Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest
Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest accelerated significantly between 1991 and 2004, reaching an annual forest loss rate of 27,423 km² in 2004. Though the rate of deforestation has been slowing since 2004 (with re-accelerations in 2008 and 2013), the remaining forest cover continues to dwindle.
The Amazon rainforest represents over half of the planet's remaining rainforests, and comprises the largest and most biodiverse tract of tropical rainforest in the world. 60% of the forest is contained within Brazil, followed by Peru with 13%, Colombia with 10%, and with minor amounts in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana.
The cattle sector of the Brazilian Amazon, incentivized by the international beef and leather trades, has been responsible for about 80% of all deforestation in the region, or about 14% of the world’s total annual deforestation, making it the world's largest single driver of deforestation. By 1995, 70% of formerly forested land in the Amazon, and 91% of land deforested since 1970, had been converted to cattle ranching. Much of the remaining deforestation within the Amazon has resulted from farmers clearing land for small-scale subsistence agriculture or mechanized cropland producing soy, palm, and other crops.
In the pre-Columbian era, parts of the Amazon Rainforest were a densely populated open agricultural landscape. After the European invasion in the 16th century, with the hunt for gold, Western diseases, slavery and later and the rubber boom, the Amazon Rainforest was depopulated and the forest grew larger.
Prior to the 1970s, access to the forest's largely roadless interior was difficult, and aside from partial clearing along rivers the forest remained intact. Deforestation accelerated greatly following the opening of highways deep into the forest, such as the Trans-Amazonian highway in 1972.
In parts of the Amazon the poor soil had made plantation-based agriculture unprofitable. The key turning point in deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon was when colonists began to establish farms within the forest during the 1960s. Their farming system was based on crop cultivation and the slash-and-burn method. However, the colonists were unable to successfully manage their fields and the crops due to the loss of soil fertility and weed invasion due to this method.
In indigenous areas of the Peruvian Amazon, such as the Urarina's Chambira River Basin, the soils are productive for only relatively short periods of time, therefore causing indigenous horticulturalists like the Urarina to move to new areas and clear more and more land. Amazonian colonization was ruled by cattle raising because ranching required little labor, generated decent profits, and awarded social status in the community. Additionally, grass is able to grow in the poor Amazon soil. However, the abundance of cattle ranching led to extensive deforestation, causing extensive environmental damage.
An estimated 30 percent of the deforestation is due to the actions of small farmers. Although small farmers possess smaller total land area than medium and large ranchers, who possess 89% of the Legal Amazon's private land, the intensity of deforestation within the areas that they inhabit is greater than that within the areas occupied by the larger ranchers. This emphasizes the importance of using previously cleared land for agricultural use, rather the typically easier political path of distributing still-forested areas. In the Brazilian Amazon, the proportion of small farmers to large landholders changes frequently with economic and demographic pressures.
In 2009, Peruvian President Alan García pushed through by executive decree Law 840 (also known as "Ley de la Selva," "the Law of the Jungle" or simply the "Forest Law"), which allowed the sale of uncultivated Amazon land under state ownership to private companies, without term limits on the property rights. While the law was promoted as a "reforestation" measure, critics claimed the privatization measure would in fact encourage further deforestation of the Amazon, while surrendering the nation's rights over natural resources to foreign investors and leaving uncertain the fate of Peru's indigenous people, who do not typically hold formal title to the forestlands on which they subsist. Law 840 met widespread resistance and was eventually repealed by Peru's legislature for being unconstitutional.
Causes of deforestation
Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest can be attributed to many different factors at local, national, and international levels. The rainforest is seen as a resource for cattle pasture, valuable hardwoods, housing space, farming space (especially for soybeans), road works (such as highways and smaller roads) and medicines.
A 2009 Greenpeace report found that the cattle sector in the Brazilian Amazon, supported by the international beef and leather trades, was responsible for about 80% of all deforestation in the region, or about 14% of the world’s total annual deforestation, making it the largest single driver of deforestation in the world. According to a 2006 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 70% of formerly forested land in the Amazon, and 91% of land deforested since 1970, is used for livestock pasture.
Additional deforestation in the Amazon has resulted from farmers clearing land for small-scale subsistence agriculture or for mechanized cropland. Scientists using NASA satellite data found in 2006 that clearing for mechanized cropland had become a significant force in Brazilian Amazon deforestation. This change in land use may alter the region's climate. Researchers found that in 2003, a peak year of deforestation, more than 20 percent of the Mato Grosso state’s forests were converted to cropland. In 2005, soybean prices fell by more than 25 percent and some areas of Mato Grosso showed a decrease in large deforestation events, suggesting 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.
Until 2006, a major driver of forest loss in the Amazon was the cultivation of soy, mainly for export and production of biodiesel and animal feed; as soybean prices have risen, soy farmers pushed northwards into forested areas of the Amazon. However, a private sector agreement referred to as the Soy Moratorium has helped drastically reduce the deforestation linked to soy production in the region. In 2006, a number of major commodity trading companies such as Cargill agreed to not purchase soybeans produced in the Brazilian Amazon on recently deforested areas. Before the moratorium, 30 percent of soy field expansion had occurred through deforestation, contributing to record deforestation rates. After eight years of the moratorium, a 2015 study found that although soy production area had expanded another 1.3 million hectares, only about 1 percent of the new soy expansion had come at the expense of forest. In response to the moratorium, farmers were choosing to plant on already cleared land.
The needs of soy farmers have been used to validate some controversial transportation projects that have developed in the Amazon. The first two highways, the 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 reenacted 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; these settlers had a significant effect on the forest as well.
Research conducted by Leydimere Oliveira et al. has shown that the more rainforest is logged in the Amazon, the less precipitation reaches the area and so the lower the yield per hectare becomes. Thus for Brazil as a whole, there is no economic gain to be made by logging and selling trees and using the logged land for pastoral purposes.
Slash and Burn
A small area of land is cleared and the vegetation burned, providing a source of nutrients from the ash. For a few years the soil remains sufficiently fertile for the tribe to grow crops. When the soil's fertility is exhausted, the tribe moves on and clears another small area of forest. The original area is regenerated, as it receives nutrients and seeds from surrounding vegetation. As no lasting damage occurs, this method of agriculture is sustainable.
Rates of forest loss
The annual rate of deforestation in the Amazon region dramatically increased from 1991 to 2003. In the nine years from 1991 to 2000, the total area of Amazon rainforest cleared since 1970 rose from 419,010 to 575,903 km2 (161,781 to 222,357 sq mi), comparable to the land area of Spain, Madagascar or Manitoba. Most of this lost forest was replaced by pasture for cattle.
Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest continued to accelerate in the early 2000s, reaching an annual rate of 27,423 km² of forest loss in the year 2004. Today the remaining forest cover continues to dwindle, though the annual rate of forest loss has generally been slowing since 2004. However, rates of deforestation jumped again in 2008, 2013 and 2015.
|Period||Estimated remaining forest cover
in the Brazilian Amazon (km²)
|Percent of 1970
|Total forest loss
since 1970 (km²)
In Brazil, the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (INPE, or National Institute of Space Research) produces deforestation figures annually. Their deforestation estimates are derived from 100 to 220 images taken during the dry season in the Amazon by the Landsat satellite, also may only consider the loss of the Amazon rainforest biome – not the loss of natural fields or savannah within the rainforest.
Impact on Indigenous peoples
The native tribes of the Amazon have often been abused during the Amazon's deforestation. Loggers have killed natives, and encroached on to their land. Many uncontacted peoples have come out of the jungles to mingle with mainstream society after threats from outsiders. Uncontacted peoples making first contact with outsiders can spread disease which the natives have little immunity. Tribes can easily be decimated, the deaths resulting have been compared to a genocide.
Future of the Amazon rainforest
Using the 2005 deforestation rates, it was estimated that the Amazon rainforest would be reduced by 40% in two decades. The rate of deforestation is now slowing; rates of forest loss in 2012 were the slowest on record. However, the forest is still shrinking.
Norwegian prime minister Jens Stoltenberg announced on September 16, 2008, that Norway's government would donate US $1 billion to the newly established Amazon fund. The money from this fund would go to projects aimed at slowing down the deforestation of the Amazon rainforest.
In September 2015, Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff told the United Nations that Brazil had effectively reduced the rate of deforestation in the Amazon by 82 percent. She also announced that over the next 15 years, Brazil aimed to eliminate illegal deforestation, restore and reforest 120,000 km2 (46,000 sq mi), and recover 150,000 km2 (58,000 sq mi) of degraded pastures.
- Belo Monte Dam
- Cattle ranching
- Construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway
- Flying river
- Population and energy consumption in Brazilian Amazonia
- Selective logging in the Amazon rainforest
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