explorers, and the present is no exception. Violent conflicts between large landowners, poor colonists, and indigenous groups over land are not unusual in the Amazon and may be worsening.

    The Pastoral Land Commission, a nongovernmental group working in the region, found that land battles in Brazil's countryside reached the highest level in at least 20 years in 2004. According to the annual report by the organization, documented conflicts over land among peasants, farmers, and land speculators rose to 1,801 in 2004 from 1,690 conflicts in 2003 and 925 recorded in 2002. Tensions reached their peak earlier this year with the high-profile slaying of Dorothy Stang, an American nun who worked with rural poor, by gunmen associated with plantation owners. In response to the murder, the Brazilian government sent in the army to quell violence in the region and established new protected areas.

    The government has also stepped up efforts to end slavery in the Amazon. While Brazil officially abolished slavery in 1888, the government acknowledges that at least 25,000 Brazilians work under "conditions analogous to slavery," clearing land and working for cattle ranches, soy farms, and other labor-intensive industries. Some groups say the true figure could be ten times that amount. In 2005, 4,133 slaves were freed after Brazilian Swat-style teams raided 183 farms.

    UPDATE: Future threats to the Amazon rainforest

    What can de done to save the Amazon rainforest in Brazil?

    Today Brazil faces an enormous challenge: how to balance economic growth with the preservation of the Amazon rainforest.
    1. Rehabilitation and increased productivity of formerly forested lands
    2. Expansion of protection areas
    3. Development based on concepts of sustainable use of some existing forest
    4. Land policy reform
    5. Law Enforcement

    News on the Amazon Rainforest XML

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