By Rhett Butler   |   Last updated July 13, 2014

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
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.

Deforestation in the Amazon

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.

causes of deforestation in the Amazon

Cattle ranching

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.

Palm oil

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.

The cerrado 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 areaDense forest areaForest gainForest lossTotal land area
>10% tree cover (ha)% total land cover>50% tree cover (ha)% total land cover2001-2012 (ha)% total forest cover2001-2012 (ha)% total forest cover(ha)
Distrito Federal9539216.6%296045.1%18011.9%19472.0%574862
Espэrito Santo205705047.3%158211236.4%21443710.4%1886909.2%4350624
Mato Grosso5983761366.4%5242686758.2%4325630.7%800884013.4%90082523
Mato Grosso do Sul1194065233.8%792299522.4%3399342.8%11056249.3%35343712
Minas Gerais2293899039.3%1282339821.9%14413416.3%17657287.7%58431030
Rio de Janeiro207102848.1%156719136.4%173590.8%369741.8%4301869
Rio Grande do Norte124759123.7%4459968.5%124861.0%1011388.1%5262173
Rio Grande do Sul847839532.0%647483624.4%6603167.8%3163573.7%26523923
Santa Catarina636804868.2%528650456.6%66565510.5%4569827.2%9333590
Sуo Paulo759842331.3%562528423.2%76709910.1%6127648.1%24280216
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Brazil Forest Figures

Forest Cover
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%

Forest Classification
Public: n/a
Private: n/a
Other: n/a
Production: 5.5%
Protection: 17.8%
Conservation: 8.1%
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
Semi-natural: n/a
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

Carbon storage
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
Endangered: 100
Vulnerable: 187

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

True stewards: new report says local communities key to saving forests, curbing global warming
(07/24/2014) Deforestation is compromising forests around the world, destroying vital habitat and causing greenhouse gases emissions that are contributing to global warming. A new report released today finds a possible solution: protecting forests by empowering the local communities that live within them.

Targeted enforcement saved a Massachusetts-worth of Amazon rainforest in 3 years
(07/24/2014) Targeted law enforcement efforts via Brazil's green municipalities programs were responsible for reducing deforestation by 10,653 square kilometers — an area the size of Massachusetts — between 2009 and 2011, argues a paper published in the journal Land Use Policy.

Brazil could meet all its food demand by 2040 without cutting down another tree
(07/24/2014) Better utilization of its vast areas of pasturelands could enable Brazil to dramatically boost agricultural production without the need to clear another hectare of Amazon rainforest, cerrado, or Atlantic forest, argues a new study published in the journal Global Environmental Change.

Phone-based logging alert system eyes expanding to the Amazon
(07/23/2014) After exceeding an ambitious fundraising target to launch a near-real time forest monitoring system in the Congo Basin, a San-Francisco based start-up is now eyeing expansion in the Amazon where it hopes to help an indigenous rainforest tribe fight illegal logging.

Roads through the rainforest: an overview of South America's 'arc of deforestation'
(07/21/2014) When a new road centipedes its way across a landscape, the best of intentions may be laid with the pavement. But roads, by their very nature, are indiscriminate pathways, granting access for travel and trade along with deforestation and other forms of environmental degradation. And as the impacts of roads on forest ecosystems become clear, governments and planning agencies reach a moral crossroads.

Only 15 percent of world's biodiversity hotspots left intact
(07/14/2014) The world's 35 biodiversity hotspots—which harbor 75 percent of the planet's endangered land vertebrates—are in more trouble than expected, according to a sobering new analysis of remaining primary vegetation. In all less than 15 percent of natural intact vegetation is left in the these hotspots, which include well-known jewels such as Madagascar, the tropical Andes, and Sundaland.

Good intentions, collateral damage: forest conservation may be hurting grasslands
(07/10/2014) Trees absorb CO2 and trap carbon molecules, and countless are lost as forests are felled around the world. So why not plant as many as we can? A recent paper suggests otherwise; the planting of more trees through international reforestation schemes may actually be harming tropical grasslands, which harbor endemic species and offer unique ecosystem services.

A garden or a wilderness? One-fifth of the Amazon may have been savannah before the arrival of Europeans
(07/09/2014) The Amazon is the largest tropical forest on the planet, covering about 6.5 million square kilometers, although much has been lost in recent decades.Yet new research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) finds that quite recently—just 500 years ago—a significant portion of the southern Amazon was not the tall-canopied forest it is today, but savannah.

A fine line: new program predicts when human impact becomes too much
(07/03/2014) Scientists at Stanford University recently unveiled a new modeling program that can predict the response of the environment to the land-use changes of human communities. Using their model, they found that natural resources can support humanity – up to a certain point.

A children's book inspired by murder: the 25th anniversary of 'The Great Kapok Tree'
(07/03/2014) “The Great Kapok Tree” was written by Lynne Cherry in response to the murder of Brazilian environmental activist Chico Mendes, who was assassinated by a rancher in 1988 in Brazil. Mendes’ murder was a significant international incident galvanizing support for environmental activists working to protect the Amazon forest.

On babies and motherhood: how giant armadillos are surprising scientists (photos)
(07/01/2014) Until ten years ago scientist's knowledge of the reproductive habits of the giant armadillo— the world's biggest— were basically regulated to speculation. But a long-term research project in the Brazilian Pantanal is changing that: last year researchers announced the first ever photos of a baby giant armadillo and have since recorded a second birth from another female.

New report: illegal logging keeps militias and terrorist groups in business
(06/30/2014) Released last week by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) during the first United Nations Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya, a new report found that together with other other illicit activities such as poaching, illegal deforestation is one of the top money-makers for criminal groups like Boko Haram and Al-Shabaab.

Brazil should convert pasture, not cerrado for biofuel crops
(06/25/2014) If Brazil wants to respect its commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions it should target low productivity cattle pasture rather than native cerrado for biofuel crops like sugar cane, argues a new paper published in Nature Climate Change.

Using Google Earth to protect uncontacted tribes in the Amazon rainforest
(06/19/2014) In 2008, images of an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil created ripples. With bodies painted in bright colors, members of the tribe aimed their arrows at a Brazilian government plane flying overhead, occupants of which were attempting to photograph the tribe to prove their existence. Now, a new study has found another way to survey such tribes safely and remotely—using satellite images.

Feather forensics: scientist uses genes to track macaws, aid bird conservation
(06/17/2014) When a massive road project connected the ports of Brazil to the shipping docks of Peru in 2011, conservationists predicted widespread impacts on wildlife. Roads are a well-documented source of habitat fragmentation, interfering with access to available habitat for many terrestrial and tree-dwelling species. However, it wasn’t clear whether or not birds are able to fly over these barriers.

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