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
Deforestation in Brazilian Amazon continues to accelerate
||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
(04/27/2015) Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon — the planet's largest rainforest — continues to pace well ahead of last year's rate, reveals data released by Imazon, a Manaus-based nonprofit.
Featured video: 'A river in dispute' documentary explores how a planned dam in the Amazon is affecting traditional communities
(04/15/2015) Under the threat of losing their lands to a hydroelectric power plant project strategic to the Brazilian government, communities along the Tapajós River, one of the most pristine in Brazil, prepare to defend what is theirs. A video documentary tells their story.
A tale of two maps: Brazilian state won’t use new atlas to close Cerrado deforestation loophole
(04/13/2015) Farmers in north-central Brazil, where the savanna meets the Amazon rainforest, are clearing land at an unprecedented rate. The government hasn’t stopped the cutting, partly because it is using inaccurate, outdated maps that hugely underestimate the extent of its endangered dry forests.
Conservation and carbon storage goals collide in Brazil's Cerrado
(04/13/2015) Scientists are raising the alarm about the disparity between biodiversity goals and carbon goals in Brazil's Cerrado. New research is beginning to challenge the idea that the Cerrado is irrelevant to the battle to reduce atmospheric carbon.
Tiny Brazilian opossum could be farmers’ friend
(04/07/2015) André Mendonça pops open the spring-loaded door on the shoebox-sized trap and peeks inside. Two bulging, black eyes glare back at him. He pulls the trap off the tree limb and shakes the stunned, sopping wet creature into a clear plastic bag. “One more!” he says excitedly.
Brazilian farmers urge return of big cats to Cerrado to protect crops from rampaging peccaries
(04/07/2015) Margie Peixoto was driving her pickup across her farm in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul one February afternoon when she spotted some broken corn stalks and a trio of white-lipped peccaries ambling along the red-clay road as if they owned it. The moment these wild pig relatives spotted the truck, they snorted, snarled and disappeared into the head-high crop, where dozens more likely hid.
Russia and Canada lead the world in forest loss in 2013
(04/02/2015) Russia and Canada led the world in forest loss, accounting for nearly forty percent of the 18 million hectares of forest lost globally in 2013, reveals a new analysis based on high resolution satellite imagery. The research — released today on Global Forest Watch, a forest monitoring and research platform — was led by Matt Hansen of the University of Maryland and involved Google, World Resources Institute (WRI), and other institutions
Illegal deforestation driven by EU appetite for beef, palm oil, soy, say new reports
(04/01/2015) A new report finds that the European Union is driving international trade in commodities grown on land cleared outside of the law. In 2012 alone, the report says, the EU imported $6.5 billion worth of illegally sourced beef, leather, palm oil and soy, which amounts to nearly one-fourth of all global trade and some 2.4 million hectares (59.3 million acres) of forest illegally cleared.
Indonesia, Brazil subsidizing forest loss far more than REDD+ slows it
(04/01/2015) International aid to protect forests in Indonesia and Brazil pales in comparison to domestic subsidies for commodities driving deforestation there. A study finds that while the countries received an annual average of $1 billion via REDD+, their agricultural and biofuel subsidies for palm oil, timber, soy and beef amounted to $41 billion per year.
Archer Daniels Midland to demand suppliers stop chopping down forests
(03/31/2015) Agribusiness giant Archer Daniels Midland (NYSE:ADM) will establish a zero deforestation policy for its global commodity supply chains, potentially forcing its soy, palm oil, and cattle suppliers to also eliminate deforestation from their operations or face losing business with the firm. The move, announced today and expected to be formally approved in May, came after a campaign by institutional investors and environmentalist groups.
Here comes progress: what will planned megaprojects mean for an Amazon city?
(03/31/2015) The city of Itaituba, in western Pará state, is home to several construction projects of strategic interest for the Brazilian government. However, with local infrastructure fragile, residents are worried they will not share in the spoils.
Low crop prices means time is ripe for new forest protection programs
(03/27/2015) Today, conservation compliance is a U.S. policy between governments and farmers that reward farmers with federal subsidies for good conservation practices on designated vulnerable lands. But economist Clayton Ogg believes it could now be used to save forests in countries like Brazil, China, India, and Indonesia. "The main drivers for deforestation in recent years are high crop prices. However, as crop prices fall to more normal levels, farmers depend very heavily on government subsidies, and the subsidies become the major driver for deforestation," Ogg told mongabay.com.
Seeing the trees but not the forest (commentary)
(03/20/2015) Understanding forest dynamics is necessary for the sound management of forests, for both production and conservation. This includes an understanding of the extent of forest area, information about what the forest contains and how the forest resource is managed. Forest monitoring provides this information.
Brazil confirms rising deforestation in the Amazon
(03/14/2015) The Brazilian government has officially confirmed that deforestation in the Amazon is pacing sharply higher than a year ago. Figures released last week by the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) shows that forest clearing detected by DETER — a short term deforestation monitoring system based on coarse satellite imagery — is 63 percent higher for the twelve months ended January 31, 2015 relative to the year earlier period.
Newly discovered Brazilian bird may number fewer than 10 individuals
(03/12/2015) In October 2002, a team of ornithologists at Murici in northeastern Brazil observed and recorded the call of a bird. At that time, the team believed they had chanced upon a rare bird previously described by other researchers as the Alagaos foliage-gleaner (Philydor novasei).
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