AMAZON DESTRUCTION

By Rhett A. Butler
Last update: Aug 16, 2020

Deforestation data presented on this page is annual. See these pages for monthly data updates and recent news.

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.

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

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. Between then and the early 2010s, annual forest loss in the country that contains nearly two-thirds of the Amazon's forest cover declined by roughly eighty percent. The drop was 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.



However Brazil's success in curbing deforestation has stalled since 2012 and forest loss has been trending upward since. There is debate over why this is the case, but some researchers argue that Brazil achieved about as much as it could through law enforcement and other punitive measures. Reducing deforestation further requires sufficient economic incentives to maintain forest cover in the Amazon. Put another way, standing forest needs to be made more valuable than clearing it for pasture, crops, or land speculation.

By that line of reasoning, the political impetus for reducing deforestation began to wane as ranchers, farmers, investors, and land speculators grew tried of fines, threats of legal action, and prohibitions against clearing. Political movements like the ruralistas pushed harder for relation of environmental laws and amnesty for past transgressions. These interests gained momentum when the Temer administration came to power in 2016 and won more clout with the election of Jair Bolsonaro in late 2018. Bolsonaro, who campaigned on the promise to open the Amazon to extractive industries and agribusiness while disparaging environmentalists and indigenous peoples, immediately set about dismantling protections for the Amazon when he took office in January 2019. Deforestation increased sharply thereafter, reaching levels not seen since the mid-2000s. Mongabay-News is tracking the latest deforestation news in the Amazon at its Amazon deforestation news feed.

Tree cover loss and primary forest loss in Amazon countries according to analysis of satellite data by Hansen et al 2020.

 

 


Tree cover loss in Amazon countries according to analysis of satellite data by Hansen et al 2020.

Primary forest loss in Amazon countries according to analysis of satellite data by Hansen et al 2020.

Tree cover loss in Amazon countries outside Brazil according to analysis of satellite data by Hansen et al 2020.

Tree cover loss in Amazon countries according to analysis of satellite data by Hansen et al 2020.

Tree cover loss in Amazon countries according to analysis of satellite data by Hansen et al 2020.

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.

Please note: Amazon deforestation data is updated monthly here.

Deforestation for soy in the Brazilian Amazon. The isolated tree is a Brazil nut. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

Brazil

Brazil [news] holds about one-third of the world's remaining rainforests, including more than 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon declined sharply in the mid-2000s due to government interventions, macroeconomic factors, and efforts by civil society. However in recent years, that decline has stalled, with deforestation beginning to rise again.

The history of dramatic decline in the Brazilian Amazon's deforestation rate is detailed in our environmental profile on the country. For updates on deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, check our Brazil deforestation news feed.

Tree cover loss and primary forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon according to analysis of satellite data by Hansen et al 2020
Comparison of data on deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, 2001-2019, between official Brazilian government data and Hansen et al 2020.

Peru

Peru's [news] 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 extraction.

Tree cover loss and primary forest loss by year in the Peruvian Amazon. Data from Global Forest Watch / Hansen et al.

Colombia

The rate of forest loss in the Colombian Amazon [news] has been roughly flat since 2000.

Tree cover loss and primary forest loss by year in the Colombian Amazon. Data from Global Forest Watch / Hansen et al.

Bolivia

Bolivia's [news] 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.

Tree cover loss and primary forest loss by year in the Bolivian Amazon. Data from Global Forest Watch / Hansen et al.

Ecuador

Ecuador's [news] 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.

Tree cover loss and primary forest loss by year in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Data from Global Forest Watch / Hansen et al.

Venezuela

Only a part of Amazonas state in Venezuela [news] 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.

Tree cover loss and primary forest loss by year in the Venezuelan Amazon. Data from Global Forest Watch / Hansen et al.

The Guianas

While Suriname [news], Guyana [news], and French Guiana [news] 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.

Forest loss by year in Suriname. Data from Global Forest Watch / Hansen et al.
Forest loss by year in Guyana. Data from Global Forest Watch / Hansen et al.
Forest loss by year in French Guinea. Data from Global Forest Watch / Hansen et al.

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

Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Direct drivers of deforestation in Amazon countries

Cattle ranching

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.

Pie chart showing drivers of deforestation in the Amazon
Causes of deforestation in the Amazon, 2001-2013 Share of direct deforestation
Cattle ranching63%
Small-scale agriculture
Includes both subsistence and commercial
12%
Fires
Sub-canopy fires often result in degradation, not deforestation
9%
Agriculture
Large-scale industrial agriculture like soy and plantations
8%
Logging
Selective logging commonly results in degradation, not deforestation
6%
Other
Mining, urbanization, road construction, dams, etc.
2%

 

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.

In the mid- to late-2000s, the situation in the Brazilian Amazon began to change. In 2006, major soy crushers established the Amazon Soy Moratorium, which barred the purchase of soy produced on lands deforested in the Amazon biome after July 24, 2006. This historic agreement, which came in response to a Greenpeace campaign, became the basis for zero deforestation commitments established subsequently in other sections, including cattle production. In 2009, major cattle buyers and the Brazilian government established the "Cattle Agreement" which was intended to bar cattle from illegally deforested areas from supply chains as well as prohibit the use of slave labor on ranches. As part of the push to improve the sustainability of cattle, state-run banks began mandating landowners register their properties for environmental compliance in order to gain access to low-interest loans.

Cattle agreements did not emerge in Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia, where cattle ranching remains a major driver of Amazon forest loss. And by the early 2010s, it became clear that major slaughterhouses in Brazil were evading the safeguards put in place under the agreement by laundering cattle through other ranches. Such activity rendered the cattle agreement far less effective than originally envisioned. As of 2020, cattle ranching remains the dominant cause of deforestation in the Amazon.



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 large-scale deforestation.

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.

While state-sponsored colonization schemes have waned in the 21st century, they haven't disappeared. The Instituto Nacional de Colonização e Reforma Agrária (INCRA) continues to resettle colonists in the Amazon. Additionally, actors in the private sector are known to encourage colonization for the explicit purpose of land-grabbing and deforestation. Speculators may sponsor migrants from Brazilian cities to settle forested areas in the Amazon, sometimes enroaching on farmers' legal forest reserves, indigenous reserves, and national parks and other state lands. Once the squatters — known locally as grileiros — have occupied the land long enough to clear it or secure assert a claim, however tenous, they turn it over their benefactor who sponsored the venture. The grileiros may then be deployed to another tract of forest.

Small scale deforestation in the Colombian Amazon. (Photo by R. Butler)

Commercial agriculture

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 Bolivian Amazon. (Photo by R. Butler)

Logging

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. (Photo by R. Butler)

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 The surge in the gold price during the COVID-19 pandemic reinvigorated interested in mining, triggering more encroachment by illegal goldminers ̵ called garimpeiros in Brazil as well as increased investment from commercial and industrial operators.

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. Oil and gas development is generally not a major direct driver of deforestation — most of the impact comes from the construction of supporting infrastructure like roads and pipelines. But pollution from oil spills, flaring, and intentional dumping of chemical waste drive other environmental problems.

The Bolivian Amazon. (Photo by R. Butler)

Deforestation monitoring in the Amazon rainforest

This section is excerpted for an story published on Mongabay News: What’s the current deforestation rate in the Amazon rainforest?

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.

For other Amazon countries — primarily Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia since Venezuela, Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana are mostly outside the true Amazon basin watershed — the most reliable source for regular updates is Global Forest Watch, a platform that aggregates data from a many different sources. Currently Global Forest Watch has FORMA, a near-real-time forest cover monitoring system that also uses MODIS, and annual estimate made by a group of researchers led by a team at the University of Maryland.

Variance in monthly deforestation

Month-to-month deforestation is highly variable leading to frequent misreporting in the media. Both MODIS and Landsat cannot penetrate cloud cover, so during the rainy season — from roughly November to April — estimates are notoriously unreliable when compared to the same month a year earlier. Furthermore, most forest clearing in the Amazon occurs when it is dry. So if the dry season is early, deforestation may increase earlier than normal. For these reasons, the most accurate deforestation comparisons are made year-on-year. For Brazil, the deforestation “year” ends July 31: the peak of the dry season when the largest extent of forest is typically visible via satellite.

Nonetheless, short-term MODIS data isn’t useless — it can provide insights on trends, especially over longer periods of time. Generally, comparing 12 consecutive months of MODIS data will provide a pretty good indication of deforestation relative to other years. Therefore the charts below include a history of MODIS-based data as well as the longer-term Landsat-based data. The MODIS system used by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) is called DETER, while Imazon’s system is called SAD. INPE’s annual Landsat-based system is called PRODES.

Current monthly deforestation data for the Brazilian Amazon

INPE and DETER are used primary for law enforcement since detection occurs on roughly a biweekly basis, enabling environmental police to take action as large-scale forest clearing occurs. The Brazilian government has cited “law enforcement” as the reason it has switched to quarterly public releases of data, asserting that more frequent releases could undermine the effectiveness of taking action against illegal tree-felling.

Monthly deforestation alerts from INPE ("DETER" and "DETER-B") and Imazon ("SAD").

Historical deforestation in the Amazon

This section is derived from Calculating Deforestation Figures for the Amazon, where more details can be found.

These figures are calculated from estimates provided by the Brazilian National Institute of Space Research (INPE), the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and MapBiomas. The figures only refer to the Brazilian Amazon, which accounts for roughly 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest.

Natural forest in the Brazilian Amazon (Amazonia) by year

Natural forest cover, deforestation, and forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon (Amazonia), 1970-present (All data: square kilometers)

Period Estimated Natural
Forest Cover
Deforestation (INPE) Natural forest
cover change
Forest cover as
% of pre-1970 cover
Total forest loss
since 1970
pre-1970 4,100,000
1970 4,001,600
1977 3,955,870
1985 3,864,945 21,050
1986 3,841,932 21,050 23,014 93.7% 258,068
1987 3,817,544 21,050 24,388 93.1% 282,456
1988 3,799,476 21,050 18,068 92.7% 300,524
1989 3,783,229 17,770 16,247 92.3% 316,771
1990 3,796,288 13,730 -13,059 92.6% 303,712
1991 3,782,368 11,030 13,920 92.3% 317,632
1992 3,760,720 13,786 21,648 91.7% 339,280
1993 3,746,141 14,896 14,579 91.4% 353,859
1994 3,735,463 14,896 10,678 91.1% 364,537
1995 3,708,168 29,059 27,295 90.4% 391,832
1996 3,678,495 18,161 29,673 89.7% 421,505
1997 3,656,208 13,227 22,287 89.2% 443,792
1998 3,648,260 17,383 7,947 89.0% 451,740
1999 3,618,508 17,259 29,752 88.3% 481,492
2000 3,602,205 18,226 16,303 87.9% 497,795
2001 3,592,681 18,165 9,524 87.6% 507,319
2002 3,574,446 21,651 18,235 87.2% 525,554
2003 3,538,765 25,396 35,681 86.3% 561,235
2004 3,519,981 27,772 18,784 85.9% 580,019
2005 3,501,506 19,014 18,474 85.4% 598,494
2006 3,481,143 14,285 20,363 84.9% 618,857
2007 3,448,153 11,651 32,990 84.1% 651,847
2008 3,451,565 12,911 -3,413 84.2% 648,435
2009 3,426,846 7,464 24,720 83.6% 673,154
2010 3,433,519 7,000 -6,673 83.7% 666,481
2011 3,432,446 6,418 1,073 83.7% 667,554
2012 3,432,170 4,571 277 83.7% 667,830
2013 3,430,131 5,891 2,039 83.7% 669,869
2014 3,420,221 5,012 9,909 83.4% 679,779
2015 3,413,662 6,207 6,560 83.3% 686,338
2016 3,406,796 7,893 6,866 83.1% 693,204
2017 3,399,308 6,947 7,487 82.9% 700,692
2018 3,390,835 7,900 8,473 82.7% 709,165
2019 9,762 718,927

 

Notes:

  • Estimated forest cover: Annual figures after 1985 come from MapBiomas. Prior to 1985, the data comes from several sources.
  • Deforestation (INPE) Brazil's National Space Research Institute (INPE) calculates deforestation on an Aug 1-Jul 31 "year" so the annual figures presented in this table do not represent deforestation that occurred on a Jan-Dec basis. This also partly explains the discrepancy between this column and the "Natural forest cover change" column.
  • Natural forest cover change: This number reflects the annual difference in MapBiomas data, which is reported on an annual basis, rather than the Aug 1-Jul 31 basis used by INPE. Additionally, unlike INPE data, MapBiomas accounts for forest loss due to fire. A negative number in this column suggests forest recovery or regrowth over the prior year.
  • Forest cover as % of pre-1970 cover: Percentage estimate of how much natural forest remains in the Brazilian Amazon relative to the pre-1970 estimate.





 

Amazon rainforest section contents: