Why is the Amazon Rainforest Being Deforested?

Dan Wood

Dan Wood

Amazon rainforest - Being deforested
photo credit: Acoosfera

We are going to explain how the world’s largest rainforest is being deforested. Through the amazing journalism of Vox Media, telling the story behind deforestation in the Amazon since the 1980s. This is the second time in 40 years that large-scale deforestation has occurred in the forest. Fears grow that this time the Amazon forest may arrive at its tipping point. The forest turned to desert, and large parts of the continent made uninhabitable within several decades . . .

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Why is the world’s largest rainforest being deforested?

For the second time in 40 years, we are seeing Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest being deforested. In the 1980’s areas the size of North American states disappeared, eventually being reduced in 2006. Following the efforts of environmental minister Marina Silva and her team, deforestation was halved that year. Measures such as the Forest Code, IBAMA sustainable-use reserves drastically reduced then halted deforestation across much of the Amazon rainforest. 

Sadly, following corruption scandals and the rise of a conservative faction known as ‘Ruralistas’ in Brazil, this work is being reversed. In 2016, they had enough power to force the sitting president to reduce budgets towards such works, eventually controlling Congress in 2018. Thereafter, securing the election of an ally, Jair Bolsonaro. Soon after over 30,000 fires burned in the Amazon, ranchers, farmers and landowners, illegally (but emboldened), creating a new wave of deforestation. 

A wave which if left unchecked will take the Amazon rainforest towards a tipping point. The tipping point represents a point of no return after which the forest and ecosystem will break down over several decades. Converting much of the land into desert and making environmental refugees of many Latin Americans residing on the continent. However (and this is a big however) there is still time, and many are now already involved and willing to stop this. With partners using technology and land buying tactics to prevent Bolsonaro and future figures like him from culling the rainforest for many years to come. 

Key facts 

Bad news – Way back then: 
  • In 1980’s – 20,000 sq. km of rainforest cut down every year
  • In the 1990’s – Brazil developed a profitable soybean export economy 
  • In the 2000’s – Farmers shifted focus, delivering volume and strong growth for Brazil
The Positives – Way back then: 
  • In 2003 – Brazil’s government planned how to end deforestation 
  • In 2006 – They halved deforestation 
  • They also increased sustainable-use reserves for indigenous (To half of the Amazon) 
  • The business community adapted – Still profiting from nut harvesting/rubber tapping 
  • Even the farming community found a way – Planting 2 crops per year instead of 1 
Bad news – Right now: 
  • The Ruralistas have been successful in securing Congress and a president 
  • In 2019 deforestation began again and in high volumes 
  • Around 20% of the forest is now gone 
  • We currently remain with around 6-8% left of the tipping point 
  • Meeting the tipping point will make a continent inhabitable before the end of the century 
Hope – What can be done this time: 
  • Huge numbers of people around the world are now engaging in conservation
  • Including pressure domestically directed at the president and his allies 
  • Deforestation can be halted, and decisively, if we act now 
  • Third sector and businesses are using tech and land ownership to alter the picture
  • Buying forest land, the upkeep delivered by indigenous & funded by teams like ours 

Let’s get into it – Here is what the video had to say

  • “And in South America tonight, an environmental problem of a much greater magnitude.”
  • “The destruction of the Amazon rainforest.” 
  • “A worldwide disaster.”

In the 1980s, the world learned that the Amazon rainforest was in danger.

  • “Trees are falling at a startling rate…”
  • “77,000 square miles…”
  • “… an area twice the size of Belgium…”
  • “…the size of New York State…”
  • “…the size of California, disappears

Why is it important to protect the world’s largest rainforest? 

  • The Amazon rainforest alone gives us “One-fifth of the oxygen we breathe.”
  • It also provides us with “20% of the world’s freshwater.”
  • “Half of the species of life on earth is in these forests.”
  • “…An ecosystem the entire world needs for its survival.”

It almost seemed like the world’s largest rainforest being deforested was all but certain

By the 1990s, it seemed like it was too late.

  • “The destruction accelerates.”
  • “More than twice as fast as previously believed.”
  • “Virtually impossible to control.”
  • “Once it is gone, it is gone forever.”

Then, something changed:

“The annual destruction rate of the Amazon rainforest has dropped…by 70%.”

“The lowest rate of deforestation since records began.”

“The Amazon Rainforest could achieve the end of deforestation. A huge accomplishment.”

But in order to keep it safe, there was one condition:

“Protecting the forest is a continual process.”

“Brazil will need to stay vigilant.”

But it didn’t. . . 

Bolsonaro and the Ruralistas - Amazon fires are a lie - Full credit to Metro - For One Tribe story 'why is the largest rainforest being deforested'.

Huge accomplishments being reversed with the election of Ruralista ally,  Bolsanaro 

  • “The Amazon is burning.”
  • “Consumed by fire.”
  • “Fires have been raging.”
  • “Thousands of fires are blazing…”
  • “…as more and more trees are cut down.”
  • “Deforestation of the Amazon rainforest hit its highest rate in a decade.”

Today, the Amazon is being destroyed, all over again. Commencing with an 84% increase in Amazon fires in 2018. 

The question is: Can it be saved this time?

When did the largest rainforest start being deforested? 

The first wave of deforestation started in the 1970s. That’s when Brazil’s military regime saw the potential for profit deep in the Amazon. There were almost 5 million square kilometres of rainforest filled with natural resources. Though the leading cause of the deforestation was cattle ranching, 38% of land used for large-scale mean production. 

“Amazonia’s ores and minerals, food, fibre, and forest resources are vast.”

But most of it was inaccessible. So the government started building the Trans-Amazonian Highway, an ambitious project that would run for 3200 kilometres connecting remote parts of the rainforest. At the time, most of Brazil’s population lived in the southeast; in cities like Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. And the government wanted to move people out to the Amazon. To cultivate the land and grow the economy. So they offered free land along the highway and paid Brazilians to settle deeper in the rainforest. And they sparked a land rush.

As the road advanced, settlers followed, rapidly clearing the forest around it. Most of them turned the land into pasture, where they raised cows to sell as beef. And when these ranchers needed more land, they seized another plot, cleared it, and moved their cattle in. This expansion deeper into the Amazon drove up deforestation. 

Between 1978 -88, an average of over 20,000 sq. kilometres was cut down each year

Over time this area became known as the Arc of Deforestation. And soon, a different product pushed this even further. People around the world were eating more meat, decade after decade. That trend raised the need for more soybeans; which served as high-protein feed for farmed animals.

This created a huge opportunity for countries most suitable for growing soybeans, and Brazil cashed in. Soybean exports from Brazil shot up in the mid-’90s, boosting the economy. By the early 2000s, farmers took over these pastures and turned them into massive soy farms.

Like this one, in Acre state.

An aerial view shows the Amazon rainforest bordered by a farm and land cleared to prepare for the planting of soybeans, in Mato Grosso
photo credit: www.eoswetenschap.eu

Soybean and cattle farming in and around the Amazon is very profitable 

And the ranchers who sold their pastures, moved their cattle further into the rainforest, clearing more of the Amazon, often illegally. This aggressive expansion created a profitable pattern in Amazon. But it came at the cost of the rainforest.

By the early 2000s, Brazil’s beef and soy industries were driving a booming economy, as well as unprecedented rates of deforestation… Which caused this arc to expand further north. The staggering deforestation in the Amazon attracted fierce resistance from environmental groups.

“An area of an ancient forest, the size of a football field is destroyed every two seconds.”

The Brazilian government, under President Lula da Silva, finally stepped in. This is Marina Silva. She was Brazil’s Environment Minister in 2003 when she helped craft a plan to stop deforestation. It started with the government expanding the amount of rainforest under protection.

At the time, only about 28% was protected, and there was very little oversight. But this new plan added more reserves, where business activities were strictly banned.  It also created more sustainable-use reserves, (SURs), where some businesses, like Brazillian nut harvesting and rubber-tapping (which didn’t destroy the rainforest), were allowed. A means of securing resource which lives on today in the state of Acre, tappers seeing the value in sustainable management. 

Below – Marina Silva interviewing with Elaine Reyes and CGTN America. 

Indigenous people were supported to preserve the Amazon rainforest

More land was also demarcated for indigenous people, who preserved the forest. Over time, hundreds of newly protected lands were added, transforming the Amazon into a shared and sustainable space. Eventually, almost half the Amazon would be put under some form of protection, while the rest of it remained a mix of pasture, farms and rainforest. 

To prevent further deforestation here, the government strengthened the Forest Code which said landowners could only clear 20% of their private land. This law was monitored by the Forest Service. Which was part of the Environmental Ministry. Which had jurisdiction over all of these protected lands. The key to enforcing this entire plan was strengthening IBAMA. A police agency that would track and fine people for illegal deforestation.

And the plan showed results, with deforestation rates falling by more than half in 2006. At the same time, an activist movement was forcing the agricultural industry to make a change. Major food companies started feeling pressure from consumers for participating in deforestation. So several got together. In 2006, they signed a Soy Moratorium. This meant they could continue to operate within existing farms. However, they wouldn’t buy soy from any newly deforested land in the Amazon.

Three years later, in 2009, beef companies signed a similar agreement. Other countries also gave Brazil money to help it protect the Amazon. Under all this protection, deforestation rates plummeted to historic lows.

Image of local indigenous - for One Tribe story why are the largest rainforests being deforested - Full credit to ATOD Mag
photo credit: phys.org

Despite the Amazon rainforest being protected, beef and soy industries grew – Why? 

And yet, Brazil’s soy and beef industries continued to grow, thanks to more efficient techniques. Ranchers started growing crops on their existing pastures. And farmers planted two crops a year on their land instead of one. Brazil had found a way to make the Amazon rainforest both productive and protected.

Some still wanted more profit, seeing the largest rainforest being further deforested 

But there were some who still wanted it to be a more profitable place. The Ruralistas, a group of conservative politicians who represent the interests of the agricultural industry. Including farmers and ranchers, the group gaining influence in Brazil. In the early 2000s, they had about 17% of the seats in congress.

But by 2012 they had about 30%…Enough power to push President Dilma Rousseff to weaken the Forest Code. In turn, allowing landowners to get away with clearing more land. In 2016, they pushed President Michel Temer to slash IBAMA’s budget. They also helped him pass a law that made it easier for people who illegally seized land in the Amazon, to keep it. These changes emboldened some people to seize and clear the rainforest again. And that led to a rise in deforestation rates.

In 2018, as the Ruralistas controlled 44% of Congress. Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing congressman and ally to the Ruralistas, was elected president. On his second day in office, he transferred the forest service, which monitors the forest code, to the agricultural ministry – led by a Ruralista.

He’s also worked to systematically weaken the Environmental Ministry (Brazil). 

How is the largest rainforest being deforested under Bolsonaro?

Under Bolsonaro, deforestation has increased significantly in 2019, most of it taking place in these protected areas. Setting fires is a common way to clear land…

And in August 2019, over 30,000 fires were burning in the Amazon. That’s three times as many as in August 2018. Many set illegally by ranchers, farmers, and landowners, emboldened by the government’s new stance on the Amazon. But this time, the Amazon is unlikely to survive another wave of deforestation.

Vox news - Amazon deforestation rates
photo credit: economist

This time, the amazon is unlikely to survive another wave of deforestation

In the last 50 years, it’s estimated that about 17% of the Amazon has been deforested. A 2018 report estimated that, if it reaches 20-25%, the whole rainforest could start to collapse. It wouldn’t be enough to cycle all the water it needs, causing trees to die. And that would release a huge amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, further warming the planet.

But in Brazil, many politicians and agricultural businesses continue to ignore the science for the sake of profit. Happy to put the Amazon at risk again and clear it for short-term gains overlooking the fact that the planet as we know it wouldn’t exist without this rainforest. It’s why this place was saved once before.

That’s the end of the transcript – A big thank you to Vox Atlas for a great video 

With great journalism of the events occurring in and around the Amazon, we wanted to share the story told by Vox Atlas in this special edition. It is 1 of 3 that they produced about the Amazon Rainforest, which we will share over the next few months. This episode focused on explaining why deforestation is occurring. Explaining some of the Brazilian politics surrounding the current climate crisis. In the next post and video we share, the Vox team will be taking a look back in history. 

The team will tell the story of Chico Mendes, who led the original fight to save the Amazon back in the 1980s. He was a Brazilian rubber tapper, trade union leader and environmentalist, who fought to stop the Amazon rainforest being deforested. He also advocated hard for the human rights of poor Brazilians and indigenous people native to the forest. A super interesting story which is still very relevant today. 

Yes, it can. However, to do that we need to prevent a tipping point being reached.

Prof Richard Betts at the Carbon Brief ( Head of Climate Impacts at the Met Office – Hadley): 

“So there’s a risk of putting the Amazon Forest into a state where it could go past a tipping point, leading towards dieback. However, it’s quite complex and it’s about an interaction between climate change drying out the climate and heating the regional climate. But also deforestation as well. So the drier climate obviously makes the forest more vulnerable to drought and forest fires and so on. 

Deforestation also brings in the extra risk of fires from people using fires to cause deforestation. And also as the forest is fragmented from deforestation. It gets more vulnerable for drying around the edges. These two things together could act to take the Amazon past the point of no return at some point.” 

Amazon Amazoff - Image of forestland next to a forest to support One Tribe story - Why is the largest rainforest being deforested

What does the prof. mean when referring to “the Amazon past the point of no return “

In short, once the Amazon reaches a tipping point of about 25%, it will effectively deforest itself. This means that much of the remaining forest and ecosystem will die, over several decades, rendering much of the land the forest currently sits on into a desert. Much like the Sahara desert, which, like the Amazon, is believed to have been a thriving ecosystem that likewise achieved a tipping point once upon a time. 

Whilst most Latin Americans won’t feel the consequence of that breakdown immediately. By the end of the century though it would render most of the continent uninhabitable producing tens of millions of environmental refugees. Pressure will be placed on other large rainforests. Many of which are also a threat and in danger of meeting their own respective tipping points. 

Back to the professor: “The good news with that is that if this if deforestation is a more direct human action we have a more immediate chance of stopping it or holding back on deforestation” 

And we can do just that provided we act now. We have the means and have made huge advances in technology. There is an incredible shift in popular opinion and a willingness by so many around the world to deliver global conservation. Amazon conservation works and conservation in many of the largest rainforests around the world. We can change and reverse the largest rainforest being deforested, and quickly if we collectively work to get it done.  

View of the amazon across the treeline - For one tribe story why is the largest rainforest being deforested
photo credit: conservetheamazon.org

One Tribe is committed to stopping the largest rainforest being deforested 

There has been amazing work by previous administrations to protect the Amazon. However, the arrival of Bolsonaro and the Ruralistas shows how quickly a government of the day can threaten the Amazon. That’s precisely why our partner, the Rainforest Trust, with the help of benefactors, buys land. Our current focus is on 600,000 acres of land in the Peruvian rainforest. Which has been purchased and held in trust by the non-profit. 

Team’s like ours are engaged in generating awareness around such schemes, whilst working with businesses to fund the on-going conservation work and the future purchase of more lands. Such work and purchases not only protect lands, preventing exploitation from a future government or business interest. The land also is made safe and available to local indigenous, many of whom go on to protect and conserve the land. As part of an organisation called CEDIA.  Both have worked together over years on various porjects, recently protecting 3.3 million acres via the creation of a national park. It was the final piece of a 67 million-acre Amazon Conservation Corridor. Known as the Sierra del Divisor National Park. 

This tale told many times over around the world has inspired the Trust, indigenous organisations and climate action platforms like ours, to begin working in similar fashions. The third sector and businesses are finding similar and smart ways to ensure these forests are finally protected for future generations. Find out more about rainforest protection and our partners below: 

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