Conservation news

Amazon rain forest continues to fall; 200,000 square miles gone since 1978

Amazon rain forest continues to fall; 200,000 square miles gone since 1978

Amazon rain forest continues to fall; 200,000 square miles gone since 1978
Forest loss may worsen as Brazil seeks to expand agricultural production and fires threaten stressed ecosystem
Rhett Butler,
April 24, 2005

Deforestation Figures for Brazil

[sq mi]
[sq km]
1978-1988* 8158 21,130
1990 5,332 13,810
1991 4,297 11,130
1992 5,322 13,786
1993 5,950 15,410
1994 5,751 14,896
1995 11,219 29,059
1996 7,013 18,160
1997 5,034 13,040
1998 6,501 16,840
1999 6,663 17,259
2000 7,658 19,836
2001 7,027 18,130
2002 9,845 25,500
2003 9,343 24,130
2004 8,920^ 23,037^

All figures derived from official National
Institute of Space Research (INPA) figures

*For the 1978-1988 period the figures represent
the average annual rates of deforestation.
^2004 figures are incomplete, deforestation may
be as high as 9,420 sq miles (24,330 sq km).

In 2004 at least 8,920 square miles (23,037 sq km) of rainforest were cleared in the Brazilian Amazon. That’s almost 25 square miles (63 sq. kilometers) of forest lost per day and over 203,000 square miles (527,000 square kilometers) since 1978.

Worse, studies from NASA suggest that these estimates of Amazon deforestation may capture less than half of the area degraded each year by logging and accidental fire. Why is the Amazon still disappearing at these high rates?

Today deforestation in the Amazon is the result of several activities, the foremost of which include: clearing for cattle pasture, colonization and subsequent subsistence agriculture, infrastructure improvements, commercial agriculture, and logging.

Clearing for Cattle Pasture

Cattle in the Amazon

Cattle ranching is the leading cause of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. This has been the case since at least the 1970s when government figures attributed 38% of deforestation from 1966-1975 to large scale cattle ranching. However, today the situation may be even worse. According to The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), in 2003 80 percet of the growth in Brazilian cattle production was in the Amazon region.

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

Colonization and subsequent subsistence agriculture

Deforestation, Rondônia, Brazil. Right: June 1985, Left: August 1992

These photograph, showing the destruction of tropical rain forests, provides a visual indication of the rate of deforestation that is taking place in the state of Rondônia, which has been especially hard hit by deforestation. The amount of clear-cut area now exceeds the area of remaining rain forest timber stands. The solid dark green areas show the remaining tropical rain forest canopy. Two urban areas separated by a small river can be seen near the center of the photograph. Text and photo courtesy of the Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center

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 an 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. Up until at least the mid-1990s this system was worsened by the government policy that allowed each claimant to gain title for an amount of land up to three times the amount of forest cleared.

Poor farmers use slash-and-burn techniques for land clearing 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. Sometimes the agricultural fires escape into neighboring forest and burn for months during the dry season.

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 left used for small-scale cattle grazing or left as scrubland.

Between 1995 and 1998, the government granted land in the Amazon to roughly 150,000 families. 48% of forest loss in 1995 was in areas under 125 acres (50 hectares) in size, suggesting that both loggers and rural poor are significant contributors to deforestation.

Infrastructure Improvements

Deforestation, State of Rondônia, Brazil August 1992

Despite dense cloud cover along the western edge of this photograph, this synoptic view shows more than half of the total acreage in the State of Rondônia, Brazil. The discernible main northwest-southeast highway begins in the city of Pôrto Velho (under cloud cover), located along the south side of the Madeira River. Several smaller cities (areas of higher reflectivity) can be seen along the main highway; in fact, the city of Rondônia is located near the center of the photograph. The solid, darker area is tropical rain forest, with several wispy smoke palls blowing toward the north. A fairly accurate trend and rate of deforestation can be calculated by comparing photographs of an area over time. Text and photo courtesy of the Image Science and Analysis Laboratory, NASA-Johnson Space Center

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 2000-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 its 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 and resulted in massive deforestation by inexperienced farmers who didn’t understand the ecology of the region.

Satellite data in 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 substistence agriculture. Brazil and Peru have embarked on a similar road project to construct a highway that would link the new agricultural zones of the Amazon to the ports of Peru to feed growing food demand from China.

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 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. Each year Brazil is opening up an area of cropland the size of Maryland.


One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest by Wade Davis – One of the most interesting books I have ever read, this incredible work offers detailed descriptions of plants and peoples of the Amazon basin. Wade Davis weaves together history, science, and anthropology in this excellent read.

In theory, logging in the Amazon is controlled by strict licensing which only allows timber to be harvested in designated areas. However, there is significant evidence that illegal logging is quite widespread in Brazil. In recent months, Ibama – Brazil’s environmental enforcement agency – has made several large seizures of illegally harvested timber including one in September 2003 where 17 people were arrested for allegedly cutting 10,000 hectares’ worth of timber.

Logging in the Amazon is closely linked with road building. Studies by the Environmental Defense Fund show that areas that have been selectively logged are eight times more likely to be settled and cleared by shifting cultivators than untouched rainforests because of access granted by logging roads. Logging roads give colonists access to rainforest, which they exploit for fuelwood, game, building material, and temporary agricultural lands.


Today Brazil faces an enormous challenge: how to balance economic growth with the preservation of the Amazon rainforest. While the government has recently set aside some land as protected areas in response to the slaying of American nun Dorothy Stang last February, some analysts believe deforestation in the Amazon and surrounding regions will continue to escalate as the country looks to expand its exports, especially to the Far East. It’s no secret that some Brazilians envision agricultural production in the Amazon to someday exceed that of the American heartland.

Map of Amazon region