By Rhett Butler
Tropical forest cover for "Amazon countries." Note that this includes forest cover outside them Amazon, including the Atlantic Forest in Brazil; Guyana shield forests of French Guiana, Suriname, and Guyana; Orinoco forests of Venezuela; and Chocó forests of Colombia and Ecuador.
|Total land area||Total forest cover|
|Primary forest cover|
|Country||(1000 ha)||(1000 ha)||% of total|
|(1000 ha)||% of total|
|% of 1990|
Bolivia has substantial rainforest cover in its lowland areas: the Bolivian Amazon covers 229,985 square miles (59.6 million hectares) of which roughly two-thirds is forested. About half of Bolivia's forest cover consists of primary forest.
From 1986-1990, the country had a low deforestation rate—about 0.2 percent annually—due to several factors including the Andean-based government's inattention to the lowland parts of the country, the extreme poverty of the country (the government could not afford to offer subsidies to forest developers or construct infrastructure), and the weak export market of this land-locked country. However, during the 1990s, Bolivia's deforestation rate more than doubled to 270,400 hectares per year. The government granted some 20 million hectares to timber companies, while large swaths of forest were cleared for soybean and coca cultivation. Though the government passed laws that required the logging industry to replant forests to ensure sustainability, loopholes made it possible for many firms to bypass the requirement. Further, illegal logging operations smuggled timber into Brazil where it was exported as Brazilian wood.
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Brazil holds about one-third of the world's remaining rainforests, including a majority of the Amazon rainforest. It is also overwhelmingly 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.
Due to the vastness of the Amazon rainforest, Brazil's average loss of 34,660 square kilometers of primary forest per year between 2000 and 2005 represents only about 0.8 percent of its forest cover. Nevertheless, deforestation in Brazil is one of the most important global environmental issues today.
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. This region has experienced an exceptional extent of forest loss over the past two generations—an area almost certainly exceeding 600,000 square kilometers (232,000 square miles), or about 15 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.
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Despite its relatively small size, Colombia is the second most biologically diverse country on Earth, home to about 10 percent of the world's species. This biodiversity results from Colombia's varied ecosystems—from the rich tropical rainforest to the coastal cloud forests to the open savannas. More than 1,821 species of birds, 623 species of amphibians, 467 species of mammals, 518 species of reptiles, and 3,200 species of fish reside in Colombia. About 18 percent of these are endemic to the country. Colombia has a mind-boggling 51,220 species of plants, of which nearly 30 percent are endemic. While on paper nearly 10 percent of Colombia is under some form of protection, its rich biodiversity is increasingly threatened.
Each year Colombia loses nearly 200,000 hectares of natural forest, according to figures released by the United Nations in 2003—though the true figure may be higher since an estimated 100,000 hectares of native forest are illegally cleared every year. The vast majority of this loss is primary forest, which covers more than 80 percent of the country. Deforestation in Colombia results primarily from small-scale agricultural activities, logging, mining, energy development, infrastructure construction, large-scale agriculture, and the cocaine trade. Animal collection and pollution are also environmental issues in the country.
Colombia's Pacific Coast rainforests are rapidly disappearing due to gold mining and palm-oil plantations. By one estimate, in the mid-1990s, industrial gold mining alone cleared 80,000 hectares of forest per year, while contaminating local rivers with mercury and siltation. Coca production is also an issue in this region.
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Despite its small area, Ecuador is the eighth most biodiverse country on Earth. Ecuador has almost 20,000 species of plants, over 1,500 species of birds, more than 840 species of reptiles and amphibians, and 341 species of mammals.
Ecuador also has the distinction of having the highest deforestation rate and worst environmental record in South America. Oil exploration, logging, and road building have had a disastrous impact on Ecuador's primary rainforests, which now cover less than 15 percent of the country's land mass.
Logging in Western Ecuador (coastal and low Andean) areas is responsible for the loss of 99 percent of the country's rainforest in this region. Historically, after an area has been selectively logged and abandoned, settlers follow logging roads and set up homesteads, slashing and burning the surrounding forest for agriculture and cattle pasture.
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The rainforests of French Guiana are still largely unexploited and sparsely populated. The majority of the population lives on the Atlantic coastal zone and is totally dependent on subsidies from France. The European Space Agency is responsible for more than 50 percent of the economic activity.
For the immediate future, the forests of French Guiana face relatively few threats.
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Guyana is a small, lightly populated country on the north coast of South America. About three-quarters of Guyana is forested, roughly 60 percent of which is classified as primary forest. Guyana's forests are highly diverse: the country has some 1,263 known species of amphibians, birds, mammals, and reptiles, and 6,409 species of plants. According to an assessment by the ITTO, forests in Guyana can be broken down as follows: rainforest (36 percent), montane forest (35 percent). swamp and marsh (15 percent), dry evergreen (7 percent), seasonal forest (6 percent), and mangrove forest (1 percent).
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Peru has the third largest extent of tropical rainforests in the world, after Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo. These forests are some of the richest in the world, both in terms of biological diversity and natural resources (timber, energy, mineral resources).
About half of Peru is forested. Of this, more than 80 percent is classified as primary forest. The FAO estimates that the country loses somewhere between 224,000 and 300,000 hectares of forest per year, giving it an annual deforestation rate of 0.35-0.5 percent, a low rate relative to neighboring countries. Most of this deforestation is the result of subsistence agriculture, which can largely be attributed to the migration of farmers from the highlands taking advantage of Peru's land-tenure law which allows people to own land by occupying it for five years.
Deforestation and degradation are also increasingly the result of development activities.
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Suriname's extensive forest cover and low population, about 400,000 concentrated in the capital and coastal cities, give it one of the lowest deforestation rates in the world. Only 5 percent of the population lives in the rainforest; this includes indigenous peoples and six tribes of Maroons—descendants of escaped slaves who recreated forest communities centuries ago and today retain their traditional West African style (ironic since West Africa's rainforests are depleted). Conflicts between the coastal population and the natives of the forested interior manifested themselves in a bloody six-year civil war that was resolved in 1992 with the signing of a peace treaty. Under the treaty, the interior and indigenous populations have the right to their indigenous lands and to control economic activity on those lands.
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Venezuela, one of the ten most biodiverse countries on Earth, is home to extensive rainforests that are increasingly threatened by development. Each year, roughly 287,600 hectares of forest are permanently destroyed, while other areas are degraded by logging, mining, and oil extraction. Between 1990 and 2005, Venezuela officially lost 8.3 percent of its forest cover, or around 4,313,000 hectares.
Energy is Venezuela's most important export and President Hugo Chavez has used oil as a political tool to extend his influence to other parts of Latin America. In 2006, Chavez announced plans to build a massive gas pipeline that would carry natural gas from the oil-rich state 5,000 miles south. Environmentalists fear that the project could damage the Amazon rainforest by polluting waterways and creating roads that would attract developers and poor farmers. Analysts also question the wisdom and viability of the plan, which may cost $20-50 billion depending on who makes the estimate. Venezuela also continues to expand the construction of an electricity transmission line towards Brazil. When completed, the transmission line will carry power from the massive Guri hydroelectric project—it in itself considered an ecological disaster for the amount of land it flooded in the early 1980s—through sensitive forest areas to Roraima state in Brazil. Environmentalists are concerned that the lines will give colonists and developers access to remote forest areas.
Another significant threat to the rainforests of Venezuela is the mining industry. Informal or wildcat gold and diamond miners are particularly active in the southern state of Bolivar where they have a history of violent conflicts with local indigenous people—including the Yanomani—as well as a role in the environmental degradation of the region through pollution of local rivers and deforestation.
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THE AMAZON RAINFOREST