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.
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.
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.
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.
The rate of forest loss in the Colombian Amazon [news] has been roughly flat since 2000.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
|Causes of deforestation in the Amazon||Share of direct deforestation|
|Cattle ranching||65 - 70%|
Includes both small-scale/subsistence and commercial
|25 - 30%|
Selective logging commonly results in degradation, not deforestation
|2 - 3%|
| Fires, mining, urbanization, road construction, dams|
Sub-canopy fires often result in degradation, not deforestation
|1 - 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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