Amazon Conservation: How to Save the Amazon Rainforest

By Rhett A. Butler
April 1, 2019

Between May 2000 and August 2005, Brazil lost more than 132,000 square kilometers of forest—an area larger than Greece—and since 1970, over 600,000 square kilometers (232,000 square miles) of Amazon rainforest have been destroyed. Why is Brazil losing so much forest? What can be done to slow deforestation?

What can be done to save the Amazon rainforest in Brazil?

Today Brazil faces an enormous challenge: how to balance economic growth with the preservation of the Amazon rainforest.

  1. Rehabilitation and increased productivity of formerly forested lands
  2. Expansion of protection areas
  3. Development based on concepts of sustainable use of some existing forest
  4. Land policy reform
  5. Law Enforcement

Rehabilitation and increased productivity of formerly forested lands

In reducing the loss of tropical rainforests we must not only be concerned with the transformation of existing natural ecosystems, but also the more rational utilization of already cleared and degraded areas. To lessen future forest loss we must increase and sustain the productivity of farms, pastures, plantations, and scrub-land in addition to restoring species and ecosystems to degraded habitats. By reducing wasteful land-use practices, consolidating gains on existing cleared lands, and improving already developed lands we can diminish the need to clear additional rainforest.

INCREASING PRODUCTIVITY: [more]

    Increasing productivity of cleared rainforest lands is possible using improved technology to generate higher yielding crops. Taking advantage of improved germplasm developed through careful selection can produce grasses and crops that will grow on degraded forest soils. While technology may have accelerated the development and impoverishment of tropical rainforests, it will be one of the keys to saving them.

    When it comes to cattle pasture, Judson Valentim of the Brazilian Farm Research Corporation (Embrapa), suggests that "the use of so-called alternative technologies, such as non-plowing farming, could increase productivity in areas that have already been cleared ... Proper use of the area of the rainforest already cleared (deforested or destroyed) in the Amazon could solve many problems. He points out that 20 percent of the area could produce 50 million tons of grains annually. Another 20 percent could be used for small farmers (around 900,000 of them if each got 20,000 hectares)."

    Valentim continues, "The remaining 60 percent would be used to raise 100 million head of cattle. And all that, without cutting down a single, additional tree or burning so much as one hectare." [Marrying Growth and Preservation in Brazil's Amazon]

Drone photo of deforestation in the Bolivian Amazon for soybeans. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

HABITAT AND SPECIES REHABILITATION

[more]

    There is still time to save some of the most threatened species and ecosystems that have been pushed so close to extinction that they will perish unless we intervene. In Brazil, tremendous progress has been made in restoring the population of the Golden Lion Tamarin which resides in the dwindling Atlantic forest. According to the World Wildlife Fund for Nature, the species has recovered "from a low of 200 wild animals recorded in the early 1970s ...[to its] 1,000th wild birth in March 2001."

    The restoration of entire ecosystems is most possible in regions where parts or at least remnants of the original forest still remain and there are few human population pressures. Small clearings surrounded by forest recover quickly and large sections may recover in time especially if we provide some assistance in the reforestation process. After several years, a once barren field can once again support vegetation in the form of pioneer species and secondary growth. Although the secondary forest will be low in diversity and poorly developed, the forest cover will be adequate for some species to return (assuming they still exist). In addition, the newly forested patch can be used for the sustainable harvest of forest products and low intensity logging.

    Tracts of replanted forest may have ecological returns in addition to economic ones. In the short term, forests absorb large amounts of atmospheric carbon and the more trees that are replanted, the more atmospheric carbon will be sequestered. Replanting and rehabilitating secondary forests around the world has tremendous potential for offsetting greenhouse gas emissions. Furthermore, rehabilitated forest lands can attract ecotourists and sustain some native forest wildlife.

Expansion of protection areas

The extension of protection to critically important habitats within the Amazon region is key to maximizing survival of biodiversity in Brazil. Paramount to the success of conservation efforts:

  1. prioritizing areas for protection -- i.e. focusing on biological hotspots
  2. ensuring sufficient enforcement agencies and funding exist for the maintenance of protected areas
  3. encouraging the involvement of locals -- the fate of protected areas rests largely in the hands of local people and only by improving their living condition can we expect conservation efforts to be successful. Conservation cannot come at the expense of local people; local people must be made both partners and beneficiaries in conservation, and not enemies of it.

Sustainable Development

Perhaps the best way to address deforestation in Brazil is developing a new conservation policy based on the principle of sustainable use and development of rainforests. Sustainable development is a phrase that has been used regularly over the past decade, but critics will quickly tell you that collecting fruits, latex, and nuts from the rainforests is not enough make a living let alone support a growing economy. "Sustainable development" should considered an underlying philosophy to be applied via policy to various agents and industries involved in the use and development of rainforest lands and resources.

Agriculture [more]

For thousands of years parts of the Amazon has been managed to sustain productive agriculture and at times, sustain dense human populations. It is estimated that more land was under cultivation in the Amazon on the eve of the arrival of Columbus than is today. The fact that certain forms of agriculture are possible is a vital consideration for the sustainable, economic development of tropical rainforests.

Actions to take:

  • Incorporate the techniques of indigenous Amazonians into agricultural projects in the rainforest to increase the productivity of degraded forest lands and promote sustainable use of forest resources. Through agroforestry, polycultural fields, and floodplain orchards outright destruction of rainforests can be avoided, while improving economic efficiency and providing a source of income for rural poor
  • End subsidies granted to large landowners
Logging [more]

What is desperately needed is a new form of forestry that departs from the older mentality where forests only exist to serve immediate human demands and are non-exhaustible resources. New forest management adds both rural development and conservation projects to traditional tree harvesting and aims to keep forests as functional ecological systems while providing multiple economic benefits.

Actions to take [more]:

  • Restrict the trade of certain rainforest tree species. In 2002, CITES did just that with mahogany, but Brazil still has a way to go in terms of enforcing existing forestry laws governing the extraction of certain tree species. Native Amazonians still face violent encroachment by illegal loggers seeking mahogany.
  • End Subsidies. By ending subsidies for saw mills and road construction, logging of tropical rainforests will become more accurately reflect the true costs of harvesting.
  • Use reduced impact logging. Reduced impact logging practices including: 1) cutting climbers and lianas well prior to felling; 2) directional tree felling to inflict the smallest impact on the surrounding forest; 3) establishing stream buffer zones and watershed protection areas; 4) using improved technologies to reduce damage to the soil cause by log extraction; 5) careful planning to prevent excess roads which give access to transient settlers; 6) reducing wood waste for cut areas (anywhere from 25-50% of the wood from a given cleared patch is wasted); 7) limiting the gradient of roads to prevent excess erosion.
  • Establish plantations on degraded lands. Forest plantations are essentially tree crops planted for the particular purpose of providing a specific source for wood products.
Cattle [more]

Clearing for pastureland and land speculation purposes is a major cause of tropical forest loss, especially in Latin America. Cattle are an attractive investment for Amazonian farmers because they are a highly liquid capital asset with low marginal costs once forest has been cleared. Cattle are used to establish land claims on otherwise "unoccupied" rainforest land and can be used as a hedge against inflation.

Actions to take:

  • Eliminate tax incentives and land policies which encourage conversion of forest to pasture.
  • Increase productivity on existing pastureland by introducing agroforestry techniques and using "non-plowing farming,"

Land policy reform


Under Brazilian law, much of the Amazon is essentially an open access resource so there little incentive for squatters, farmers, or developers to use forest lands or resources in a sustainable manner. Simply clear some land then move on to another area when the land is no longer viable. Developers can also acquire rights to unoccupied forest land simply by "using" it for at least one year and a day -- typically by burning the native forest and establishing some cattle on the land.

To remedy this wasteful use of land, lawmakers in Brazil should consider laws that restrict these practices. Or maybe lawmakers could enforce some of the existing laws like the 1996 law that forbade Amazon landowners from cutting more than 20% of the forest on their land. For whatever reason the laws on the books are not that effective -- deforestation has increased dramatically in the past couple of years.



Law Enforcement


Brazil has a number of laws on the books that theoretically should slow Amazon deforestation and encourage sustainable use of forest resources. The problem is, IBAMA, Brazil's Environmental Protection Agency, is woefully under funded -- in 2003, the entire budget for environmental law enforcement in Brazil was $9.5 million. $9.5 million to police Earth's 5th largest country (roughly the size of Australia, Spain, and Germany combined) having the world's biggest expanse of tropical wilderness.

Between the lack of resources, rampant corruption, and questions as to whether IBAMA even has any legal authority to enforce the law, the agency only collects 6.5% of the fines it imposes.

IBAMA estimates that 80% of all logging in the Amazon is illegal, but there's relatively little it can do about it. To effectively enforce existing environmental law, IBAMA is going to need more resources.



Conclusion


Brazil is a land of remarkable beauty and unsurpassed biological diversity. For this reason, deforestation in the Amazon is especially troubling. While environmental losses and degradation of the rainforests have yet to reach the point of collapse, the continuing disappearance of wildlands and loss of its species is disheartening.

Biodiversity is makes life on Earth livable for our species. By extinguishing hotbeds of biodiversity like the Amazon rainforest we are destroying a part of ourselves. Biodiversity will recover after humanity is gone, but in the meantime, the continuing loss of our fellow species will make Earth an awfully crowded, but lonely place.

Past extinctions have shown it takes at least 5 million years to restore biodiversity to the level equal to that prior of the extinction event event. Our actions today will determine whether Earth will be biologically impoverished for the 500 trillion or more humans that will inhabit the earth during that future period.

The extinction event that is occurring as you read these words rivals the extinctions caused by natural disasters of global ice ages, planetary collisions, atmospheric poisoning, and variations in solar radiation. The difference is that this extinction was conceived by humans and subject to human decisions. We are the last, best hope for life as we prefer it on this planet.

 

Amazon rainforest section contents: