- A new report examines the “unchecked development” in the Amazon that has driven deforestation rates to near-record levels throughout the world’s largest tropical forest.
- The main drivers of deforestation vary from country to country, according to the report, a collaborative effort by the Inter-American Dialogue and the Andes Amazon Fund.
- While the causes of Amazonian forest destruction vary, one thing that is common throughout the region is a lack of adequate resources for oversight and enforcement of environmental regulations. And “signs suggest this problem is only growing,” according to the report.
A new report examines the “unchecked development” in the Amazon that has driven deforestation rates to near-record levels throughout the world’s largest tropical forest.
The main drivers of deforestation vary from country to country, according to the report, a collaborative effort by the Inter-American Dialogue and the Andes Amazon Fund. The Amazon River basin spans 2.6 million square miles across Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, and Venezuela.
“Over the last decade, deforestation rates have remained stubbornly high in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia and are rising in Brazil after a previous sharp decline,” Enrique Ortiz, program director at the Andes Amazon Fund, writes in the introduction to the report. “All countries remain significantly behind on their commitments to reduce deforestation.”
The report, titled “Nearing the Tipping Point: Drivers of Deforestation in the Amazon Region,” relies mostly on satellite data from Amazon Conservation’s Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) for its deforestation figures. The governments of each Amazonian country provide their own data on deforestation rates, but the levels of forest loss governments report are generally lower than MAAP’s data shows, “possibly due to less accurate monitoring or the use of different methodologies,” Ortiz notes.
In Brazil, home to 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest, conversion of forests to pastureland and plantations for production of agricultural commodities, especially soy, is the chief driver of deforestation. “Cattle ranching is the sector with the greatest impact on Amazon deforestation in Brazil,” writes Matt Piotrowski, a senior analyst at Climate Advisers and the report’s author. “Indeed, estimates suggest that 80% of deforestation throughout the entire Amazon stems from this industry, either directly or indirectly.”
While soy production connected to deforestation is a bigger issue in the tropical savannah region of Brazil known as the Cerrado, soy is increasingly a threat to the Amazon, Piotrowski found. Brazil overtook the United States as the largest soy producer in the world in 2017-2018, and 13 percent of the country’s soy crop is produced in the Amazon.
There are other important drivers of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon, as well: “Amid Brazil’s agricultural boom, infrastructure development — particularly of roads and railways — in connection with the increased production, transportation, export, and consumption of commodities has also led to more clearing of land, both directly and indirectly.”
Though deforestation levels in the Brazilian Amazon are still historically low compared to their peak in the early 2000s, rates of forest loss in Brazil have been trending upwards in recent years and are expected to keep climbing. The trend began under President Dilma Roussef’s administration with the weakening of Brazil’s Forest Code in 2012, which removed deforestation restrictions, loosened the permitting process, and granted amnesty for illegal deforestation that occurred prior to 2008. Roussef’s successor, Michel Temer, further reduced protections for the environment and indigenous peoples by cutting the Ministry of the Environment’s budget and slashing funding for enforcement of laws designed to protect rainforests.
“Many expect this increase in deforestation to accelerate under President Jair Bolsonaro, who is dismissive of climate change and relied heavily on the support of the bancada ruralista (the large bloc of legislators allied with agribusiness) during his campaign,” Piotrowski writes.
Agricultural expansion is also a leading cause of increasing deforestation in Peru, though illegal logging and gold mining are also driving forest loss. Some 60 percent of the land is covered by Amazon rainforest in Peru, which has the highest rates of deforestation in the Andean Amazon. “A synthesis by MAAP estimates that approximately 250,000 hectares were deforested in Peru in 2018, a decline from the previous year but still the country’s fourth-highest annual total on record,” the report states.
Small-scale coffee and cacao cultivation cause the bulk of forest loss driven by agriculture in the Peruvian Amazon, though palm oil production is responsible for “a small but rising share of deforestation.” An estimated 31,500 hectares of primary forest have been cleared for oil palm plantations in Peru since 2000, according to MAAP’s data.
Conversion for agriculture, cattle ranching, and infrastructure are to blame for deforestation in Colombia, as well, but the chief culprit there is the power vacuum created in the aftermath of the country’s 2016 peace deal. Prior to the cessation of the conflict, vast areas of Colombia’s land were controlled by armed groups like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (known by its Spanish acronym, FARC), who kept deforestation in check at least partially to maintain forest cover and protect themselves from air raids. Post-ceasefire, however, the government did not provide effective environmental oversight in these remote forest areas even as paramilitaries, members of remaining guerrilla groups, and former FARC members rushed to colonize unoccupied lands and clear forests.
“The [Colombian] government estimated that deforestation increased by 44% in the year after the agreement,” per the report. “These criminal groups continue to occupy abandoned areas and engage in illegal activities, including crop cultivation for illegal drugs, illegal mining, land-grabbing, and unregulated agricultural expansion.” Some 247,000 hectares of forest were lost in the Colombian Amazon in 2018, the highest annual rate the country has ever experienced.
Deforestation has risen sharply in Bolivia since 2001, in particular around Santa Cruz province in the south of the country. About two-thirds of the country’s total forest loss has occurred outside of the province, largely as a result of agribusiness activities like cattle ranching and soy production. Bolivia has one of the highest deforestation rates in the world, according to the report.
Bolivia has adopted “the Mother Earth Law,” which is designed to give essential rights to nature and hold individuals and companies responsible for environmental degradation, but “conservation efforts are undermined by President Evo Morales’s strategy to encourage expansion of agribusiness and ‘food sovereignty,’” Piotrowski writes in the report. “From 2017 to 2025, the country expects to clear some 5.7 million hectares of rainforest to use as farmland.”
The Ecuadorian Amazon only comprises about 2 percent of the total Amazon River basin, and deforestation rates there are lower than many other Amazonian countries. But, between 2001 and 2018, some 429,000 hectares of the Amazon were cleared in Ecuador. That makes the country responsible for nearly 10 percent of total deforestation in the Andean Amazon. Ecuador’s Orellana province, which lies in the northern Amazonian region of the country, is a hotspot of deforestation for agricultural development, while Morona Santiago province, to the south, has the country’s highest deforestation rate due to major road construction and resulting land colonization.
Palm oil production is a chief driver of deforestation in the northern Ecuadorian Amazon, MAAP’s data shows. Ecuador is the sixth-largest palm oil producer in the world and second-largest in Latin America behind only Colombia, but the government has already responded by introducing “measures to reduce deforestation related to palm oil production that could serve as a model for reducing environmental impacts of other commodities as well,” according to the report.
Oil operations have had a “modest” impact on Ecuador’s Amazonian deforestation rates, as well, Piotrowski adds. “MAAP satellite data show that within Yasuní National Park, oil exploration and production has led to slightly more than 400 hectares of deforested land,” he writes. “Although this is a relatively small area, the [Ishpingo-Tambococha-Tiputini oil field complex], a 3,800-square mile stretch of Amazonian rainforest, is one of the most biodiverse habitats in the world, home to more than 4,000 plant species and wildlife.”
While the causes of Amazonian forest destruction vary, one thing that is common throughout the region is a lack of adequate resources for oversight and enforcement of environmental regulations. And “signs suggest this problem is only growing,” Ortiz writes in the report’s introduction.
“In his first months in office, Brazil’s new president, Jair Bolsonaro, reduced the already strained budgets of national environmental and indigenous offices. In Colombia, the relinquishing of control by the [FARC] following the 2016 peace agreement with the government created a vacuum of governability now occupied by other illegal armed groups, resulting in land grabbing and significant deforestation. Weak governments and political instability in Ecuador and Peru have reduced capacity to halt deforestation and related expansion of illegal activities.”
As Ortiz notes, the clearing and burning of forests worldwide is responsible for about 25 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions. That means that protecting the Amazon, which holds 60 percent of the world’s remaining rainforests, is crucial to halting global warming. Every single Amazonian country signed the 2015 Paris Climate Agreement, thereby endorsing the goal of keeping global temperature rise “well below” 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, and pledged to reduce deforestation as part of their efforts to draw down emissions. “But current emissions data shows that these targets are far from being met as deforestation in the Amazon rises,” according to Ortiz.
What’s more, rising emissions and changing climatic conditions could trigger further deforestation. “Forest loss leads to increasingly drier conditions that could result in forest fires on a massive scale,” Ortiz writes. “More worryingly, the Amazon may be approaching a ‘tipping point.’ The basin generates approximately half of its own rainfall by recycling moisture as air masses move from the Atlantic across the basin to the west. At some point, deforestation will likely reduce this moisture cycle to a point where it will no longer support rainforest ecosystems.”
It’s possible we’re already nearing the precipice of this tipping point: “Current science indicates that the tipping point may be at 20-25% of deforestation in Amazonia — and some estimates already place deforestation to date at 20%.”
The report recommends promoting sustainable agriculture and infrastructure programs, increasing forest protection monitoring and enforcement, expanding protected areas, and strengthening reforestation efforts as means of curbing the rising deforestation rates in the Amazon.
FEEDBACK: Use this form to send a message to the author of this post. If you want to post a public comment, you can do that at the bottom of the page.