Beef drives 80% of Amazon deforestation

Rhett A. Butler,
January 29, 2009

Nearly 80 percent of land deforested in the Amazon from 1996-2006 is now used for cattle pasture, according to a report released today by Greenpeace at the World Social Forum in Belem, Brazil.

The report, Amazon Cattle Footprint: Mato Grosso: State of Destruction [PDF], confirms that cattle ranching is the primary driver of deforestation in Earth's largest rainforest: the Brazilian Amazon.

Over the past decade more than 10 million hectares – an area about the size of Iceland - was cleared for cattle ranching as Brazil rose to become the world's largest exporter of beef. Now the government aims to double the country's share of the beef export market to 60% by 2018 through low interest loans, infrastructure expansion, and other incentives for producers. Most of this expansion is expected to occur in the Amazon were land is cheap and available — 70 percent of the country's herd expansion between 2002 and 2006 occurred in the region.

The number of cattle bred in the Legal Amazon is growing fast: between 1990 and 2003, the bovine herd more than doubled, from 26.6 million to 64 million head of cattle – 60% of the herd are in the states of Mato Grosso and Pará.
Caption and image courtesy of Greenpeace's Amazon Cattle Footprint. Click image to enlarge
Recent reports suggest that much of this expansion has been illegal. Laws for maintaining a "legal forest reserve" on Amazon land are widely flouted and many landowners acquire land without proper title. Corruption is rampant in frontier areas making law enforcement ineffective and sometimes complicit in illicit activities — including illegal logging and abuse of workers — that often accompany land clearing.

Beyond the loss of habitat for wildlife, land for indigenous people, and ecosystem services, environmentalists argue that destruction of the Amazon is fueling fuel climate change. In some years as much as 75 percent of Brazil's greenhouse gas emissions result from deforestation, the vast majority of which come from Amazon forest loss. Conversion of forest land to cattle pasture results in nearly a complete loss of carbon stored in above-ground vegetation. It can also produce soil erosion, fouling waterways.

But environmentalists face a tough battle. Cattle ranchers and agribusiness (including soy farmers and owners of industrial plantations) form a powerful lobby in Brazil, especially at the state level. Many of the country's most influential politicians are linked to the industry. At the behest of these interests, over the past year the Brazilian Congress has introduced measures that would significantly curtail the capacity of environmental NGOs and scientists to operate in the Amazon.

Nevertheless there is hope on the horizon for the environmental community. A dramatic fall in the price of nearly all agricultural commodities produced in the region, coupled with the global credit crunch, will delay some of the new investment the region has seen over the past few years. Further, a new push by Brazilian government to rein in emissions from deforestation could spur conservation at a time when land prices are stagnating relative to the explosive growth of late.

Click image to enlarge
Under a plan proposed by the federal government, Brazil aims to establish a $21 billion fund to drastically reduce emissions from deforestation over the next decade. The plan calls for a mix of conservation measures, improve governance and law enforcement, and initiatives to promote sustainable use of the Amazon.

There are also emerging signs that industry is taking an interest in improving public perception of its environmental performance in Amazonia. Several new initiatives — including the ABIOVE moratorium on soy, Aliança da Terra for beef, and Pará's IDEFLOR sustainable forest program — are seeking to reduce the impact of operations on the Amazon in response to pressure from the environmental lobby.

Still the Greenpeace report calls on more aggressive measures to reduce deforestation in Brazil. It urges the federal government to reach a zero deforestation target by 2015 rather than its more modest goal to cut forest clearing to 5,586 square kilometers per year by 2015. Greenpeace says Brazil can reach zero deforestation by 2015 through stronger enforcement of its existing environmental laws, including its forest code which compels landowners to keep 80 percent of their land forested; redirecting investments that promote deforestation into sustainable development programs; increasing funding for monitoring and law enforcement; adopting a 5-year moratorium on deforestation; and supporting a strong climate protocol in Copenhagen, December 2009, that includes an international fund to Reduce Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation (REDD) that adheres to key principles on environment, transparency, and social equity.

Amazon Cattle Footprint: Mato Grosso: State of Destruction [PDF]

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More news on the Amazon


Influence of soy prices (CPI-adjusted, 12-month moving average) on deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Deforestation in the states of Mato Grosso and Para has shown a particularly strong correlation to soy prices in recent years. All figures in hectares (2.47 acres).

Soy acreage expansion in the Brazilian Amazon compared with the price of soybeans (CPI-adjusted, 12-month moving average). All figures in hectares.

Influence of soybean prices (CPI-adjusted) on deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. All figures in hectares (2.47 acres).

Influence of live cattle prices (CPI-adjusted, 12-month moving average) on deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. While nearly two-thirds of Amazon clearing can be attributed to conversion for cattle pasture, deforestation in the states of Mato Grosso and Para has shown a only a slight correlation to cattle prices in recent years. This could be due, in part, to the use of cattle pasture for land speculation (land prices are rising faster than the value of cattle) and as a hedge against inflation and currency fluctuation. All figures in hectares (2.47 acres).

The recent surge in soy and cattle prices could be driving an increase in forest fires. Annual deforestation figures for the 2007-2008 year will not be released until August of 2008, though new data for the 2007 burning season should be available by the end of the year.

Greenhouse gas emissions resulting from Land Use, Land-Use Change and Forestry (LULUCF). LULUCF includes deforestation and forest degradation. The REDD mechanism seeks to reduce these emissions by compensating tropical countries for conserving their forests.

Share of GHG emissions resulting from LULUCF in the year 2000. This chart includes on the 100 top emitting countries.

National GHG emissions from industrial sources (electricity generation, transportation, buildings, etc) and LULUCF, 2000. Note that some countries have negative emissions from LULUCF meaning they these sources are a net carbon sink. Also note that the E.U. is listed in addition to its individual member countries. Removing the E.U. from the chart results in the following change:

Rhett A. Butler, (January 29, 2009).

Beef drives 80% of Amazon deforestation.