Amazon Rainforest Deforestation Facts and Statistics
The Amazon rainforest is a humid broadleaf forest that stretches over 5,000,000 square kilometers in the Amazon Basin of South America, spanning over eight countries. Representing more than half of the planet’s remaining rainforests, it is home to 10 percent of all Earth’s biodiversity and comprises of nearly 390 billion individual trees that make up 16,000 species in the rainforest.
Unfortunately, the market forces of globalization are invading the Amazon rainforest and disaster seems inevitable. In the past 40 years, around 20 percent of the Amazon jungle has been wiped out. Since 1970s, the Brazilian Amazon rainforest lost more than 718,000 square kilometers of original forest . This destruction rate is accelerating and is much higher than in all the previous 450 years since European colonization began.
Scientists estimate that another 20 percent of the trees will disappear over the next 20 years. If that takes place, the forest’s ecosystem will turn off the balance.
As it is now, the Amazon brings half of its own rainfall from the humidity it releases into the atmosphere. When deforestation happens, the amount of rain decreases, and the remaining trees dry out. Also, taking into account that global warming is still on the rise, severe droughts will trigger wildfires that could destroy the forest on an massive scale.
Saddening facts and statistics about deforestation in the mighty Amazon rainforest
#1 Decade of deforestation
Between 1991 and 2000, an area the size of Spain was cleared out. Most of the land was converted into pasture for cattle.
#2 Cattle ranching problem
Cattle ranching is the biggest cause of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil, where nearly two thirds of the rainforest are located. The country depends upon cattle ranching as it is the largest beef exporter in the world. Clearing rainforest for cattle grazing accounts for nearly 70 percent of deforestation. Nearly half of the country’s cattle herds, which is well over 100 million farmed animals, are raised on lands of the Amazon rainforest .
#3 Severe weather destroys the rainforest
A long line of severe tropical thunderstorms hit the rainforest in 2005 and destroyed nearly half a billion trees, accounting for 30 percent of deforestation that year . The storms with strong vertical winds of 90 miles per hour uprooted many trees in its way, which also torn neighboring trees down. The damage caused by this massive storm was enormous.
#4 The year of rapid deforestation
2007 was a bad year for the rainforest loss. In just five months (!) more than 3,200 square kilometers (1,235 square miles) of forest were cut down.
#5 Land grabbing problems
Land grabbing with the aim to sell self-declared private land for profit is what lies behind the progress of deforestation into previously protected wild areas of the Amazon. Unfortunately, even the rate of expansion into indigenous territories increases since 2018.
Land grabbing means that private individuals take possession of undesignated public lands through document fraud. The process is as follows: land grabbers usually clear a selected plot of trees, sell timber, set up soy plantation or cattle grazing area for 5 or more years and then sell the plot for profit. In many cases, this action is done by individuals with many other criminal activities like money laundering .
#6 Good years for the rainforest
The deforestation rate has slowed down for a short period between 2004 and 2012. It was a glimmer of hope that could be most likely attributed to a variety of positive factors. These include extensive private sector initiatives and increased pressure from environmental groups, as well as improved law enforcement and expansion of indigenous territories. There has been even initiative to transform the cattle farming industry by specifically marketing a deforestation-free meat . The efforts seemed to be effective in stalling the destruction of the sensitive ecosystem for a short while.
#7 Deforestation rate increases again
Unfortunately, since 2013, the deforestation of the Amazon increased again with 28 percent just within one year when compared to 2012. The deforestation rate has been on the rise since then. Last year (2021) has been especially bad.
#8 The worst years during the pandemic
The year 2020 when the global pandemic made the headlines, was a year when deforestation in Amazon hit the record high once again. Just in the first four months of the year, January until April (2020), an area of 464 square miles or 1,200 square kilometers lost all tree cover, according to Brazil’s National Space Research Institute.
Continuing to 2021, Brazilian authorities reported 22 percent increase in deforestation – the highest level since 2006 .
According to satellite images, an area as big as Maryland has been newly cleared of trees.
#9 Slash and burn
Slash and burn method of the forest clearing for agriculture and settlements of expanding population has become a popular way of removing trees and preparing land for new forms of use. But paradoxically, one of the reasons why the tree removal territories are expanding is that the soil of the rainforest is not suitable for growing crops or sustaining grazing cattle.
Once stripped of the native vegetation, the soil lacks sufficient mineral content to support agricultural activities and only degrades. Farmers are forced to abandon the farming plots after a few short seasons because their crops are not thriving from these soils anyway.
#10 Destructive wildfires in the Amazon
The mighty rainforest doesn’t naturally have wildfires. Yet, in 2020, 5.4 million acres or 2.2 million hectares of standing forest in Brazil burned down. The fires were intentionally started by people, or accidentally spread because of the length of the dry season .
Igniting fires to clear land of forest for agriculture or land grabbing happens predominantly in Brazil and is often illegal. 13 percent of the large 2020 fires occurred even in protected areas of rainforest conservation and on indigenous territories, posing danger to indigenous tribes .
#11 Brazil and Bolivia have deforestation problem
Amazon rainforest stretches over eight South American countries. Brazil has the biggest part – 60 percent of the rainforest is on its territory. The biggest forest losses in the last 22 years have happened in Brazil and Bolivia, both countries losing 10 percent of the tree cover. Next are Colombia, Peru and Ecuador with around 4 percent .
#12 Endangered animals suffer more
Some of the world’s most unique animals live in the rainforest and are endangered due to the disturbance and destruction of the rainforest’s integrity. Among them are golden lion tamarins, jaguars, or South American tapirs.
#13 Climate change and the Amazon rainforest
Human activity harms the rainforest even indirectly. Changing climate with drier conditions contribute to vegetation dying and transition of the forest into savanna in its southern and eastern parts. Less rainfall makes vegetation more prone to wildfires that easier spread and alter the ecology, shifting the original habitat of the Earth’s largest rainforest.
According to scientists that measure the water content of plants in the Amazon by using satellite data, the forest has been getting drier and less resilient every year now. Trees have less leaves and are struggling when seasonal droughts hit the region.
In 2005 and 2010 the region experienced extraordinary droughts. Over half of the rainforest was drought stricken in 2010 .
#14 Greenhouse gas emissions due to deforestation
The Amazon rainforest deforestation is the largest emitter of greenhouse gasses in Brazil, accounting for 44 percent of the total emissions . Brazil currently stands as the world’s 6th largest polluter when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions and contribution to global warming.
The situation in the Amazon is getting close to a tipping point when the rainforest will sustain damage beyond its ability to recover. This would mean further release of large concentration of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.
#15 Rainforest emits carbon dioxide
Due to the wildfires and vegetation cover changes in the last couple years, some parts of the rainforest already emit more carbon dioxide than they absorb. This affects especially the southeastern part that is also a recent hotspot of deforestation.
#16 Timber trafficking from the rainforest
Most of the timber coming from many countries with the Amazon rainforest is illegally logged. This includes even protected tree species or some of the oldest standing trees that are often exported to the market in the United States or China with forged documents.
Illegally trafficked timber comes especially from Peru, Colombia and Bolivia. The timber trafficking industry in Colombia is worth more than $750 million a year and often originates from the Indigenous territories, putting lives of indigenous people at risk due to the criminal activity .
#17 Illegal logging of protected trees
Two protected tree species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Flora and Fauna (CITES), cedar and bigleaf mahogany, are illegally exported for timber especially from Peru. It has been found that one third of these trees that are being sold to the market in the United States come from illegal sources.
#18 Shihuahuaco tree is threatened by deforestation
The mighty and robust in silhouette is the Amazonian shihuahuaco tree. This is one of the trees that are heading towards extinction if their logging will not stop. Unfortunately, it is specifically this tree that is sought by illegal loggers in many parts of the Amazon. Due to it’s large size and wood qualities, the price of shihuahuaco timber is tempting for many loggers. It has been estimated that 74 shihuahuaco trees have been cut every day throughout the 10 year period in the Peruvian Amazon .
#19 Logging in protected areas
During a special investigation of the timber origin, the authorities found that over 80 percent of timber from Peru comes from areas where logging is prohibited . Unfortunately, in most cases, the documents provided by logging companies are forged, giving false location details.
The primary causes of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest
This overview is only a brief description of what happens in the Amazon rainforest. The situation is complex with many factors at play, deforestation causes often overlap or encourage more destruction of this unique ecosystem.
What is happening in the largest rainforest on the Earth is not transparent and is extremely hard to control. However, the most significant causes of deforestation that have been identified to this day are listed in the following paragraphs.
Cattle ranching in the Amazon
The most significant sources of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest are conversion of land for industrial agriculture and livestock raising. Brazil is the world’s leading country in the beef meat production, accounting for nearly 20 percent of the global beef export.
According to data from Amnesty International, between 1988 to 2014, 63 percent of the rainforest’s deforested area is used to extensive cattle raising, which is an area equivalent to five times the size of Portugal .
Large numbers of animals are raised in the Amazon, on freshly grabbed lands, on indigenous protected lands, or long-time deforested patches.
The situation is dire, as ginormous agri-business companies often own large herds of hundreds of animals, that are allowed to freely roam and graze even in areas of environmental protection or on indigenous territories where whole villages of people that have lived in the rainforest long before the cattle herders came, are being threatened and forced to abandon their homes. Nearly 300,000 cattle were found grazing in protected areas and on Indigenous lands in the state of Rondônia in November 2018 .
The sanctions against the illegal cattle business do not affect these giant corporations that much as missing on their beef production, which even has growing global demand.
Cattle ranching is strongly linked to illegal land grabbing practices in many parts of the Amazon and is powered by the weak land ownership rights and their enforcement by authorities.
Soy and oil palm plantations & corn crops for livestock feed
In recent years, Brazil has experienced a fast growth in international demand for their agricultural produce. Their top produce, soybeans, corn or palm oil, are exported in large numbers to China for chicken and pig feed.
You can see giant farms and endless plantations of monocrops in some farming regions on the edge of the currently standing rainforest. Mato Grosso is one of the regions where industrial agricultural with genetically modified high-production crops rules the livelihoods . Yet, just a few decades ago, these were the lands where the rainforest ecosystem guided the dynamics.
Thousands of hectares of land have been deforested since 1970s to make way for the farming industry. But the situation is getting worse since 2019 with China’s demand for feed crops. Soy crops have become very lucrative and large swaths of land is converted into soy plantations, especially lands that have been previously used for cattle rearing. This drives cattle ranchers farther into the rainforest, where they deforest more land for their cattle. Mato Grosso experienced 27 percent more deforestation between the summer of 2020 and 2021 .
In 2015, the Environmental Investigation Agency published a report with alarming findings that the Peruvian parts of the Amazon rainforest had been illegally deforested to spreading palm oil production. The Brazilian government has been providing incentives for oil palm cultivation in recent years, which only raises more pressure on the land availability and productivity in the Amazonia.
Hydropower and river damming
The Amazon River basin with its tributaries has experienced a fast development of hydropower structures along with a construction of large dams that inundate hectares of the rainforest and original indigenous territories. Nearly 75 percent of the Brazil’s energy is produced by hydroelectricity . Many new hydropower plants are under construction or planned to start.
New dams on major rivers in the Amazon are planned as well, dams that will cover hundreds of square miles of land, wiping off the trees and changing the river ecosystem.
Some dams like a water reservoir at Balbina on the Uatumã River in the Amazon Rainforest, Brazil, flooded over 1,200 square miles of original forest and over the Waimiri Atroari Indigenous Territory, driving the original inhabitants away from their homeland . The whole hydropower project has been controversial due to these reasons and the fact that it actually emits high amounts of greenhouse gasses, carbon dioxide and methane, from the flooded decomposing vegetation.
A hydropower complex of multiple reservoirs on the Tapajós river has been planned in the last couple years. This project would have disastrous consequences for the surrounding environment and people. The project is so large that it involves flooding of 42 square miles of the Amazonia and Juruena National Parks, and nearly 100 square miles of the Itaituba National Forests .
The deforestation that follows the hydropower construction projects does not only comprise of trees lost due to reservoir structure. Areas around the reservoirs are deforested to make space for infrastructure and settlements, new roads are built to the site, clearing more forest around and additionally, newly accessible regions of the rainforest invite land grabbers and cattle ranchers.
Mining, minerals, oil, and gas extraction
Mining activities for gold, diamonds, iron ore, oil, gas and other minerals, are responsible for deforestation and road building (which encourages more deforestation) in parts of the rainforest that have rich deposits. According to satellite images, 10 percent of deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon between 2005 and 2015 was due to large scale mines and their accompanying infrastructure, including housing for workers, railroads, and airstrips .
The scale of deforestation linked to mining is even greater than that because of the secondary use of wood. For example, smelting facilities for pig iron processing use charcoal from wood that is often sourced from illegally logged areas.
Mining is dangerous not only due to the direct impacts of bulldozered open pits and tailing ponds, but because of the secondary effects it has on the ecosystem as well. Besides large swaths of land from where topsoil was removed, any form of mining leaves behind pollution. For example, in gold processing is used mercury which bioaccumulates in tissues of living organisms.
Soils left behind mining activities are stripped of essential nutrients like nitrogen, that are crucial for supporting plant life. Former mining sites are often barren without vegetation for many years after they had been abandoned. Without revitalization, these lands just become wastelands and cannot be used for different purposes or reclaimed by the rainforest species, they just keep eroding away and polluting bordering areas. But revitalization projects are costly and even when the law mandates mining operators to revitalize former mining sites, they do not comply with the requirement.
Another danger for the Amazon are large oil and gas deposits. Some deposits are already being drilled, like those in the national park Yasuní in Ecuador – the extracted oil is exported to the United States and sold especially in California . Other oil and gas projects are actively planned. One of them involves the last untouched part of the rainforest in Brazil. It is an area without roads, still wild and natural, home to thousands of species, rich in plant and animal biodiversity. The drilling project would fragment this environment and open the path to deforestation.
Legal and illegal timber logging
High global demand for timber is a lucrative opportunity for legal and illegal logging in the remote areas of the Amazon. These places are often out of the sight and do not have clearly defined ownership. In many cases, loggers disrespect indigenous territories and threaten lives of people who have birth rights to have settlements in the rainforest and manage natural resources in their traditional way.
On these vulnerable territories, large scale logging operations and land grabbing practices often happen. By the time authorities come to investigate what is happening and whether loggers have legal permits, the forest is usually fell down and timber is being processed and sold to the international market – it’s a multimillion-dollar industry with big power and global connections. Illegally trafficked trees from the Amazon rainforest make it to markets in China and the United States.
Additional issue arises from a lack of joint strategies between the eight countries that share the rainforest. Each country has its own legislation regarding the logging and monitoring of exported timber. Even the documentation required by the authorities differs and doesn’t request tree species details, which makes it very hard to keep track of tree origins and accompanying data that would be needed to ensure sustainable timber production.
Most trees from the Amazon are sold to Mexico from where they are distributed further. Mexico doesn’t have legal enforcement for sale of illegal timber, which opens up a route of opportunity for timber trafficking.
As a rule of thumb, logging starts along newly built roads, follows rivers or spreads from deforested lands for other purposes.
Once you build a road crossing through the forest, like a crack in the glass, it tends to spread in all directions and split forest into fragmented isles of habitat vulnerable to exploitation. The unpaved 4,260 km (2,647 miles) long Trans-Amazonian highway crosses through the heart of Amazon.
The original purpose of the highway, which was built in 1970s, was to open up the opportunity for farming the wild and inaccessible lands of the Amazonia, and creating a connecting road that would allow transport of agricultural produce from a port town in the east of Brazil to Peru.
But the years that followed turn to be a disaster for the rainforest. Since the highway appeared, deforestation patches along the road started to appear with ever-increasing frequency, and from them even little hidden paths into the forest to more illegal logging plots. Nowadays, vast areas of land along the road are far from what a rainforest should look like. They are pastures for cattle, plantations, sawmills or gold mining sites. In miles and miles, no jungle with dense vegetation overlooks the trucks that make their way down the road.
Will the Amazon rainforest survive?
With 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest located in Brazil, the country has a tough challenge to decrease deforestation. Because of its need of economic development and international debt payments, compensating the loggers in order to preserve the Amazon rainforest would require a large amount of money and also a radical change in the world’s market system.
On top of that illegal logging makes all these environmental efforts even harder to achieve. In 2014, Brazilian authorities announced the arrest of a criminal network considered to be responsible for most of the illegal deforestation in the Amazon.
In the first week of the following month after the arrests, the deforestation rate in the region has dropped from 34 square kilometers per week to zero.
To stop the destruction of the Amazon and improve the standard of life for those who live there, we need to adopt at individual level a wide range of sustainable initiatives and control our consumption.