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
62M ha of Latin American forests cleared for agriculture since 2001
||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
(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.
Brazilian Amazon nears deforestation threshold past which wildlife may crash, says study
(05/01/2015) A study on the impact of forest loss on biodiversity, recently published in the journal Conservation Biology, shows that one-third of the Brazilian Amazon is headed toward or has just passed a threshold of forest cover beyond which species loss accelerates and is more damaging.
Giant Amazonian catfish threatened by dams
(05/01/2015) Giant catfish are among the most important commercial fishes in the Amazon Basin. A new study suggests that their sensitive life cycle may be interrupted by dams in their last remaining refuge on the Madeira River.
Deforestation in Brazilian Amazon continues to accelerate
(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
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