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
Financial pledges for REDD+ slow to be disbursed, finds report
||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
(01/27/2015) Only a small fraction of the $7.3 billion pledged under the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD+) program has actually been disbursed, find a new report that tracked REDD+ finance in seven countries. The report, published by Forest Trends, analyzed REDD+ financial flows between 2009 and 2012 in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Ghana, Liberia, Tanzania and Vietnam
Accounting for natural capital on financial exchanges
(01/26/2015) Last month, Norway's stock exchange, the Oslo Børs, introduced a way for investors to use their money to promote sustainability. A new list by the stock exchange highlights green bonds, financial products issued by companies to raise capital for environmentally friendly projects. Notably, the list requires that issuing companies obtain and publicize outside opinions on the projects' environmental features.
Brazil's soy moratorium dramatically reduced Amazon deforestation
(01/23/2015) The moratorium on forest conversion established by Brazilian soy giants in 2006 dramatically reduce deforestation for soy expansion in the Amazon, and have been more effective in cutting forest destruction than the government's land use policy in the region, finds a study published today in the journal Science.
Road building spree hurts Amazon birds
(01/14/2015) A city-dwelling crow in Japan strategically drops a nut near a crosswalk into moving traffic. The bird then waits patiently for the light to turn before dropping down to the road and collecting the cracked nut in safety. While this type of animal behavior is fascinating, such adaptation to the human world is not possible for most bird species.
Deforestation climbing - along with fears - in the Amazon
(01/13/2015) Deforestation in the Brazil Amazon continues to pace well ahead of last year's rate, shows data released today by Imazon. According to the Brazilian NGO's analysis of satellite data, 1,373 square kilometers of rainforest was chopped down between August 2014 and December 2014, a 224 percent increase relative to the prior corresponding period a year before.
Time for a checkup: researchers examine the health of lowland tapirs
(01/07/2015) The Brazilian tapir may get a bad rap in Brazil, where referring to someone as a 'tapir' essentially equates to calling them an 'ass,' but history has shown that this species is deserving of a lot more respect. These hardy 'living fossils' have survived multiple extinction events since the Eocene, yet their ability to survive the ongoing Anthopocene extinction remains uncertain.
Rainforests: 10 things to watch in 2015
(01/02/2015) 2014 was a landmark year for tropical rainforests, with dozens of major companies committing to eliminating deforestation from their supply chains, the launch of new platforms for monitoring forests, and sharp drop in clearing in the Brazilian Amazon, among other big developments. Here's a quick look ahead at what might be in store for tropical forests in 2015.
2014: the year in rainforests
(12/30/2014) 2014 could be classified as 'The Year of the Zero Deforestation Commitment'. During 2014, nearly two dozen major companies, ranging from palm oil producers to fast food chains to toothpaste makers, established policies to exclude palm oil sourced at the expense of rainforests and peatlands.
Meet Biofaces: the Facebook for wildlife enthusiasts
(12/30/2014) Love wildlife? Wish you had a place online to share your photos, videos, and stories with other wild enthusiasts—kind of like a Facebook for wildlife lovers? Well, look no further than Biofaces, a new website meant to "make wildlife loving people happy," according to its creator, Leonardo Avelino Duarte.
Top 10 HAPPY environmental stories of 2014
(12/29/2014) In what was widely seen as a possible breakthrough in the battle to coordinate some kind of response to global warming, China and the U.S. announced joint actions this year. On November 12th, the world's two most powerful countries surprised pretty much everyone by announcing that they would work together to tackle the crisis.
How a frog with a strange name is helping improve conservation in Brazil
(12/23/2014) Protecting the biodiversity of the Amazon basin is an immense undertaking, and to its credit the Brazilian government has a set procedure for doing so. However, there are gaps in the process that may prevent the authorities from fully protecting the species that call this place home. To investigate this, a recent study uses as an example the brilliant-thighed frog, a species that is found across the Amazon Basin—including the area surrounding the soon-to-be dammed Xingu River.
Top 10 Environmental Stories of 2014
(12/23/2014) In 2014, the unimaginable happened: companies representing the majority of palm oil production and trade agreed to stop cutting down rainforests and draining peatlands for new oil palm plantations. After years of intense campaigning by environmentalists and dire warnings from scientists, nearly two dozen major producers, traders, and buyers established zero deforestation policies.
Impacts of deforestation on Amazonian river ecosystems could be far-reaching
(12/18/2014) A study by researchers in Brazil published this week has found that deforestation in the Southern Amazon may impair significantly the structure and function of rivers, and make them less able to support life.
Plant wars: some tree species compete better against grasses for reforestation
(12/18/2014) What happens to degraded pastureland once the cows are kicked out? After years of letting the area rest, does it eventually become what it once was? Not likely. When disruptions such as invasive species and human interference are introduced to an area, ecological succession doesn’t occur the way it should naturally.
Scientists reintroduce agoutis in rainforest in city of 12 million
(12/17/2014) When one thinks of Rio de Janeiro, one usually doesn't think: rainforest. However, in the heart of the city sits a massive rainforest sprung over long-gone sugar and coffee plantations. The forest—protected today as the Tijuca National Park—is home to hundreds of threatened species, but no agoutis, a common ground mammal in Latin America.
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