Brazil holds about one-third of the world's remaining rainforests, including a majority of the Amazon rainforest. Terrestrially speaking, it is also the most biodiverse country on Earth, with more than 56,000 described species of plants, 1,700 species of birds, 695 amphibians, 578 mammals, and 651 reptiles.
The bulk of Brazil's forest cover is found in the Amazon Basin, a mosaic of ecosystems and vegetation types including rainforests (the vast majority), seasonal forests, deciduous forests, flooded forests, and savannas, including the woody cerrado
. This region has experienced an exceptional extent of forest loss over the past two generations—an area exceeding 760,000 square kilometers, or about 19 percent of its total surface area of 4,005,082 square kilometers, has been cleared in the Amazon since 1970, when only 2.4 percent of the Amazon's forests had been lost. The increase in Amazon deforestation in the early 1970s coincided with the construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, which opened large forest areas to development by settlers and commercial interests. In more recent years, growing populations in the Amazon region, combined with increased viability of agricultural operations, have caused a further rise in deforestation rates.
Aggregated deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon from 1988-2013
Recent studies indicate that these figures do not include extensive areas degraded by fires and selective logging. Research led by the Woods Hole Research Center and the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology found that each year the amount of forest degraded is roughly equivalent to the amount of forest cleared. The finding is trouble to ecologists because degraded forest has lower levels of biodiversity and is more likely to be cleared in the future. Further, degraded forest is more susceptible to fires.
Why is the Amazon Rainforest Disappearing?
Historically the majority of deforestation has resulted from the actions of poor subsistence farmers, but in recent decades this has changed, with a greater proportion of forest clearing done by large landowners and corporations. Such is the case in Brazil, a large portion of deforestation can be attributed to land clearing for pasture by commercial and speculative interests.
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 and agricultural output has surged, suggesting a decoupling of economic growth from deforestation.
While this is welcome news for Earth's largest rainforest, there remains a risk that the trend could reverse. Furthermore, scientists worry that rising temperatures and increased incidence of drought are increasingly the vulnerability of the Amazon rainforest to catastrophic die-off.
Causes of deforestation in the Amazon
In evaluating deforestation in the Amazon, it is important to understand both direct and indirect drivers of forest loss.
Direct drivers of deforestation including conversion of forests for pasture, farmland, and plantations, as well as surface mining, dams that inundate forested areas, and intense fires.
Indirect drivers of deforestation include more subtle factors, like insecure land tenure, corruption, poor law enforcement, infrastructure projects, policies that favor conversion over conservation, and selective logging that create conditions or enable activities that facilitate forest clearing.
Conversion of rainforest for cattle pasture is the single largest driver of deforestation in Brazil. Clearing forest for pasture is the cheapest and easiest way to establish an informal claim to land, which can then be sold on to other parties at a profit. In some parts of the Brazilian Amazon, cleared rainforest land can be worth more than eight times that of land with standing forest. According, cattle ranching is often viewed as a way to speculate on appreciating land prices.
However since 2000, cattle ranching in the Amazon has become increasingly industrialized, meaning that more ranchers are producing cattle to sell commercially. Most of the beef ends up in the domestic market, but secondary products like hides and leather are often exported.
These exports left Brazilian cattle ranchers exposed in the late 2000's when Greenpeace launched a high profile campaign against companies that were sourcing leather and other products from major Brazilian cattle processors. That campaign led major companies to demand zero deforestation cattle. Combined with a crackdown by public prosecutors, the Brazilian cattle industry started to shift substantially toward less damaging practices in late 2009, contributing to the downward trend in deforestation.
The model for the Brazilian cattle industry to move toward zero deforestation came from the country's soy industry, which underwent a similar transformation three years earlier. That shift was also initiative by a Greenpeace campaign, which targeted the soy-based chicken feed used by McDonald's in Europe. Within months of that campaign's launch, the largest soy crushers and traders in the Amazon had established a moratorium on buying soy produced via deforestation in the Amazon.
Logging in the Brazilian Amazon remains plagued by poor management, destructive practices, and outright fraud. Vast areas of rainforest are logged -- legally and illegally -- each year.
At present, Amazon palm oil is not a major driver of deforestation in Brazil. The industry may in fact offer a more productive alternative to other land use in the region, if low productivity cattle pastures are instead converted into plantations.
Dams, roads, and other infrastructure projects
Brazil is in the midst of an infrastructure construction spree, including scores of dams across the Amazon basin and a series of road projects that could greatly exacerbated deforestation. Mining is also a major activity in the region.
Conservation in Brazil
While Brazil may be better known for losing its forests, it is important to recognize that it also leads the world in conservation efforts. During the 2000's Brazil easily led the world in establishing new protected areas. Those gains were consolidated in 2014, when donors established a trust fund that will underwrite the country's protected areas system through 2039.
Beyond strict protected areas, more than a fifth of the Brazilian Amazon lies within indigenous reservations, which research has shown reduce deforestation even more effectively than national parks. Overall nearly half the Brazilian Amazon is under some form of protection.
Brazil's other forests
While the Amazon rainforest is Brazil's most famous forest, the country also has other types of forest.
The Mata Atlântica or Atlantic Forest is a drier tropical forest that lies along the coast and inland areas to the south of the Amazon. It has been greatly reduced by conversion to agricultural -- especially sugar cane and cattle pasture -- and urbanization. The Mata Atlântica is arguably Brazil's most threatened forest.
The Pantanal is an inland wetland that borders Paraguay and Bolivia and covers an area of 154,884 square kilometers. It includes a mosaic of forests and flooded grasslands.
biome is a tropical grassland that covers 1.9 square kilometers, or approximately 22 percent of the country. It is being rapidly destroyed for agriculture.
|Total forest area||Dense forest area||Forest gain||Forest loss||Total land area|
|>10% tree cover (ha)||% total land cover||>50% tree cover (ha)||% total land cover||2001-2012 (ha)||% total forest cover||2001-2012 (ha)||% total forest cover||(ha)|
|Mato Grosso do Sul||11940652||33.8%||7922995||22.4%||339934||2.8%||1105624||9.3%||35343712|
|Rio de Janeiro||2071028||48.1%||1567191||36.4%||17359||0.8%||36974||1.8%||4301869|
|Rio Grande do Norte||1247591||23.7%||445996||8.5%||12486||1.0%||101138||8.1%||5262173|
|Rio Grande do Sul||8478395||32.0%||6474836||24.4%||660316||7.8%||316357||3.7%||26523923|
| Brazil news updates
Dilma disappoints with weak rainforest target
||Brazil Forest Figures
Total forest area: 477,698,000 ha
% of land area: 57.2%
Primary forest cover: 415,890,000 ha
% of land area: 49.8%
% total forest area: 87.1%
Deforestation Rates, 2000-2005
Annual change in forest cover: -3,103,000 ha
Annual deforestation rate: -0.6%
Change in defor. rate since '90s: 22.0%
Total forest loss since 1990: -42,329,000 ha
Total forest loss since 1990:-8.1%
Primary or "Old-growth" forests
Annual loss of primary forests: -3466000 ha
Annual deforestation rate: -0.8%
Change in deforestation rate since '90s: 35.0%
Primary forest loss since 1990: -17,330,000 ha
Primary forest loss since 1990:-9.7%
Social services: 23.8%
Multiple purpose: 44.8%
None or unknown: n/a
Forest Area Breakdown
Total area: 477,698,000 ha
Primary: 415,890,000 ha
Modified natural: 56,424,000 ha
Production plantation: 5,384,000 ha
Production plantation: n/a
Plantations, 2005: 5,384,000 ha
% of total forest cover: 1.1%
Annual change rate (00-05): 21,000,000 ha
Above-ground biomass: 79,219 M t
Below-ground biomass: 22,017 M t
Area annually affected by
Fire: 68,000 ha
Insects: 30,000 ha
Diseases: 20,000 ha
Number of tree species in IUCN red list
Number of native tree species: 7,880
Critically endangered: 34
Wood removal 2005
Industrial roundwood: 168,091,000 m3 o.b.
Wood fuel: 122,385,000 m3 o.b.
Value of forest products, 2005
Industrial roundwood: $2,897,019,000
Wood fuel: $942,020,000
Non-wood forest products (NWFPs): $193,131,000
Total Value: $4,032,170,000
More forest statistics for Brazil
(06/30/2015) Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff disappointed environmentalists with what they call weak commitments on reducing deforestation and supporting renewable energy announced today during her visit to the White House.
Palm oil plantations used to 'reforest' parts of Brazil despite being wildlife deserts
(06/30/2015) A recent study systematically documented bird biodiversity within oil palm plantations, finding they contain fewer species than secondary forest and even cattle pasture. As oil palm grows as a commodity in Brazil – and can legally even be used to "reforest" land – how can a country that has made big gains in reducing deforestation in recent years balance this powerhouse industry with environmental welfare?
Corporations rush to make zero-deforestation commitments, but is it working?
(06/29/2015) Every year, more companies pledge to stop using ingredients whose production cause tropical deforestation. Retailers and brands making voluntary commitments – mostly involving palm oil – include Johnson & Johnson, Unilever, Colgate and Wilmar, the world's largest palm oil trader. Among 2014 joiners were Cargill, Krispy Kreme, Dunkin's Donuts and Baskin' Robbins, with 2015 bringing the addition of McDonald's, Archer Daniels Midland and Yum! Brands (owner of Pizza Hut, KFC, and Taco Bell).
Has Amazon deforestation reached a 7-year high in Brazil?
(06/18/2015) Analysis of satellite data suggests deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon may have reached a seven-year high.
Rainforest parks cut malaria transmission
(06/16/2015) Strictly protected areas in the Brazilian Amazon are associated with lower rates of malaria transmission than extractive reserves, mining zones, and areas with roads, reports a paper published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
. The findings add to a growing body of data suggesting that conservation efforts contribute to human welfare.
90% of Amazon deforestation occurs outside protected areas
(06/13/2015) Ten percent of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon between August 2012 and July 2014 occurred in protected areas, reports new research from Imazon.
Tapajós and other Amazon dams not sustainable development say reports
(06/11/2015) Plans to build hydroelectric dams globally -- especially in the Amazon and other tropical locales -- are often touted as 'sustainable development.' However, according to a trio of new reports, these large infrastructure projects will do enormous harm to rainforest ecosystems and indigenous peoples, while also emitting far more greenhouse gases than the U.N. and other organizations officially estimate, with potentially disastrous results.
China unveils plans for huge railway in South America
(05/27/2015) China is looking to add another rung to its investment presence in Latin America, with an announcement of plans to build an expansive railway bisecting the continent from Brazil to Peru. The bid has raised the hackles of conservation groups, which are concerned the railway will run through sensitive ecosystems, harm threatened wildlife, and affect indigenous communities.
China defends trans-Amazon railway, says it will protect the environment
(05/27/2015) Chinese Premier Li Keqiang has defended a plan to build a railway across the South American continent as a way to protect the environment and grow the region's economy, reports AFP
62M ha of Latin American forests cleared for agriculture since 2001
(05/19/2015) Over 62 million hectares (240,000 square miles) of forest across Latin America — an area roughly the size of Texas or the United Kingdom — were cleared for new croplands and pastureland between 2001 and 2013, find a study published in Environmental Research Letters
China’s investment in Latin America taking toll on the environment, setting the stage for conflict
(05/18/2015) China has been investing heavily in Latin America’s natural resources and crude oil. Recently, the country even pledged to invest $250 billion over the next decade to strengthen its presence in the region, and compete with the U.S. But this increasing Chinese trade and investment in Latin America is also increasing environmental and social conflict, finds a new report published by Boston University.
What's the current deforestation rate in the Amazon rainforest?
(05/15/2015) Nearly two-thirds of the Amazon rainforest is located in Brazil, making it the biggest component in the region's deforestation rate. Helpfully, Brazil also has the best systems for tracking deforestation, with the government and Imazon, a national civil society organization, releasing updates on a quarterly and monthly basis using MODIS satellite data, respectively. Both the Brazilian government and Imazon release more accurate data on an annual basis using higher resolution Landsat satellite imagery.
Zero deforestation commitments bearing fruit in the Amazon
(05/13/2015) A high profile pledge by the world's largest meat company to limit deforestation for cattle production in the Amazon appears to be working, resulting in a dramatic increase in compliance with environmental registries and reduced forest clearing among supplier ranches, finds a comprehensive study published in the journal Conservation Letters
Satellite data shows how deforestation is impacting our weather and our food
(05/12/2015) The conversion of forests to cropland can drive local temperatures up or down by as much as a few degrees, according to a new report. Ironically, the authors write that these temperature fluctuations can lead to less productivity from the very same agricultural operations the forests were cleared to make way for.
Brazilian firm's mega-dam plans in Peru spark major social conflict
(05/11/2015) 'I don't want to sell my land because I've lived here since I was 17,' declared 82 year old María Araujo Silva. 'This was where my children were born. I want to die here. That's why I'm not in agreement. I'm not in agreement with the dam.' Araujo Silva is outraged at plans by Peru's government and Brazilian company Odebrecht to build a hydroelectric dam just downriver from her village, Huarac, on the Marañón River.
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