Deforestation in Brazil
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Brazil once had the highest deforestation rate in the world and in 2005 still had the largest area of forest removed annually. Since 1970, over 600,000 square kilometers (230,000 sq mi) of the Amazon rainforest have been destroyed. In 2012, the Amazon was approximately 5.4 million square kilometres, which is only 87% of the Amazon’s original state. Rainforests have decreased in size primarily due to deforestation. Despite reductions in the rate of deforestation in the last ten years, the Amazon Rainforest will be reduced by 40% by 2030 at the current rate. Between May 2000 and August 2006, Brazil lost nearly 150,000 square kilometres of forest, an area larger than that of Greece. According to the Living Planet Report 2010, deforestation is continuing at an alarming rate, but at the CBD 9th Conference 67 ministers signed up to help achieve zero net deforestation by 2020.
In the 1940s Brazil began a program of national development for the Amazon Basin. President Getúlio Vargas declared emphatically that:
The Amazon, in the impact of our will and labor, will cease to be a simple chapter in the history of the world, and made equivalent to other great rivers, shall become a chapter in the history of human civilization. Everything which has up to now been done in Amazonas, whether in agriculture or extractive industry... must be transformed into rational exploitation.— Getúlio Vargas
Vargas established many government programs to begin developing his vision, including the Superintendency for the Economic Valorization of Amazonia (SPVEA) in 1953, the Superintendency for the Development of Amazonia (SUDAM) in 1966, and the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA) in 1970. It was in the 1960s that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon became more widespread, chiefly from the removal of forest to make way for cattle ranching to raise national revenue during a period of high world beef prices, to eliminate hunger and to pay off international debt obligations. Extensive transportation projects, such as the Trans-Amazon Highway, were promoted in 1970, meaning that huge areas of forest would be removed for commercial purposes.
Before the 1960s, much of the forest remained intact due to the restrictions in access to the Amazon aside from partial clearing along the river banks. The poor soil also made plantation-based agriculture unprofitable. The key point in deforestation of the Amazon was when the colonists established farms within the forest during the 1960s. Their farming system was based on crop cultivation and the slash and burn method. The colonists were unable to successfully manage their fields and the crops due to the loss of soil fertility and weed invasion. The soils in the Amazon are productive for just a short period of time, and so the farmers there must constantly move and clear more and more land.
Amazonian colonization was dominated by cattle raising, not only because it was possible to grow grass in the poor soil, but also because ranching required little labor, generated decent profits, and awarded social status in the community. However, the results of farming have led to extensive deforestation and have caused extensive environmental damage.
An estimated 30% of the deforestation is due to small farmers and the intensity within the area that they inhabit is greater than the area occupied by the medium and large ranchers who possess 89% of the Legal Amazon’s private land. This emphasizes the importance of using previously cleared land for agricultural use, rather the typical easiest political path of distributing still-forested areas. In the Brazilian Amazon, the number of small farmers versus large landholders changes frequently with economic and demographic pressures.
In 1964, a Brazilian land law was passed that supported ownership of the land by the developer: if a person could demonstrate effective cultivation for a year and a day, then that person could claim a right to the land. This act paved the way for clearing enormous areas of forest for cattle production as developers sought to gain a financial profit from land with which they were provided. In the 1970s, with the growth of the Trans Amazonian highway, INCRA established schemes to attract hundreds of thousands of potential farmers westward into the Amazon and exploit the forest for cattle ranches. Between 1966 and 1975 Amazon land values grew at a rate of 100% per year as the government offered subsidies to reform the land; throughout the 1970s and 1980s, farmers rushed to claim land and quickly convert areas to farming and make a profit due to the improved transportation network and the high prices of beef. The forest was also exploited for timber, which provided Brazil a way of paying off international debt. By the late 1980s, an area the size of England, Scotland and Wales was being removed annually.
Cattle ranching and infrastructure
The annual rate of deforestation in the Amazon region has continued to increase from 1990 to 2003 because of factors at local, national, and international levels. 70% of formerly forested land in the Amazon, and 91% of land deforested since 1970, is used for livestock pasture. The Brazilian government initially attributed 38% of all forest loss between 1966 and 1975 to large-scale cattle ranching. According to the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), "between 1990 and 2001 the percentage of Europe's processed meat imports that came from Brazil rose from 40 to 74 percent" and by 2003 "for the first time ever, the growth in Brazilian cattle production, 80 percent of which was in the Amazon was largely export driven."
The removal of forest to make way for cattle ranching was the leading cause of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon from the mid-1960s. In addition to Vargas's earlier aim for commercial development in the country, the devaluation of the Brazilian real against the dollar had the result of doubling the price of beef in reals and gave ranchers a widespread incentive to increase the size of their cattle ranches and areas under pasture for mass beef production, resulting in large areas of forest removal. Access to clear the forest was facilitated by the land tenure policy in Brazil that meant developers could proceed without restraint and install new cattle ranches which in turn functioned as a qualification for land ownership. The removal of the Amazon forest for cattle farming in Brazil was also seen by developers as an economic investment during periods of high inflation where the appreciation of cattle prices providing a way of outpacing the interest rate earned on money left in the bank. Brazilian beef was more competitive on the world market at a time when extensive improvements in the road network in the Amazonas in the early 1970s through the Trans Amazonian highway and subsequent other new roads gave potential developers access to vast areas of previously inaccessible parts of the forest. This coincided with the reduction of transportation costs through cheaper fuels such as ethanol which lowered the costs of shipping the beef from denser areas of the forest giving ranchers an incentive to maximise profits.
Cattle Ranching is not an environmental investment though. Cattle emit large amounts of methane into the environment. These emissions play a major role in climate change because methane's ability to trap heat is 20 times greater than that of carbon dioxide for a time horizon of 100 years while being exponentially larger for shorter time horizons. One cow can emit up to 130 gallons of methane a day, just through belching.
In the 1970s, Brazil planned a massive development in its transportation infrastructure with a 2,000-mile (3,200 km) highway that would completely pass through the Amazon forest, which had the effect of increasing the vulnerability of poor farmers by colonizers using the new infrastructure to seek out new areas for commercial development. Studies by the Environmental Defense Fund have revealed areas affected by the road network were eight times more likely to be deforested by cultivators than untouched lands and that the roads allowed developers to increasingly exploit the forest reserves not only for pastoral production but to export the reserves of wood and use it as fuel and for building. Developers were often given a six-month salary and substantial agricultural loans to remove the forest alongside the roads in 250-acre (1.0 km2) lots into new cattle ranches for production.
The Brazilian government granted land to approximately 150,000 families in the Amazon between 1995 and 1998. Poor farmers were also encouraged by the government through programmes such as the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform in Brazil (INCRA) to exploit the unclaimed forest land and after a five-year period were given the rights to ownership and rights to sell it, giving them a clear purpose to use and reform the land for financial gain. The problem is worsened by the short-term productivity of the soils following forest removal for arable farmers and after only a year or two the fields became infertile and the farmers are forced to exploit new areas of forest to maintain income. In 1995 nearly half, 48% of deforestation in Brazil was attributed to the poorer farmers removing lots under 125 acres (0.51 km2) in size.
Hydroelectric dams and mining activities
Hydroelectric dam projects in the Amazon, such as the Belo Monte dam in Pará state, have also been responsible for flooding significant areas of the forest. In particular the Balbina dam flooded approximately 2,400 km2 (930 sq mi) of rainforest on completion and its reservoir itself has been responsible for contributing to global warming by emitting 23,750,000 tons of carbon dioxide and 140,000 tons of methane in only its first three years of operation. Mining has also increased deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon particularly since the 1980s with miners often clearing forest to open the mines, often also using them for building material, collecting wood for fuel and subsistence agriculture.
In addition, Brazil is currently the second-largest global producer of soybeans after the United States, mostly for livestock feed, and as prices for soybeans rise, the soy farmers are pushing northwards into forested areas of the Amazon. As stated in the Constitution of Brazil, clearing land for crops or fields is considered an ‘effective use’ of land and is the beginning towards land ownership. Cleared property is also valued 5–10 times more than forested land and for that reason valuable to the owner whose ultimate objective is resale. The soy industry is an important exporter for Brazil; therefore, the needs of soy farmers have been used to validate many of the controversial transportation projects that are currently developing in the Amazon.
Cargill, a multinational company which controls the majority of the soya bean trade in Brazil has been criticized, along with fast food chains like McDonald's, by active groups such as Greenpeace for speeding up the process of the deforestation of the Amazon. Cargill is the main supplier of soya beans to large fast food companies such as McDonalds which uses the soya products to feed their cattle and chickens. As fast food chains expand, fast food chains must increase the quantity of their livestock in order to produce more products. In order to meet the large demands of soya, Cargill is forced to expand its soya production by clear cutting parts of the Amazon.
The first two highways: the Rodovia Belém-Brasília (1958) and the Cuiaba-Porto Velho (1968) were the only federal highways in the Legal Amazon to be paved and passable year-round before the late 1990s. These two highways are said to be “at the heart of the ‘arc of deforestation’,” which at present is the focal point area of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. The Belém-Brasília highway attracted nearly two million settlers in the first twenty years. The success of the Belém-Brasília highway in opening up the forest was re-enacted as paved roads continued to be developed unleashing the irrepressible spread of settlement. The completions of the roads were followed by a wave of resettlement and the settlers had a significant effect on the forest.
Scientists using NASA satellite data have found that clearing for mechanized cropland has recently become a significant force in Brazilian Amazon deforestation. This change in land use may alter the region's climate and the land's ability to absorb carbon dioxide. Researchers found that in 2003, the peak year of deforestation, more than 20 percent of the Mato Grosso state’s forests were converted to cropland. This finding suggests that the recent cropland expansion in the region is contributing to further deforestation. In 2005, soybean prices fell by more than 25 percent and some areas of Mato Grosso showed a decrease in large deforestation events, although the central agricultural zone continued to clear forests. But, deforestation rates could return to the high levels seen in 2003 as soybean and other crop prices begin to rebound in international markets. Brazil has become a leading worldwide producer of grains including soybean, which accounts for 5% of the nation's exports. This new driver of forest loss suggests that the rise and fall of prices for other crops, beef and timber may also have a significant impact on future land use in the region, according to the study.
Logging in Brazil’s Amazon is economically motivated. The economic opportunity for developing regions is driven by timber export and demand for charcoal. Charcoal producing ovens use large amounts of timber. In one month, the Brazilian government destroyed 800 illegal ovens in Tailândia. These 800 ovens were estimated to consume about 23,000 trees per month. Logging for timber export is selective, since only a few species, such as mahogany, have commercial value and are harvested. The forest is not completely logged, but still selective logging creates a lot of damage to the forest. For every tree harvested, 5-10 other trees are logged, to transport the logs through the forest. Also, a falling tree takes down a lot of other small trees in the forest. A logged forest contains significantly fewer species than areas where no selective logging has taken place. A forest disturbed by selective logging is also significantly more vulnerable to fire.
In order to combat this destruction, the Brazilian government has not issued any new permits for logging. Unauthorized harvesting has continued nonetheless. Efforts to prevent cutting down forests are made through payments to land owners. Instead of banning logging all together, the government hopes payments that are comparable to the money the land would earn from timber or farming will dissuade owners from further destruction.
One of the major concerns arising from deforestation in Brazil is the global effect it produces on climatic change. The rainforests are of vital importance in the carbon dioxide exchange process, and are second only to oceans as the most important sink on the planet to absorb increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide resulting from industry.
The most recent survey on deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions reports that deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is responsible for as much as 10% of current greenhouse gas emissions due to the removal of forest which would have otherwise absorbed the emissions having a clear effect on global warming. The problem is made worse by the method of removing the forest where many trees are burned to the ground emitting vast amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, not only affecting air quality in areas of Brazil but affecting the carbon dioxide levels globally as a result.
Though the fires are only intended to burn limited areas of forest to make way for allocated agricultural plots, they frequently burn much more extensive areas of land than intended. In 1987 between July and October, about 19,300 square miles (50,000 km2) of rainforest was burned in the states of Pará, Mato Grosso, Rondônia, and Acre releasing more than 500 million tons of carbon, 44 million tons of carbon monoxide, and millions of tons of nitrogen oxides and poisonous chemicals into the atmosphere. In 2005 the burning of the forests in Brazil created widespread health implications across the Amazon region, including airport closings and hospitalizations from smoke inhalation.
Carbon present in the trees is essential for ecosystem development and plays a key role in the regional climate in Brazil and also globally. Fallen leaves resulting from deforestation leave behind a mass of dead plant material known as slash, which on decomposition provides a food source for invertebrates which has the indirect effect of increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide levels through respiration and microbial activity. Simultaneously the organic carbon within the soil structure becomes depleted and the presence of carbon plays a vital role in the functioning of life in any ecosystem.
The Brazilian rainforest is one of the most biologically diverse regions of the world. Over a million species of plants and animals are known to live in the Amazon and many millions of species are unclassified or unknown. With the rapid process of deforestation the habitats of many animals and plants that live in the rainforests are under threat and species may face extinction. The deforestation has the effect of reducing a gene pool amongst species meaning that there is less genetic variation that is needed to adapt to climate change in the future. The Brazilian Amazon is known to possess a vast resource for the treatments of medicines and scientific research into the basin has been conducted to find a cure for major global killers such as AIDS, cancer, and other terminal diseases.
Rainforests are the oldest ecosystems on earth. Rainforest plants and animals continued to evolve, developing into the most diverse and complex ecosystems on earth. Living in limited areas, most of these species are endemic, or found nowhere else in the world. In tropical rainforests, it is estimated that 90% of the species that exist in the ecosystem reside in the canopy. Since the tropical rainforests are estimated to hold 50% of the planet’s species, the canopy of rainforests worldwide may hold 45% of life on Earth. The Amazon rainforest borders 8 countries, it has the world’s largest river basin and the source of 1/5 of the Earth’s river water. It has the world’s highest diversity of birds and freshwater fish. The Amazon is home to more species of plants and animals than any other terrestrial ecosystem on the planet—perhaps 30% of the world’s species are found there. More than 300 species of mammals are found in the Amazon, the majority of which are bats and rodents. The Amazon basin contains the largest number of freshwater fish species in the world—more than 3,000 species. More than 1500 bird species are also found there. Frogs are overwhelmingly the most abundant amphibians in the rainforest. Interdependence is where all species are to some extent dependent on one another. Biological interdependency takes many forms in the forest, from species relying on other species for pollination and seed dispersal to predator-prey relationships to symbiotic relationships. Each species that disappears from the ecosystem may weaken the survival chances for another, while the loss of a keystone species—an organism that links many other species together—could cause a significant disruption in the functioning of the entire system.
The removal of the forest by developers affects the social and economic lives of the indigenous people who live in the forests whose families have lived there in relative isolation for many centuries. The rainforest is their home, and a fundamental source of food, shelter, fuel, nourishment and also their cultural heritage and recreation. Deforestation and removal of the forest specifically for the export of timber also removes a valuable protection of the soils in a dynamic ecosystem and the region prone to desertification and silting on the river banks as rivers become clogged with washed away soils in sparse areas. If too much timber is cut, the soil that once had sufficient cover often gets baked and dried in the sun, becoming subject to erosion and degradation of soil fertility meaning that farmers cannot profit from the land even after removal. According to the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) in 1977, deforestation is a major cause of desertification and in 1980 UNEP estimated that desertification threatened 35 per cent of the world's land surface and 20 per cent of the world's population.
The exploitation of the forests in Brazil for mining activities such as gold mining has also significantly increased the risk of mercury poisoning and contamination of the ecosystem and water. Mercury poisoning can affect the foodchain and impact upon wildlife both on land and in the rivers but can also affect plants and affect the crops of farmers who are also looking to exploit areas of the forests. Pollution may result from mine sludge and affect the functioning of the river system at a time when soils are blown away due to exposure and have a significant impact on aquatic populations further implicated by dam building in the region. Dams build in areas of previously inhabited forest may have a profound impact on migrating fish and ecological life and leave the plains prone to flooding and leaching.
In an American Meteorological Society Journal of Climate, two research meteorologists at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center Andrew Negri and Robert Adler have analysed the impact of deforestation on climatic patterns in the Amazon using data and observatory readings obtained from NASA's Tropical Rainfall Measuring Mission collected over many years. Working also with the University of Arizona and the North Carolina State University according to Negri "In deforested areas, the land heats up faster and reaches a higher temperature, leading to localized upward motions that enhance the formation of clouds and ultimately produce more rainfall". They also examined cloud cover in the deforested areas, and in comparison with the areas still unaffected by deforestation found a significant increase in cloud cover and rainfall during the August–September wet season where forest had been removed. The height or existence of plants and trees in the forest directly affects the aerodynamics of the atmosphere, affecting precipitation. In addition the Massachusetts Institute of Technology developed a series of detailed computer simulated models of rainfall patterns in the Amazon during the 1990s and concluded that the removal of the forest also leaves the land exposed to the sun naturally increasing the land temperature near the surface, enhancing evaporation and more moisture in the atmosphere.
Deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon have slowed dramatically since peaking in 2004 at 27,423 square kilometers per year. By 2009, deforestation had fallen to around 7,000 square kilometers per year, a decline of nearly 75 percent from 2004, according to Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais, or INPE), which produces deforestation figures annually. Their deforestation estimates are derived from 100 to 220 images taken during the dry season in the Amazon by the China–Brazil Earth Resources Satellite program (CBERS), and may only consider the loss of the Amazon rainforest biome – not the loss of natural fields or savannah within the rainforest. According to INPE, the original Amazon rainforest biome in Brazil of 4,100,000 km2 was reduced to 3,403,000 km2 by 2005 – representing a loss of 17.1%.
|Period||Estimated remaining forest cover
in the Brazilian Amazon (km2)
|Percent of 1970
|Total forest loss
since 1970 (km2)
By the end of the 1980s, the removal of Brazil's forests had become a serious global issue, not only because of the loss of biodiversity and ecological disruption, but also because of the large amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) released from burned forests and the loss of a valuable sink to absorb global CO2 emissions. At the 1992 UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, deforestation became a key issue addressed at the Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Plans for the Compensated Reduction (CR) of greenhouse gas emissions from tropical forests were set up to give nations like Brazil an incentive to curb their rate of deforestation.
"We are encouraging the Brazilian government to fully endorse the Compensated Reduction proposal", Paulo Moutinho, Scientist and Coordinator of the Climate Change Program of the Amazon Institute for Environmental Research (IPAM), a NGO research institute in Brazil stated. In Brazil, the cost of reducing deforestation emissions by half will be less than $5 per ton of carbon dioxide, as estimated in an unpublished study of IPAM and the Woods Hole Research Center.
On May 11, 1994, two scientists, Compton Tucker and David Skole, presented the results of a NASA survey at the Subcommittee on Western Hemisphere Affairs of the United States Congress, a formal scientific assessment of deforestation in Brazil aimed at putting to rest the debate on the rate of forest removal and questions on the effectiveness at Brazilian environmental policies. Whilst undertaking a monitoring and complete assessment was very difficult due to the size of the rainforest, they concluded that satellite observations had shown a reduction in the rate of forest removal between 1992 and 1993 and that World Bank estimates of 600,000 square kilometers (12%) cleared by that year appeared to be exaggerated. The NASA assessment concurred with the findings of the Brazilian National Space Research Institute (INPE) with an accurate estimation of 280,000 square kilometers (5%) for the same period. The following year (1995) deforestation nearly doubled; this has been attributed the accidental fire following El Niño-related drought rather than active logging and the following year showed a major decrease from earlier. In 2002 Brazil ratified the Kyoto agreement as a developing nation in the non-Annex I category of countries. These countries do not have carbon emissions quotas in the agreement as developed nations do. President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva iterated that it is “Brazil that is in charge of looking after the Amazon.” In 2006 Brazil proposed a direct finance route to deal with the Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation in Developing Countries, or REDD, issue, recognizing that deforestation contributes to 20 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. The competing proposal for the REDD issue is a carbon emission credit system, where reduced deforestation would receive “marketable emissions credits”. In effect, developed countries could reduce their carbon emissions, and approach their emissions quota by investing in the reforestation of developing rainforest countries. Instead, Brazil’s 2006 proposal would draw from a fund based upon donor country contributors.
By 2005 forest removal had fallen to 9,000 km2 (3,500 sq mi) of forest compared to 18,000 km2 (6,900 sq mi) in 2003 and on July 5, 2007, Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva announced at the International Conference on Biofuels in Brussels that more than 20 million hectares of conservation units to protect the forest and more efficient fuel production had allowed the rate of deforestation to fall by 52% in the three years since 2004. 22
Daniel Nepstad, a Senior Scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center which focuses on tackling two deforestation issues in Brazil has demonstrated that Brazil's deforestation rates have been cut nearly in half in recent years through a combination of government intervention and economic trends. Since 2004 the country has established more than 200,000 square kilometres of parks, nature reserves, and national forests in the Amazon rainforest. These protected areas, if fully enforced, aim to prevent an estimated one billion tons of carbon from being transferred to the atmosphere through deforestation by the year 2015.
In 2005 Brazilian Environment Minister Marina da Silva announced that 9,000 km2 (3,500 sq mi) of forest had been felled in the previous year, compared with more than 18,000 km2 (6,900 sq mi) in 2003 and 2004. Between 2005 and 2006 there was a 41% drop in deforestation; nonetheless, Brazil still had the largest area of forest removed annually on the planet.
These methods have also reduced the illegal appropriation of land and logging, encouraging the use of land for sustainable timber harvesting.
The improvement of the social and economic conditions of the huge population of poor people in Brazil is the main concern of the government.
It is clear that to diminish deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon would require enormous financial resources to compensate the loggers and given them an economic incentive to pursue other areas of activity. The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has estimated that a total of approximately US$547.2 million (1 billion Brazilian reais) per year would be required from international sources to compensate the forest developers and establish a highly organized framework to fully implement forest governance and monitoring, and the foundation of new protected forest areas in the Amazon for future sustainability. Due to Brazil's need to develop economically and pay off international debt obligations, compensating the loggers over the entirety of the Amazon rainforest would require a heavy amount of funding and increased interaction with the international community, and a reform of the world market system if deforestation in the country is to be halted.
Non-governmental organizations such as WWF have been highly active in the region and WWF Brazil has formed an alliance with some eight other Brazilian NGO'S which aim to completely halt deforestation in the Amazon by 2015. Working with groups such as Greenpeace, and The Nature Conservancy, the proposal, known as the "Agreement on Acknowledging the Value of the Forest and Ending Amazon Deforestation," aims at combining strong public policies with market strategies to achieve annual deforestation reduction targets. The groups aim to establish a wide-ranging commitment between the sectors of the government and society to conserve the rainforest and are aiming for an overall reduction in deforestation of 68,737.8 square kilometres in seven years. Denise Hamú, the CEO of WWF-Brazil has said' "Only through the mobilization of state and federal governments, the private sector and environmental NGOs we can reach significant results for the conservation and promotion of sustainable development in the Amazon".
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