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Deforestation in the Amazon

This article was taken from another site (see link below) and posted on this blog by Fabiane Atallah for EDUCATIONAL PURPOSES.

Since 2004 the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has fallen nearly 80 percent to the lowest levels recorded since annual record keeping began in the late 1980s. Importantly, this decline has occurred at the same time that Brazil’s economy has grown roughly 40 percent, suggesting a decoupling of economic growth from deforestation.

While this is welcome news for Earth’s largest rainforest, it is nonetheless important to understand why more than 580,000 square kilometers (224,000 square miles) of Amazon forest has destroyed in Brazil since 1980. Why has Brazil lost so much forest? What can be done to stop deforestation?

Why is the Brazilian Amazon being Destroyed?

In the past, 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 funds to sponsor highways and colonization programs and grant tax breaks and subsidies to forest exploiters.

But this has all changed since the mid-2000s, when the link between deforestation and the broader Brazilian economy began to wane.

The reasons for the decline in Brazil’s deforestation rate are debated, but most would agree that several factors come into play, including macroeconomic trends (a stronger Brazilian currency reduces the profitability of export-driven agriculture), increased enforcement of environmental laws, improved forest monitoring by satellite, new incentives for utilizing already deforested lands, expanded protected areas and indigenous reserves, heightened sensitivity to environmental criticism among private sector companies, and emerging awareness of the values of ecosystem services afforded by the Amazon.

A Closer Look at Brazilian Deforestation (Update: Future threats to the Amazon)

Like other places in the tropics, deforestation in Brazil is increasingly the result of urban consumption and trade rather than subsistence agriculture.

Today deforestation in the Amazon is the result of several activities, the foremost of which include:

  1. Clearing for cattle pasture
  2. Colonization and subsequent subsistence agriculture
  3. Infrastructure improvements
  4. Commercial agriculture
  5. Logging

Clearing for Cattle Pasture


Cattle ranching is the leading cause of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. 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 is closer to 60 percent, according to research by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and its Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa). Most of the beef is destined for urban markets, whereas leather and other cattle products are primarily for export markets.

Brazil is today the world’s largest exporter and producer of beef. Much of its expansion has taken place in the Amazon, which currently has more than 80 million head of cattle, up from 26.6 million in 1990 and equivalent to more than 85 percent of the total U.S. herd. The Brazilian Amazon has more than 214,000 square miles of pasture, an open space larger than France.

Several factors have spurred recent Brazil’s growth as a producer of beef:

  • CURRENCY DEVALUATION—In the 1980s and 1990s the devaluation of the Brazilian real against the dollar effectively doubled the price of beef in reals and created an incentive for ranchers to expand their pasture areas at the expense of the rainforest. The weakness of the real also made Brazilian beef more competitive on the world market. But this has changed since 2004 as the real as strengthened, reducing the competitiveness of Brazilian beef overseas.
  • CONTROL OVER FOOT-AND-MOUTH DISEASE—The eradication of foot-and-mouth disease in much of Brazil has increased price and demand for Brazilian beef.
  • INFRASTRUCTURE—Road construction gives developers and ranchers access to previously inaccessible forest lands in the Amazon. Infrastructure improvements can reduce the costs of shipping and packing beef, while larger and more modern slaughterhouses have made cattle processing more efficient.
  • INTEREST RATES—Rainforest lands are often used for land speculation purposes. When real pasture land prices exceed real forest land prices, land clearing is a good hedge against inflation. At times of high inflation, the appreciation of cattle prices and the stream of services (e.g. milk) they provide may outpace the interest rate earned on money left in the bank.
  • LAND TENURE LAWS—In Brazil, colonists and developers have traditionally been able to gain title to Amazon lands by simply clearing forest and placing a few head of cattle on the land. As an additional benefit, cattle have historically been a low-risk investment relative to cash crops which are subject to wild price swings and pest infestations. Essentially cattle are a vehicle for land ownership in the Amazon and land cleared for pasture is generally significantly more valuable than forest land, facilitating land speculation.
  • CULTURAL TIES—Cattle ranching has a long history in the Brazilian Amazon and is as much a part of culture as an economic activity.

Colonization and subsequent subsistence agriculture


A significant amount of deforestation is caused by the subsistence activities of poor farmers who are encouraged to settle on forest lands by government land policies. In Brazil, each squatter acquires the right (known as a usufruct right) to continue using a piece of land by living on a plot of unclaimed public land and “using” it for at least one year and a day. After five years the squatter acquires ownership and hence the right to sell the land.

Poor farmers typically use fire for clearing land and every year satellite images pick up tens of thousands of fires burning across the Amazon. Typically understory shrubbery is cleared and then forest trees are cut. The area is left to dry for a few months and then burned. The land is planted with crops like bananas, palms, manioc, maize, or rice. After a year or two, the productivity of the soil declines, and the transient farmers press a little deeper and clear new forest for more short-term agricultural land. The old, now infertile fields are used for small-scale cattle grazing or left for waste.

Between 1995 and 1998, the government granted land in the Amazon to roughly 150,000 families, but incentives for colonization have waned in recent years as the government has shifted support to larger entities and infrastructure projects.

Smallholders are sometimes used as a proxy by large development interests to gain access to land. In these cases poor migrants, usually from Brazil’s Northeast, are paid by ranchers to occupy forest land (sometimes indigenous reservations or legal forest reserves belonging to other landowners). The ranchers eventually acquire the land from these squatters.

Infrastructure Improvements


Road construction in the Amazon leads to deforestation. Roads provide access to logging and mining sites while opening forest frontier land to exploitation by poor landless farmers.

Brazil’s Trans-Amazonian Highway was one of the most ambitious economic development programs ever devised, and one of the most spectacular failures. In the 1970s, Brazil planned a 2,000-mile highway that would bisect the massive Amazon forest, opening rainforest lands to (1) settlement by poor farmers from the crowded, drought-plagued north and (2) development of timber and mineral resources. 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, a staggering amount for Brazil, a developing country at the time.

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 peasants were dismal since the forest soils were quickly exhausted, and new forest had to be cleared annually. Logging was difficult due to the widespread distribution of commercially valuable 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 economic and social failures of the project, are the long-term environmental costs. After the construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, Brazilian deforestation accelerated to levels never before seen and vast swaths of forest were cleared for subsistence farmers and cattle-ranching schemes. The Trans-Amazonian Highway is a prime example of the environmental havoc that is caused by road construction in the rainforest.

Road construction and improvement continues in the Amazon today: Paving of roads brings change in the Amazon rainforest and the Chinese economy drives road-building and deforestation in the Amazon

Commercial agriculture


Recently, soybeans have become one of the most important contributors to deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Thanks to a new variety of soybean developed by Brazilian scientists to flourish in rainforest climate, Brazil is on the verge of supplanting the United States as the world’s leading exporter of soybeans. High soybean prices have also served as an impetus to expanding soybean cultivation.

Philip Fearnside, co-author of a report in Science and member of Brazil’s National Institute for Amazonian Research in Manaus, explains, “Soybean farms cause some forest clearing directly. But they have a much greater impact on deforestation by consuming cleared land, savanna, and transitional forests, thereby pushing ranchers and slash-and-burn farmers ever deeper into the forest frontier. Soybean farming also provides a key economic and political impetus for new highways and infrastructure projects, which accelerate deforestation by other actors.”

Satellite data from 2004 showed a marked increase in deforestation along the BR-163 road, a highway the government has been paving in an effort to help soy farmers from Mato Grosso get their crops to export markets. Typically, roads encourage settlement by rural poor who look to the rainforest as free land for subsistence agriculture.

http://www.mongabay.com/brazil.html
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