Impacts and Causes of Deforestation in the Amazon Basin

Derick Lind

May 6, 2010

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The Brazilian Amazon region is an unique area. It holds the world's largest rainforest (Butler 2009b). This area is the one of the highly deforested areas in the world (Butler 2009a). Some reasons for this are widespread agricultural and logging purposes. Deforestation is highest in the Mato Grosso, Rondonia, and Para regions because of the soybean industry and biofuels movement (Butler 2009b). The vast majority of deforestation occurred after 1960 from road building and other activities (Butler 2009b). Government agencies and the World Wildlife Federation (WWF) and others are working to make the area not as deforested (WWF 2010). Natives are having trouble keeping their land in tact and there are issues with violence (Butler 2009b). Without the Brazilian Amazon Basin, there would be less plant and animal species in the environment. In order for less deforestation to occur, people have to reduce their consumption of cattle, wood products, and urge politicians and businesses to not support actions that further deforest the Amazon Basin. To help solve the problem, click on my get involved link and send a letter to the people listed.  Figure 2 shows the impacts of deforestation by cattle ranching.  

Figure 2. Brazilian Amazon being used for cattle ranching (NSF 2010).


The Amazon Basin is a unique ecological and geological area (The Amazon 2008a). The basin area is made up of two different shields that are 1000 meters high. The shields are the Brazilian Shield and the Guiana Shield (The Amazon 2008a). The average annual deforestation in Brazil is 3,500,000 hectares annually (Figure 3 Butler 2009a) The Brazilian Amazon is being deforested for five reasons: clearing for cattle pastures, colonization and subsistence agriculture, infrastructure improvements, commercial agriculture and logging (Butler 2009b Figure 4).

Figure 3. Average Annual Deforestation rates (Butler 2009a).

Figure 4.  Types of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon (Butler 2009b).

Until 1970, there were not many roads that went into the basin area (The Amazon 2008b). Since then, 20% of the forest has been cut down (Wallace 2007). Governmental policies changed and they decided to build roads to make the area accessible (The Amazon 2008b). There are over 105,000 miles of road, most of them were made illegally (Wallace 2007). When this happened, cattle ranchers and other farmers decided to come to the area and set up  operations (The Amazon 2008b). The most significant cause of deforestation is cattle ranching (Butler 2009b). The beef market in Brazil is one of the biggest industries (Butler 2009b). Reasons why this is huge is that real estate prices have declined, beef prices have doubled, and government incentives to expand the industry make it worthwhile to start within the industry (Butler 2009b). From 1995 to 1998, the government gave land to 150,000 families of under 125 acres in size. This shows that the action on a small scale with many people engaging in the activity is having widespread effects (Butler 2009b).

Road building has its impacts too. Access via roads gives people and heavy machinery access into places nobody has thought of (Butler 2009b). The development of  the Brazil Trans-Amazonian Highway would have been disastrous (Figure 5). This was a 2,000 mile road into the forest which would have allowed for massive rail transport. Also, this was designed to move people to more rural locations (Butler 2009b). Although some smaller scaled road building has occurred there, huge projects discussed above have been opposed and have gone nowhere (Butler 2009b).


Figure 5. The Brazil Trans-Amazonian Highway and deforestation throughout the forest (Hay 2006).   

Industry within the Amazon

Many different cash crops exist in the Amazon Basin such as coconuts, oranges, coffee, and palm oil (The Amazon 2008b). Also, cattle production and agriculture are industry motivators (Butler 2009b). Commercial agriculture is another problem which has contributed to deforestation efforts. Soybeans are widespread in the area (Butler 2009b). Brazil is the biggest exporter of soybeans and high prices for them has increased demand for Brazil to produce more (Butler 2009b). Producing more soybeans increases deforestation not only by that industry, but also by increased road building, infrastructure requirements, and more demand. As can be seen in Figure 6, deforestation is high in Mato Grosso because they are a high exporter of soybeans (Butler 2009b). Also, the land is being burned in these regions to make room for agriculture which is significantly contributing to greenhouse gases (Wallace 2007). Cellulosic ethanol is also obtained from the Brazilian Amazon region (Butler 2009b).

The Beef and the Cattle industry is growing too. Currently fresh beef is not exported from Brazil to the United States because of concerns of foot and mouth disease (Meat Trade News Daily 2010). Only canned and fully cooked meat, mainly for the fast food industry is obtained from Brazil (Meat Trade News Daily 2010). This is expected to change in 2011, when the ban may be lifted. Last year, 184.9 million pounds of beef  were exported from Brazil. Currently, as of January 2010, exports were at 11.4 million pounds. The same time in 2009, exports were at 20.7 million pounds. The United States Government is working with the Brazilian Government  

Figure 6. Amazon Deforestation by State in Brazil (Butler 2009c).


Loss of the Forest

Figure 7. Deforestation rates in square kilometers (Butler 2009b).

The annual loss of forest cover is 27,000 square kilometers (WWF 2010). This is bigger than the size of the State of Vermont which is 24,923 square kilometers (Dimensions Guide, 2010). Further loss to the forest can happen from reduced rainfall (WWF 2010). Infrastructure improvements have helped industry access more forestlands and ship beef to the dinner table. Land ownership laws are near to nonexistent, meaning a person can simply place a claim on the land by clearing very little of the land and placing a few head of cattle there (Butler 2009b). Deforestation peaked in 1995, then decreased, and increased in 2004-2005 and with the current economic downturn, decreased once again (Butler 2009b, Figure 7). Figure 4 shows the types of deforestation that are occurring. Since the 1970's when chainsaws were widely used, logging practices have increased steadily (The Amazon 2008b).  As a result of deforestation within the Amazon, there has been a lot of violence amongst the people within the area (Butler 2009b).

Logging is strictly licensed in the region, however it happens illegally on a widespread basis (Butler 2009b). Timber is only supposed to be harvested in designated areas (Butler 2009b) Logging directly accounts for two to three percent of deforestation action (Figure 4. Butler 2009b). To crack down on the deforestation, Brazil is putting more people out in the forests to monitor activities (MSNBC 2008). Additionally, the government will try to fine agencies which buy or use products that came from deforested land (MSNBC 2008). Electronic logging certificates are now being instituted to reduce fraudulent certificates which are causing widespread deforestation (Wallace 2007). The worst deforestation is occurring in Mato Grosso, Para and Rondonia (MSNBC 2008) (Figure 6). In 2003, 17 people were arrested for illegally cutting down 10,000 hectares of timber (Butler 2009b).

The Impacts of Deforestation

The impacts due to deforestation are significant. When the land is deforested, the loss of the forest cover exists. When this happens, soils can become eroded when widespread rain events occur. This causes the soils to move downwind and eventually cause significant damage to occur.

Deforestation leads to loss of forest cover. This causes the land to erode when rain events occur, which causes the land to flood causing widespread issues for people including loss of land, home and even life (Butler 2009b). Global climate change is not helping this problem as the variance between dry and wet periods is becoming less predictable (Butler 2009b).

Deforesting the Amazon is good for the soy, timber and biofuel industry because there is lots of potential for money to be made; however, it is not so good for the people who live in the region. The gain from harvesting the timber is only in the terms of immediate cash compensation. After that, the logger will have to wait for more trees to mature, which is not good for the forest, or the loggers profit margin (Innes 1996). Also, it leads to less biodiversity in plant and animal species. With less forest cover and protection for the animals, the amount of them is sure to decrease (Innes 1996).

With less forest cover, there are less natural filters for water to become drinkable. This leads to dirtier, more contaminated water (Innes 1996). Tropical rainforests represent seven percent of all earths land, however the hold over 50% of the worlds plant and animal species (Lindsey 2007). Millions of indigenous people are displaced by the deforestation (Lindsey 2007).


 Future of the Brazilian Amazon

Figure 8. Large scale timber (NSF 2010).

The future of the Brazilian Amazon is still very much at risk. Most of the deforestation has occurred since 1960, when military and government polices in the region influenced it. Clearing of lands still happens. Logging the land is a key component in land use. Outright clear cutting is rare, but large scale timber harvesting is a component in deforesting the lands (Butler 2008)(Figure 8). The land rush occurred in the 1970's when the military decided to institute a policy on the land of use it or lose it (Wallace 2007). Hunting does not involve deforestation within itself, however, hunting increases where there are logging roads, timber company camps and mining areas (Butler 2008)(Figure 9). Products that are huge in the area include crude oil, gas, palm oil, vegetable oil, and cellulosic ethanol to name a few (Butler 2008). With the revolution in alternative energies, there will be more widespread demand for palm oils and cellulosic ethanol. Blairo Maggi, governor of  Mato Grosso is known as a person for deforesting the Amazon for soy production. He is a farmer and believes that clearing the forest is no big deal (Wallace 2007). Maggi is also known as the "King of Soy" and has been given the Golden Chain Saw Award by Greenpeace multiple times for his efforts in supporting deforestation efforts (Wallace 2007). However, others believe that Maggi has done good by cultivating the land and using it for something useful (Wallace 2007). 

Figure 9. Roads and camps into the Brazilian Amazon (NSF 2010).

What other groups are doing there

Many groups are working in the Brazilian Amazon to preserve the forest. The World Wildlife Federation (WWF) is committed to working with the people within the area to preserve the forests (WWF 2010). The continuation of all the types of deforestation is threatening the future of the area (WWF 2010). WWF is working with community members, government agencies, and private business to preserve the diversity of the area through educating people on the use of the natural resource and sustainable management and ensuring environmental and social standards are met.

In conjunction with the Brazilian Government, WWF, Brazilian Biodiversity fund, German Development Bank, Global Environment Facility and World Bank, they are working on ten year project, which started in 2002 to increase awareness of the problems in the area (WWF 2010). Additionally, millions of hectares of land is being set aside to be saved as protected area (WWF 2010).

How indigenous people are dealing with the issues

Issues regarding the deforestation are really hard on the indigenous people of the area. The Amazon Basin has been the site of violence for many years. Conflicts amongst large landowners, cattle ranchers, natives, and others have been quite significant (Butler 2009b). Land battles have reached their highest levels in 2004 when there were 1,801 complaints (Butler 2009b). To solve these problems, the government of Brazil has promised to send in armies to curb the violence (Butler 2009b). Slavery was abolished in Brazil in 1988 (Butler 2009b). However, it still exists significantly and it can be considered that at least 25,000 slaves work in the forest clearing land, and performing various farm labor duties.

United States President Barack Hussein Obama's Stance on Brazilian Deforestation

Figure 10. U.S. President Barack Hussein Obama (OSI Speaks 2009).

According to White House press releases President Obama (Figure 10) is committed to preventing further damage by carbon emissions and by deforesting the Amazon. The United States is working closely with the people of  Norway on their plan with the Brazilians to curb the deforestation and plant new trees (The White House 2009). These issues were discussed at the climate change summit in Copenhagen in December 2009. Norway Prime Minister Stoltenberg and President Obama are committed to doing whatever it takes to prevent Amazon deforestation and to restore the Amazon Basin to its original state (The White House 2009). Also, The United States has been working with Brazil to prevent further deforestation and to enforce rules and regulations in the region (The White House 2009). 

There are some opposing viewpoints to the policy stated by the White House. President Barack Obama (Figure 10), according to Payne 2008 is committed to Brazilian deforestation efforts.  He is committed to this because of the increasing federal policies for bio-fuels. Deforestation is set to keep on pace in this region (Payne 2008). In America, the policy is to keep using bio-fuels and in the Brazilian Amazon, there are many different plant and tree species which contain ethanol, which is much needed for use in the race for alternative energy. 

Get Involved 

Write a letter to these people and tell them where you stand when it comes to deforestation in the Amazon Basin. 

Click Here to send a letter to President Obama to tell him to stop supporting alternative energies which rely on destroying the Brazilian Amazon.

Click Here to send a letter to the CEO of Chevron and tell them to stop obtaining their bio-fuels from the Brazilian Amazon.

Click Here to send a letter to the CEO of General Motors and tell them to stop using the Brazilian Amazon as a place to make their operations in America look good.


Every year, the size of The State of Vermont is being deforested in Brazil. The indigenous people of Brazil are losing their sacred lands, which is causing heartache for the people. With additional deforestation comes more issues; land erosion, increased or decreased flooding, and with global warming in the mix, these issues are significantly becoming increasingly significant. However, it can be argued that deforestation is positive to the overall economic climate of the region because it provides revenues and jobs. The economy is important, however keeping the area in tact keeps this precious and rare ecosystem going which is important to everybody's well being.  Everybody across the globe needs to do their part to reduce the deforestation by not buying products which are made from materials in the region, and being mindful of the regional habitats. With everybody working together and cooperating with one another, the Brazilian Amazon will once again become forested.



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