By Rhett A. Butler [Last update August 14, 2020]
Brazil holds about one-third of the world's remaining primary tropical rainforests, including about 60% the Amazon rainforest. Terrestrially speaking, it is also the most biodiverse country on Earth, with more than 34,000 described species of plants, 1,813 species of birds, 1,022 amphibians, 648 mammals, and 814 reptiles.
About 80% of Brazil's tropical 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, including the woody cerrado. This region has experienced an exceptional extent of forest loss over the past two generations—an area exceeding 760,000 square kilometers, or about 19 percent of its total surface area of 4 million 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.
This data excludes extensive areas degraded by fires and selective logging, nor forest regrowth, which by one Brazilian government estimate occurs on about 20% of deforested areas. The area of Amazon forest degraded each year in Brazil is thought to be roughly equivalent to the amount of forest cleared. Forest degradation is significant because degraded forests are more likely to be cleared in the future. Degraded forest is also more susceptible to fires.
Why is the Amazon rainforest disappearing?
Historically the majority of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon was the product of subsistence farmers, but in recent decades this has changed, with a greater proportion of forest clearing driven by large landowners and corporations. The majority of deforestation in the region can be attributed to land clearing for pasture by commercial and speculative interests.
In the early phase of this transition, Brazilian deforestation was strongly correlated to the economic health of the country: the decline in deforestation from 1988-1991 nicely matched the economic slowdown during the same period, while the rocketing rate of deforestation from 1993-1998 paralleled Brazil's period of rapid economic growth. During lean times, ranchers and developers do not have the cash to expand their pasturelands and operations, while the government lacks the budget flexibility to underwrite highways and colonization programs and grant tax breaks and subsidies to agribusiness, logging, and mining interests.
But this dynamic shifted in the mid-2000s, when the link between deforestation and the broader Brazilian economy began to wane. Between 2004 and 2012 the annual rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon fell 80% to the lowest levels recorded since annual record keeping began in the late 1980s. This decline occurred at the same time that Brazil's economy expanded 40 percent and agricultural output surged.
Why did Amazon deforestation decline?
There are several reasons commonly cited for the decline in Brazil's deforestation rate between 2004 and 2012.
One of the most important active measures was the launch of the Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon (PPCDAm) in 2004. PPCDAm aimed to reduce deforestation rates continuously and facilitate conditions that support a transition towards a sustainable economic development model in the region. PPCDAm had three main components: land tenure and spatial planning, environmental monitoring and control, and supporting sustainable production.
These components resulted in increased enforcement of environmental laws; improved forest monitoring by satellite, which enabled law enforcement to take action; new incentives for utilizing already deforested lands; and expanded protected areas and indigenous reserves. A byproduct of PPCDAm was heightened sensitivity to environmental criticism among private sector companies and emerging awareness of the values of ecosystem services afforded by the Amazon.
Other factors also played a part in the decline in deforestation, including macroeconomic trends like a stronger Brazilian currency, which reduced the profitability of export-driven agriculture; prioritization of non-rainforest areas like the adjacent cerrado ecosystem for agribusiness expansion; and increased diversification in the Brazilian economy as a whole.
Why has progress in reducing Amazon deforestation stalled?
Progress in reducing deforestation stalled after 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 ("the stick" in the proverbial "the carrot and stick" approach). Reducing deforestation further requires sufficient economic incentives ("the carrot") to maintain forests as healthy and productive ecosystems. Put another way, standing forest needs to be made more valuable than clearing it for pasture or crops.
By that line of thought, 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.
Causes of deforestation in the Amazon
In evaluating deforestation in the Amazon, it is important to understand both direct and indirect drivers of forest loss.
Direct drivers of deforestation including conversion of forests for pasture, farmland, and plantations, as well as surface mining, dams that inundate forested areas, and intense fires.
Indirect drivers of deforestation include more subtle factors, like insecure land tenure, corruption, poor law enforcement, infrastructure projects, policies that favor conversion over conservation, and selective logging that create conditions or enable activities that facilitate forest clearing.
|Causes of deforestation in the Amazon, 2001-2013||Share of direct deforestation|
Includes both subsistence and commercial
Sub-canopy fires often result in degradation, not deforestation
Large-scale industrial agriculture like soy and plantations
Selective logging commonly results in degradation, not deforestation
Mining, urbanization, road construction, dams, etc.
Conversion of rainforest for cattle pasture is the single largest driver of deforestation in Brazil. Clearing forest for pasture is the cheapest and easiest way to establish an informal claim to land, which can then be sold on to other parties at a profit. In some parts of the Brazilian Amazon, cleared rainforest land can be worth more than eight times that of land with standing forest. According, cattle ranching is often viewed as a way to speculate on appreciating land prices.
However since 2000, cattle ranching in the Amazon has become increasingly industrialized, meaning that more ranchers are producing cattle to sell commercially. Most of the beef ends up in the domestic market, but secondary products like hides and leather are often exported.
These exports left Brazilian cattle ranchers exposed in the late 2000s when Greenpeace launched a high profile campaign against companies that were sourcing leather and other products from major Brazilian cattle processors. That campaign led major companies to demand zero deforestation cattle. Combined with a crackdown by public prosecutors, the Brazilian cattle industry started to shift substantially toward less damaging practices in late 2009 by signing the "Cattle Agreement", which barred the sourcing of cattle from illegally deforested areas.
However by the mid-2010s investigations revealed that some major cattle producers were circumventing the safeguards established under the Cattle Agreement by laundering cattle through third party ranches. Unlike soy (see below), cattle are highly mobile, making it easy for ranchers to shift livestock clandestinely.
The model for the Brazilian cattle industry to move toward zero deforestation came from the country's soy industry, which underwent a similar transformation three years earlier. That shift was also initiative by a Greenpeace campaign, which targeted the soy-based chicken feed used by McDonald's in Europe. Within months of that campaign's launch, the largest soy crushers and traders in the Amazon had established a moratorium on buying soy produced via deforestation in the Amazon.
Logging in the Brazilian Amazon remains plagued by poor management, destructive practices, and outright fraud. Vast areas of rainforest are logged -- legally and illegally -- each year. According to government sources and NGOs, the vast majority of logging in the Brazilian Amazon is illegal.
At present, Amazon palm oil is not a major driver of deforestation in Brazil. While there are concerns that it could eventually exacerbate deforestation, there is also a chance that it could replace degraded cattle pasture, boosting economic productivity at a low environmental cost.
Dams, roads, and other infrastructure projects
Brazil's infrastructure spree from the late-2000s to mid-2010s was interrupted by the corruption scandals of the mid-2010s. Many of the scores of dams being built across the Amazon basin were put on hold following the Lava Jato scandal that ensnared senior politicians in several countries and executives at the infrastructure giant Odebrecht. Yet the scandals also helped usher in the presidency of Jair Bolsonaro, which reinvigorated the push to build roads, dams, and mines in the Amazon.
Conservation in Brazil
While Brazil may be better known for losing its forests, during the 2000s it easily led the world in establishing new protected areas. Those gains were consolidated in 2014, when donors established a trust fund that will underwrite the country's protected areas system through 2039.
Beyond strict protected areas, more than a fifth of the Brazilian Amazon lies within indigenous reservations, which research has shown reduce deforestation even more effectively than national parks. Overall nearly half the Brazilian Amazon is under some form of protection.
Brazil's other forests
While the Amazon rainforest is Brazil's most famous forest, the country also has other types of forest.
The Mata Atlântica or Atlantic Forest is a drier tropical forest that lies along the coast and inland areas to the south of the Amazon. It has been greatly reduced by conversion to agriculture -- especially sugar cane and cattle pasture -- and urbanization. The Mata Atlântica is arguably Brazil's most threatened forest.
The Pantanal is an inland wetland that borders Paraguay and Bolivia and covers an area of 154,884 square kilometers. It includes a mosaic of forests and flooded grasslands.
The cerrado biome is a tropical grassland that covers 1.9 square kilometers, or approximately 22 percent of the country. It is being rapidly destroyed for agriculture.
The chaco biome is a dry forest ecosystem that extends into Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina.
Brazil's tropical forests
|Primary forest extent||Tree cover extent|
|State||Dominant forest biome||2001||2020||% losss||2001||2020||% losss|
|Espírito Santo||Atlantic forest||128,492||124,406||3.2%||1813455||1675599||18.8%|
|Goiás||Atlantic forest / Cerrado||388,506||328,329||15.5%||7736542||6808163||13.3%|
|Mato Grosso||Amazon / Cerrado / Chaco||39,009,645||31,696,953||18.7%||56396228||46168150||18.7%|
|Mato Grosso do Sul||Atlantic forest / Cerrado||1,489,095||1,356,717||8.9%||10191243||8761953||12.6%|
|Minas Gerais||Atlantic forest / Cerrado||268,244||258,688||3.6%||18357422||17450082||14.0%|
|Rio de Janeiro||Atlantic forest||587,724||581,363||1.1%||1805398||1737922||3.8%|
|Rio Grande do Norte||Atlantic forest||7,321||7,287||0.5%||909432||491106||11.0%|
|Rio Grande do Sul||Atlantic forest / Cerrado||24,166||24,146||0.1%||7636112||7393665||8.1%|
|Santa Catarina||Atlantic forest||1,205,590||1,176,014||2.5%||6354636||6031580||12.2%|
|São Paulo||Atlantic forest||1,837,321||1,817,095||1.1%||6560955||6469004||12.1%|
|Tocantins||Amazon / Cerrado||1,194,996||995,671||16.7%||11162164||8459972||16.1%|
Recent news on Brazil's tropical forests
Brazil’s illegal gold rush is fueling corruption, violent crime and deforestation (Jan 14 2022)
- Once the epicenter of the global trade in gold, illegal mining is once again surging across the Amazon.
- Its extraction and trade is not only fueling corruption, money laundering and criminal violence – it is accelerating deforestation in the world’s largest tropical forest, says Robert Muggah, co-founder of the Igarapé Institute.
- Muggah details a range of challenges facing efforts to rein in the gold mining sector. He says political leadership is critical to make progress on the issue: “Absent political will from the top, however, Brazil’s gold chain will continue to resemble the wild west.”
Tom Lovejoy’s enduring legacy to the planet (Jan 7 2022)
- Conservation biologist Tom Lovejoy died on Christmas day, 2021 at the age of 80.
- Through his innovative ideas, leadership, and advocacy, Lovejoy leaves an enduring legacy to the field of conservation, writes Jeremy Hance.
- “Among career highlights, Lovejoy published one of the first estimates of global extinction rates in 1980; invented the debt-for-nature swap, a massive boon to conservation areas the world over; he helped raise awareness of the plight of rainforests worldwide, and the Amazon in particular, during the 1980s during the peak save-the-rainforest movement; and he was an advisor to the PBS program, NATURE,” Hance writes.
- “Lovejoy’s work lives on, not only through his fragments project in Brazil, but through years of advising and collaborating with other researchers, celebrities and world leaders, including four US presidents, to preserve the ecological integrity of our natural world.”
Mongabay’s 10 hardest-hitting investigations of 2021 (Dec 29 2021)
- Mongabay published numerous deep-dive investigations this year, some of them data-driven and others relying on on-the-ground interviews, to hold companies and governments accountable.
- The investigations ranged from Brazil to China to Nigeria, covering a wide range of issues, from deforestation to workers’ rights and discrimination against Indigenous peoples.
- In this article, Mongabay looks at some of the most impactful investigations from 2021.
Mongabay’s top Amazon stories from 2021 (Dec 29 2021)
- The world’s greatest tropical rainforest continued to come under pressure in 2021, due largely to the policies of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
- Deforestation rates hit a 15-year-high, while fires flared up again, combining to turn Brazil’s portion of the Amazon into a net carbon source for the first time ever.
- The rainforest as a whole remains a net carbon sink, thanks to conservation areas and Indigenous territories, where deforestation rates remained low.
- Indigenous communities continued to be hit by a barrage of outside pressure, from COVID-19 to illegal miners and land grabbers, while community members living in Brazil’s cities dealt with persistent prejudice.
‘Rampant forest destruction’ wracks reserve as cattle ranching advances in Brazilian Amazon (Dec 29 2021)
- The Terra do Meio Ecological Station comprises some 3.37 million hectares in the Brazilian Amazon state of Pará, and is home to hundreds of species – including some that are threatened with extinction.
- But despite its protected status, Terra do Meio has come under growing pressure, with satellite data showing deforestation doubling in 2021.
- Environmentalists say the destruction within Terra do Meio is being driven by illegal loggers, cattle ranchers and land speculators spilling over from the neighboring Área de Proteção Ambiental (APA) Triunfo do Xingu, a sustainable use reserve that has become the most deforested slice of the Brazilian Amazon in recent years.
- Pending legislation could make it even easier to legalize illegitimate land claims, providing hope to land speculators and cattle ranchers that they could soon receive land titles for land they have deforested and occupied illegally.
The year in rainforests 2021 (Dec 29 2021)
- 2021 was a year where tropical forests featured more prominently in global headlines than normal thanks to rising recognition of the role they play in addressing climate change and biodiversity loss.
- Despite speculation in the early months of the pandemic that slowing economic activity might diminish forest clearing, loss of both primary forests and tree cover in the tropics accelerated between 2019 and 2020. We don’t yet know how much forest was cut down in 2021, but early indications like rising deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon suggest that forest loss will be on the high end of the range from the past decade.
- The following is a look at some of the major tropical rainforest storylines from 2021. It is not an exhaustive review.
Tom Lovejoy, prominent conservation biologist, dies at 80 (Dec 25 2021)
- Tom Lovejoy, a prominent and influential conservation biologist who helped catalyze a global movement to save life on Earth as we know it, has died. He was 80.
- Lovejoy was known as a pioneer of modern conservation efforts, a passionate advocate for wildlife and wild places, and a big thinker who proposed daring and innovative ideas.
- Lovejoy is credited with coining the term “biological diversity”, developing the concept of “debt-for-nature” swap programs, and being one of the earliest to sound the alarm about the global extinction crisis.
- “Tom was a beloved icon in the conservation field: a mentor to many, a friend to all,” said conservation biologist and ethnobotanist, Mark Plotkin. “He fought for biodiversity and against climate change through his ideas, writings, projects, initiatives and all he trained and inspired.”
As the Amazon burns, its Indigenous inhabitants choke on the haze (Dec 23 2021)
- Forest fires in the Brazilian Amazon increased this year, with much of the smoke generated concentrating in the state of Acre and disproportionately affecting the health of Indigenous people.
- At the peak of the fires, in July and August, a total of 88,400 hectares (218,400 acres) of land burned, a 20% increase from the 76,400 hectares (188,800 acres) burned in the same period in 2020.
- Recorded cases of respiratory disease increased by almost 8% from June to September 2021 over the previous year, according to data from the Acre state health department.
- Indigenous people, who have lower immunity and a higher incidence of pre-existing medical conditions, are among the most at-risk groups to the smoke pollution, compounded by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Slashed forest protections ignites land grabbing frenzy in Brazilian Amazon (Dec 22 2021)
- Earlier this year, Rondônia’s legislative assembly voted to pass a law that reduced the extent of Guajará-Mirim State Park by roughly 50,000 hectares and reduced another nearby reserve to a sliver.
- The move effectively removed protections from nearly a quarter of the park, and critics say it “gave a free pass” to outsiders to move in, deforest and lay claim to land.
- Rondônia’s top court annulled the law in November, ruling the reduction of the park’s limits to be unconstitutional.
- But sources say the invasions into the park are continuing, and are inching closer to vulnerable Indigenous and traditional communities in neighboring reserves.
Global ayahuasca trend drives deforestation in Brazil’s Acre state (Dec 22 2021)
- The growing popularity and increased commercialization of ayahuasca, a psychoactive brew, may be harming the Amazon forest where its two key ingredients grow.
- In the Brazilian state of Acre, regulations in place since 2010 have done little to curb the threats to the native Psychotria viridis shrub and the Banisteriopsis caapi vine.
- Traditional proponents of ayahuasca say the absence of meaningful environmental safeguards leaves the authorities powerless to act against the outside forces clearing rainforest for these increasingly rare and valuable plants.
Top 15 species discoveries from 2021 (Photos) (Dec 21 2021)
- Science has only just begun to find and describe all of the species on Earth; by some estimates, only 20% have been described.
- This year, Mongabay reported on newly described species from nearly every continent, including an Ecuadoran ant whose name broke the gender binary, an acrobatic North American skunk, an Australian “killer tobacco,” a fuzzy orange bat from West Africa, tiny screech owls from Brazil, and more.
- Though a species may be new to science, that doesn’t mean it has not yet been found and given a name by local and Indigenous communities.
European supermarkets say Brazilian beef is off the menu (Dec 16 2021)
- A group of European supermarkets said they would stop carrying beef imported from Brazil after a new report by Mighty Earth and Repórter Brasil linked it to deforestation in the Amazon and other critical biospheres.
- Sainsbury’s in the U.K., Lidl in the Netherlands, and the Dutch retailer Alhold Delhaize were among the companies saying they would move away from stocking Brazilian beef or products manufactured by meatpacking giant JBS.
- Last year, deforestation in the Amazon spiked to its highest level since 2005, largely due to the policies of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
- Campaigners say the Bolsonaro administration’s refusal to crack down on environmental destruction is spurring a commercial backlash in Europe.
Exports of threatened species’ timber boomed under Bolsonaro, probe finds (Dec 14 2021)
- An investigation begun in May this year by the Brazilian Federal Police highlighted “a major scheme facilitating the smuggling of rainforest products.”
- Between February 2020 and May 2021, close to 100,000 metric tons of wood was exported to the United States, France, Japan, Germany and Belgium, an eighth of which came from rainforest species considered threatened by the Brazilian Forestry Service (SFB).
- These details have been unearthed in an unprecedented report by Brazilian investigative journalism outlet Agência Pública working with the Latin American Center for Investigative Journalism (CLIP).
- The fallout of the police investigation has already seen Brazil’s environment minister resign and other officials and timber companies come under scrutiny.
Tigers, jaguars under threat from tropical hydropower projects: Study (Dec 9 2021)
- A new study reveals that more than one-fifth of the world’s tigers and one in 200 jaguars have been affected by habitat loss linked to hydropower projects.
- Land flooded for hydroelectric reservoirs has resulted in the substantial loss of habitat for both top predators, and future hydropower projects planned within the species’ ranges fail to consider the big cats’ long-term survival, the study says.
- Scientists struggle to track the fate of tigers and jaguars displaced by hydropower reservoirs, but their chances of survival are very low, according to the study’s authors.
- The researchers recommend that policymakers minimize the impacts of future hydropower projects by avoiding landscapes deemed high priority for conservation.
‘They will die’: Fears for the last Piripkura as Amazon invasion ramps up (Dec 3 2021)
- Overflight images show that outsiders have not just invaded the Piripkura Indigenous Territory in the Brazilian Amazon, but are also expanding their illegal cattle ranches in what’s supposed to be the protected land of one of the world’s most vulnerable uncontacted Indigenous groups.
- Deforestation inside the territory surged nearly a hundredfold in the 12 months since August 2020, which Indigenous rights activists attribute to anticipation among would-be invaders that a restriction ordinance banning outsiders won’t be renewed as it has every two years since 2008.
- The invaders are closing in on the parts of the territory inhabited by Pakyî and Tamandua, the last two known Piripkura individuals living in the territory; there may be another 13 there who have chosen to remain uncontacted.
- The Piripkura suffered from at least two massacres since their first contact with outsiders in the 1980s, and now face the risk of extermination again, activists warn.
In Brazil, an agribusiness haven’s green pivot leaves many skeptical (Nov 25 2021)
- The Amacro project was conceived in early 2020 as an agribusiness hub in a heavily deforested part of the Brazilian Amazon, but a year later is being touted as a hub for sustainable business.
- Now renamed the Abunã-Madeira Sustainable Development Area (ZDS), it stretches across 32 municipalities in the states of Amazonas, Acre and Rondônia, which last year accounted for nearly a quarter of the total deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.
- The ZDS project aims to attract investments into a wide range of sectors, from agroforestry and fish farming, to tourism and logistics, as well as the agribusiness, while promising to avoid deforestation through technology to help boost agricultural productivity.
- Despite these green claims, prosecutors and nonprofit researchers say the prospect of new investment is already boosting land grabbing and deforestation in the area, and argue the best way to halt deforestation is to create protected areas — something that’s not included in the ZDS project.
With La Niña conditions back, is it good news for tropical forests? (Nov 22 2021)
- La Niña conditions have developed across the Pacific Ocean for the second year in a row, according to forecasters at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center.
- A phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation ocean-atmosphere cycle, La Niña heralds broadly cooler and wetter conditions across the tropics, with above-average rainfall predicted for important tropical rainforests in Southeast Asia and South America.
- Although the current conditions emerge toward the end of the fire season in the Amazon and Indonesia, experts say these biomes will benefit from wet conditions conducive to forest and peatland growth and recovery.
- Studies indicate that climate change will increase the frequency and severity of La Niña and El Niño events, which will occur against the backdrop of a warmer world, with inevitable implications for natural ecosystems and livelihoods.
Amazon deforestation unexpectedly surges 22% to highest level since 2006 (Nov 18 2021)
- Deforestation in Earth’s largest rainforest surged 22% to the highest level since 2006, according to official data released today by the Brazilian government.
- Preliminary analysis of satellite data by Brazil’s national space research institute INPE shows that 13,235 square kilometers (5,110 square miles) of rainforest was cleared in the Brazilian Amazon between August 1, 2020 and July 31, 2021.
- The sharp increase came as a surprise: Data from INPE’s near-real-time deforestation alert system had set expectations for a modest year-over-year decline in the rate of forest destruction.
- Deforestation has been on an upward trend in the Brazilian Amazon since 2012.
The Amazon has highest October forest loss since at least 2007 (Nov 12 2021)
- On Friday Brazil reported the highest level of deforestation for any October dating back to 2007.
- According to data from Brazil’s national space research institute INPE, 877 square kilometers (339 square miles) of rainforest were destroyed in the Brazilian Amazon, a 5% increase over October 2020.
- It marks the second straight month where the rate of forest clearing has risen, but on a trailing-twelve-month basis, deforestation stands 5% lower than the same time last year.
- Brazil is expected to release its preliminary deforestation for the year ended July 31, 2021 later this month. It will likely show about a 10% decline relative to 2020.
Top Brazil gold exporter leaves a trail of criminal probes and illegal mines (Nov 10 2021)
- Brazilian gold exporter BP Trading accounted for 10% of the country’s exports of the precious metal in 2019 and 2020, having purchased it from companies prosecuted for buying illegal gold.
- Most of the illegal mines are concentrated in Indigenous territories, where they deforest the land, pollute the rivers, and inflict violence on Indigenous communities.
- The company saw strong growth in recent years, with revenues of $256 million in 2019, more than double what it made in 2018.
- Illegal mining generates $600,000 to $800,000 a year in Brazil, according to Ministry of Mines and Energy estimates.