By Rhett Butler
Since 1978 over 750,000 square kilometers (289,000 square miles) of Amazon rainforest have been destroyed across Brazil, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana. Why is Earth's largest rainforest being destroyed?
For most of human history, deforestation in the Amazon was primarily the product of subsistence farmers who cut down trees to produce crops for their families and local consumption. But in the later part of the 20th century, that began to change, with an increasing proportion of deforestation driven by industrial activities and large-scale agriculture. By the 2000s more than three-quarters of forest clearing in the Amazon was for cattle-ranching.
The result of this shift is forests in the Amazon were cleared faster than ever before in the late 1970s through the mid 2000s. Vast areas of rainforest were felled for cattle pasture and soy farms, drowned for dams, dug up for minerals, and bulldozed for towns and colonization projects. At the same time, the proliferation of roads opened previously inaccessible forests to settlement by poor farmers, illegal logging, and land speculators.
But that trend began to reverse in Brazil in 2004. Since then, annual forest loss in the country that contains nearly two-thirds of the Amazon's forest cover has declined by roughly eighty percent. The drop has been fueled by a number of factors, including increased law enforcement, satellite monitoring, pressure from environmentalists, private and public sector initiatives, new protected areas, and macroeconomic trends. Nonetheless the trend in Brazil is not mirrored in other Amazon countries, some of which have experienced rising deforestation since 2000.
Forest loss trends in the Amazon. Click image to enlarge.
Forest loss trends in the non-Amazon. Click image to enlarge.
Forest loss trends in the Amazon. Click image to enlarge.
Accumulated forest loss in the Amazon. Click image to enlarge.
Deforestation trends in Amazon countries
Forest loss trends between Amazon countries are highly variable. The following charts are based data from Matt Hansen and colleagues, as presented in Global Forest Watch, using a "loose" definition of the Amazon that extends beyond the Amazon river basin. This includes the Guianas, all of Amazonas state in Venezuela, and all of the states of Maranhão and Mato Grosso in Brazil. Forest is defined as areas having more than 50 percent tree cover.
Annual forests loss in Brazil and the Brazilian Amazon
State deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Data from INPE. Click image to enlarge.
The dramatic decline in the Brazilian Amazon's deforestation rate is detailed in our environmental profile on the country and .
Annual forests loss in Peru and the Peruvian Amazon
Peru's rate of forest loss has been trending upward over the past decade. Reasons for the rise include the development and completion of the Transoceanic highway, which connects Pacific ports to the heart of the Amazon; a surge in gold mining in Madre de Dios and other regions along the eastern slope of the Andes; and increased logging and hydrocarbon development.
Annual forests loss in Colombia and the Colombian Amazon
The rate of forest loss in the Colombian Amazon has been roughly flat since 2000.
Annual forests loss in Bolivia and the Bolivian Amazon
Bolivia's deforestation spiked in 2008 and again in 2010. Overall the country's rate of loss has been increasing at the second highest rate in the Amazon.
Annual forests loss in Ecuador and the Ecuadorian Amazon
Ecuador's rate of forest loss in the Amazon increased between 2001 and 2012. One of the top concern for environmentalists is the government's decision to open Yasuni National Park for oil drilling.
Annual forests loss in Venezuela and the Venezuelan Amazon
On a part of Amazonas state in Venezuela is considered part of the Amazon rainforest, but for the purpose of this estimate, the entire state is used. Most of Venezuela's rainforest found in areas that are part of the Orinoco river basin. Forest loss in the Venezuelan Amazon has been mostly flat since 2000.
Annual forests loss in Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana
While Suriname, Guyana, and French Guiana aren't part of the Amazon River basin, their forests are often lumped in as part of the Amazon rainforest. Forest loss in the three countries has sharply increased in recent years.
Drivers of deforestation in the Amazon
Several trends are contributing to industrial conversion in the Amazon rainforest:
- Increased government incentives in the form of loans and infrastructure spending, including roads and dams;
- Scaled-up private sector finance due to growing interest in "emerging markets" and rising domestic wealth;
- Surging demand for commodities like beef, soy, sugar, and palm oil
Direct drivers of deforestation in Amazon countries
Cattle ranching is the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest. In Brazil, this has been the case since at least the 1970s: government figures attributed 38 percent of deforestation from 1966-1975 to large-scale cattle ranching. Today the figure in Brazil is closer to 70 percent. Most of the beef is destined for urban markets, whereas leather and other cattle products are primarily for export markets.
But production of beef, leather and other cattle products isn't the only reason for converting rainforest into artificial grasslands. In a region where land prices are appreciating quickly, cattle ranching is used as a vehicle for land speculation, much of which is illegal. Forestland has little value—but cleared pastureland can be used to produce cattle or sold to large-scale farmers, including soy planters.
Causes of deforestation in the Amazon
Small-scale, subsistence agriculture
Large-scale, commercial agriculture
Logging, legal and illegal
Fires, mining, urbanization, road construction, dams
Selective logging and fires that burn under the forest canopy commonly result in forest degradation, not deforestation. Therefore these factor less in overall deforestation figures.
The above pie chart showing deforestation in the Amazon by cause is based on the median figures for estimate ranges.
However the situation — at least in the Brazilian Amazon — may be starting to change. Since 2009 major cattle buyers and the Brazilian government — pushed by environmental campaigners — have cracked down on deforestation for cattle production. State-run banks are now mandating landowners register their properties for environmental compliance in order to gain access to low-interest loans. Meanwhile major slaughterhouses have pledged stricter controls on their cattle sourcing to ensure they aren't driving deforestation or the use of slave labor on ranches.
Such trends have yet to emerge in Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia, where cattle ranching remains a major driver of Amazon forest loss.
Colonization and subsequent subsistence agriculture
Historically, subsistence agriculture has been an important cause of deforestation in the Amazon. Small-scale agriculture has often been facilitated by government colonization programs aiming to alleviate urban population pressure by redistributing or granting rural land to the poor. In some cases these programs have failed to meet their development goals while simultaneously unleashing an environmental Armageddon.
For example in the 1970s, Brazil's military dictatorship expanded its ambitious colonization program centered around the construction of the 2,000-mile Trans-Amazonian Highway, which would bisect the Amazon, opening rainforest lands to (1) settlement by poor farmers from the crowded, drought-plagued north and (2) enabling the exploitation of timber and mineral resources. Under the program, colonists would be granted a 250-acre lot, six-months' salary, and easy access to agricultural loans in exchange for settling along the highway and converting the surrounding rainforest into agricultural land. The plan would grow to cost Brazil US$65,000 (1980 dollars) to settle each family.
The project was plagued from the start. The sediments of the Amazon Basin rendered the highway unstable and subject to inundation during heavy rains, blocking traffic and leaving crops to rot. Harvest yields for poor farmers were dismal due to poor training and inadequate soils, which were quickly exhausted necessitating more forest clearing.. Logging was difficult due to the low density of commercially exploitable trees. Rampant erosion, up to 40 tons of soil per acre (100 tons/ha) occurred after clearing. Many colonists, unfamiliar with banking and lured by easy credit, went deep into debt.
Adding to the debacle was the environmental cost of the project. After the construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, Brazilian deforestation accelerated to levels never before seen.
Small scale deforestation in the Colombian Amazon
After the commercialization of a new variety of soybean developed by Brazilian scientists to flourish in rainforest climate, soy emerged as one of the most important contributors to deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon from the 1990s through the mid-2000s.
Soy was both a direct and indirect deforestation. While forest was converted directly for soy fields, the crop's impact on rainforests was much larger, providing an impetus for new highways, driving up land prices and thereby encouraging land speculation, and encouraging ranchers and small farmers to move deeper into rainforest areas.
But the situation in Brazil has changed significantly since 2006, when a high profile campaign by Greenpeace forced Brazil's largest soy producers to commit to avoiding deforestation for new production. However deforestation for soy is still widespread in Bolivia and Paraguay.
Meanwhile other forms of commercial agriculture, including rice, corn, and sugar cane, also contribute to deforestation in the Amazon, both directly through forest conversion and indirectly by driving up land values.
Soy in the Brazilian Amazon
In theory, logging in the Amazon is controlled by strict licensing which allows timber to be harvested only in designated areas, but in practice, illegal logging remains widespread in Brazil and Peru.
Logging in the Amazon is closely linked with road building. Studies by the Environmental Defense Fund show that areas that have been selectively logged are eight times more likely to be settled and cleared by shifting cultivators than untouched rainforests because of access granted by logging roads. Logging roads give colonists access to remote rainforest areas.
Logging in the Amazon
Other causes of forest loss in the Amazon
Historically, hydroelectric projects have flooded vast areas of Amazon rainforest. The Balbina dam flooded some 2,400 square kilometers (920 square miles) of rainforest when it was completed. Today dams drive deforestation by powering industrial mining and farming projects. Hundreds of dams are planned in the Amazon basin over the next 20 years.
Mining has had a substantial impact in the Amazon. High mineral and precious metal prices has spurred unprecedented invasions of rainforest lands across Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana, and Peru. A 2013 study found that the area torn up for small-scale gold mining increased 400 percent in 13 years.
Oil and gas development is fueling environmental concerns in the Western Amazon. Large blocks of rainforest have been granted for exploration and exploitation licenses in recent years.
Gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon
Pictures of Deforestation in the Amazon
(more on deforestation)
Recent news on Amazon deforestation [more news]
New laws may turn Brazil's forests into mines
With the world’s largest system of protected areas and a 70 percent drop in the deforestation rate of the Amazon over the past decade, Brazil has made huge strides in safeguarding what’s left of its wilderness. However, this progress now hangs in the balance, with new laws threatening to turn many of the country’s protected areas into mines and dams.
Daring activists use high-tech to track illegal logging trucks in the Brazilian Amazon
Every night empty trucks disappear into the Brazilian Amazon, they return laden with timber. This timber —illegally cut —makes its way to a sawmills that sell it abroad using fraudulent paperwork to export the ill-gotten gains as legit. These findings are the result of a daring and dangerous investigation by Greenpeace-Brazil.
'River wolves' recover in Peruvian park, but still remain threatened inside and out (photos)
Lobo de río, or river wolf, is the very evocative Spanish name for one of the Amazon's most spectacular mammals: the giant river otter. This highly intelligent, deeply social, and simply charming freshwater predator almost vanished entirely due to a relentless fur trade in the 20th Century. But decades after the trade in giant river otter pelts was outlawed, the species is making a comeback.
An impossible balancing act? Forests benefit from isolation, but at cost to local communities
The indigenous people of the Amazon live in areas that house many of the Amazon’s diverse species. The Rupununi region of Guyana is one such area, with approximately 20,000 Makushi and Wapishana people living in isolation. According to a recent study published in Environmental Modelling & Software, a simulation model revealed a link between growing indigenous populations and gradual local resource depletion.
Turning point for Peru's forests? Norway and Germany put muscle and money behind ambitious agreement
From the Andes to the Amazon, Peru houses some of the world's most spectacular forests. Proud and culturally-diverse indigenous tribes inhabit the interiors of the Peruvian Amazon, including some that have chosen little contact with the outside world. And even as scientists have identified tens-of-thousands of species that make their homes from the leaf litter to the canopy.
Highlighted news articles on Amazon deforestation
Why is Amazon deforestation climbing?
(11/17/2013) The 28 percent increase in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon over last year that was reported this week is bad news, but it is not surprising. It is bad news because the decline in deforestation since 2005 has given us the single largest contribution to climate change mitigation on the planet, far surpassing the reductions in emissions achieved by any Annex 1 country under the Kyoto Protocol. Brazil’s achievement is particularly noteworthy because it did not come at the expense of agricultural production; beef and soybean production continued to grow.
Continued deforestation in the Amazon may kill Brazil's agricultural growth
(05/09/2013) Continuing deforestation in the Amazon rainforest could undermine agricultural productivity in the region by reducing rainfall and boosting temperatures, warns a new study published in the journal Environmental Research Letters.
108 million ha of Amazon rainforest up for oil and gas exploration, development
(12/08/2012) Concessions for oil and gas exploration and extraction are proliferating across Amazon countries, reports a comprehensive new atlas of the region.
Amazon has nearly 100,000 km of roads
(12/08/2012) The Amazon Basin has 96,500 kilometers of roads, nearly two-thirds of which are unpaved, reports a comprehensive new atlas of the region, which contains the world's largest rainforest.
Mining boom in the Amazon
(12/08/2012) The world's largest rainforest is in the midst of a mining boom fueled by high mineral prices, reveals a new assessment of the Amazon's resources.
New forest map shows 6% of Amazon deforested between 2000 and 2010
(09/21/2012) An update to one of the most comprehensive maps of the Amazon basin shows that forest cover across the world's largest rainforest declined by about six percent between 2000 and 2010. But the map also reveals hopeful signs that recognition of protected areas and native lands across the eight countries and one department that make up the Amazon is improving, with conservation and indigenous territories now covering nearly half of its land mass.
Will mega-dams destroy the Amazon?
(04/18/2012) More than 150 new dams planned across the Amazon basin could significantly disrupt the ecological connectivity of the Amazon River to the Andes with substantial impacts for fish populations, nutrient cycling, and the health of Earth's largest rainforest, warns a comprehensive study published in the journal PLoS ONE. Scouring public data and submitting information requests to governments, researchers Matt Finer of Save America’s Forests and Clinton Jenkins of North Carolina State University documented plans for new dams in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru.
Brazil can eliminate deforestation by 2020, says governor of giant Amazon state
(04/05/2012) Brazil can reduce Amazon deforestation to zero by 2020 while boosting rural livelihoods and maintaining healthy economic growth, the governor of Pará told mongabay.com on the sidelines of the Skoll World Forum, a major conference on social entrepreneurship, last week. Governor Simao Jatene is hopeful that a revolution in land management and governance can turn the tide in Pará, a state that is three times the size of California and has lost more Amazon forest -- 90,000 sq km of Amazon forest since 1996 -- over the past decade-and-a-half than any other in Brazil.
As Amazon deforestation falls, food production rises
(01/09/2012) A sharp drop in deforestation has been accompanied by an increase in food production in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, reports a new study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. The research argues that policy interventions, combined with pressure from environmental groups, have encouraged agricultural expansion in already-deforested areas, rather than driving new forest clearing.
Could palm oil help save the Amazon?
(06/14/2011) For years now, environmentalists have become accustomed to associating palm oil with large-scale destruction of rainforests across Malaysia and Indonesia. Campaigners have linked palm oil-containing products like Girl Scout cookies and soap products to smoldering peatlands and dead orangutans. Now with Brazil announcing plans to dramatically scale-up palm oil production in the Amazon, could the same fate befall Earth's largest rainforest? With this potential there is a frenzy of activity in the Brazilian palm oil sector. Yet there is a conspicuous lack of hand wringing by environmentalists in the Amazon. The reason: done right, oil palm could emerge as a key component in the effort to save the Amazon rainforest. Responsible production there could even force changes in other parts of the world.
Future threats to the Amazon rainforest
(07/31/2008) Between June 2000 and June 2008, more than 150,000 square kilometers of rainforest were cleared in the Brazilian Amazon. While deforestation rates have slowed since 2004, forest loss is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. This is a look at past, current and potential future drivers of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.
Subtle threats could ruin the Amazon rainforest
(11/07/2007) While the mention of Amazon destruction usually conjures up images of vast stretches of felled and burned rainforest trees, cattle ranches, and vast soybean farms, some of the biggest threats to the Amazon rainforest are barely perceptible from above. Selective logging -- which opens up the forest canopy and allows winds and sunlight to dry leaf litter on the forest floor -- and 6-inch high "surface" fires are turning parts of the Amazon into a tinderbox, putting the world's largest rainforest at risk of ever-more severe forest fires. At the same time, market-driven hunting is impoverishing some areas of seed dispersers and predators, making it more difficult for forests to recover. Climate change -- an its forecast impacts on the Amazon basin -- further looms large over the horizon.