"I've now flown probably somewhere between 700,000 and 800,000 kilometers in the state and seen what seems like the whole thing deforested in 12 years. On the ground it can be even worse. Our neighbor one time tore down 12,000 acres of forest in three months. We couldn't see for about four weeks when he burned the residual–the smoke was so thick. During the burning season in the Amazon it's like this all over. You can't describe it unless you've been there and seen it. You can't see the sun at mid day and have to drive with your headlights on. It was terrible." ~John Cain Carter, 6/7/2007

Q: What is so important about the rainforest?
A: Tropical rainforests take in vast quantities of carbon dioxide (a poisonous gas) and through the process of photosynthesis, converts it into clean, breathable oxygen. If the Amazon region were a country, it would be the ninth largest on earth. Covering more than 1 billion acres (2/5 of the South American continent), the vast Amazon rainforest crowns nine nations: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, French Guiana, Guyana, Peru, Suriname and Venezuela. The most bioactively diverse region on the planet, the Amazon is our greatest natural resource. Because it continuously recycles carbon dioxide into oxygen, the forest has been dubbed the "lungs" of the earth. The Amazon, in fact, produces more than 20% of the oxygen we breathe.

Q: How big is the rainforest now?
A: Tropical rainforests cover just 2% of the earth's land surface. What’s truly amazing is that they are home to two-thirds of all the living species on the planet. Nonetheless, commerce has swallowed up 57% of the world's rain forests. Only 40% of the Amazon remains, and that's disappearing at an alarming rate.

Q: What is happening to the rainforest?
A: In many tropical countries, the majority of deforestation results from the actions of poor subsistence cultivators. However, in Brazil only about one-third of recent deforestation can be linked to "shifted" cultivators. A large portion of deforestation in Brazil can be attributed to land clearing for pastureland by commercial and speculative interests, misguided government policies, inappropriate World Bank projects, and commercial exploitation of forest resources. For effective action it is imperative that these issues be addressed. Focusing solely on the promotion of sustainable use by local people would neglect the most important forces behind deforestation in Brazil.

Brazilian deforestation is strongly correlated to the economic health of the country: the decline in deforestation from 1988-1991 nicely matched the economic slowdown during the same period, while the rocketing rate of deforestation from 1993-1998 paralleled Brazil's period of rapid economic growth. During lean times, ranchers and developers do not have the cash to rapidly expand their pasturelands and operations, while the government lacks funds to sponsor highways and colonization programs and grant tax breaks and subsidies to forest exploiters.

A relatively small percentage of large landowners clear vast sections of the Amazon for cattle pastureland. Large tracts of forest are cleared and sometimes planted with African savanna grasses for cattle feeding. In many cases, especially during periods of high inflation, land is simply cleared for investment purposes. When pastureland prices exceed forest land prices (a condition made possible by tax incentives that favor pastureland over natural forest), forest clearing is a good hedge against inflation.

Such favorable taxation policies, combined with government subsidized agriculture and colonization programs, encourage the destruction of the Amazon. The practice of low taxes on income derived from agriculture and tax rates that favor pasture over forest overvalues agriculture and pastureland and makes it profitable to convert natural forest for these purposes when it normally would not be so.

Deforestation in the Brazillian Amazon, 1988-2007

Q: What are the causes of deforestation?
A: Cattle ranches 60-70%
Small-scale, subsistence agriculture 30-40%
Large-scale, commercial agriculture 1-2%
Logging, legal and illegal 2-4%
Fires, mining, urbanization, road construction, dams 2-4%
Selective logging and fires that burn under the forest canopy commonly result in forest degradation, not deforestation. Therefore these factor less in overall deforestation figures.

Causes of Deforestation in the Amazon, 2000-2005

The above pie chart showing deforestation in the Amazon by cause is based on the median figures for estimate ranges. Please note the low estimate for large-scale agriculture. Between 2000-2005 soybean cultivation resulted in a small overall percentage of direct deforestation. Nevertheless the role of soy is quite significant in the Amazon. As explained by Dr. Philip Fearnside, "Soybean farms cause some forest clearing directly. But they have a much greater impact on deforestation by consuming cleared land, savanna, and transitional forests, thereby pushing ranchers and slash-and-burn farmers ever deeper into the forest frontier. Soybean farming also provides a key economic and political impetus for new highways and infrastructure projects, which accelerate deforestation by other actors."

Clearing for Cattle Pasture

Cattle ranching is the leading cause of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. This has been the case since at least the 1970s: government figures attributed 38 percent 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), "between 1990 and 2001 the percentage of Europe's processed meat imports that came from Brazil rose from 40 to 74 percent" and by 2003 "for the first time ever, the growth in Brazilian cattle production—80 percent of which was in the Amazon—was largely export driven."

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

* CURRENCY DEVALUATION—The devaluation of the Brazilian real against the dollar effectively doubled the price of beef in reals and created an incentive for ranchers to expand their pasture areas at the expense of the rainforest. The weakness of the real also made Brazilian beef more competitive on the world market [CIFOR].
* CONTROL OVER FOOT-AND-MOUTH DISEASE—The eradication of foot-and-mouth disease in much of Brazil has increased price and demand for Brazilian beef.
* INFRASTRUCTURE—Road construction gives developers and ranchers access to previously inaccessible forest lands in the Amazon. Infrastructure improvements can reduce the costs of shipping and packing beef.
* INTEREST RATES—Rainforest lands are often used for land speculation purposes. When real pasture land prices exceed real forest land prices, land clearing is a good hedge against inflation. At times of high inflation, the appreciation of cattle prices and the stream of services (milk) they provide may outpace the interest rate earned on money left in the bank.
* LAND TENURE LAWS—In Brazil, colonists and developers can gain title to Amazon lands by simply clearing forest and placing a few head of cattle on the land. As an additional benefit, cattle are a low-risk investment relative to cash crops which are subject to wild price swings and pest infestations. Essentially cattle are a vehicle for land ownership in the Amazon.

Colonization and subsequent subsistence agriculture

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 a usufruct right) to continue using a piece of land by living on a plot of unclaimed public land (no matter how marginal the 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 fire for clearing land 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. 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 used for small-scale cattle grazing or left for waste.

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

Infrastructure Improvements

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 2,000-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 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.

The project was plagued from the start. The sediments of the Amazon Basin rendered the highway unstable and subject to inundation during heavy rains, blocking traffic and leaving crops to rot. Harvest yields for peasants were dismal since the forest soils were quickly exhausted, and new forest had to be cleared annually. Logging was difficult due to the widespread distribution of commercially valuable trees. Rampant erosion, up to 40 tons of soil per acre (100 tons/ha) occurred after clearing. Many colonists, unfamiliar with banking and lured by easy credit, went deep into debt.

Adding to the economic and social failures of the project, are the long-term environmental costs. After the construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, Brazilian deforestation accelerated to levels never before seen and vast swaths of forest were cleared for subsistence farmers and cattle-ranching schemes. The Trans-Amazonian Highway is a prime example of the environmental havoc that is caused by road construction in the rainforest.

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 in 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.

Philip Fearnside, co-author of a report in Science [21-May-04] and member of Brazil's National Institute for Amazonian Research in Manaus, explains, "Soybean farms cause some forest clearing directly. But they have a much greater impact on deforestation by consuming cleared land, savanna, and transitional forests, thereby pushing ranchers and slash-and-burn farmers ever deeper into the forest frontier. Soybean farming also provides a key economic and political impetus for new highways and infrastructure projects, which accelerate deforestation by other actors."

Satellite data from 2004 shows 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 subsistence agriculture.


In theory, logging in the Amazon is controlled by strict licensing which allows timber to be harvested only in designated areas. However, there is significant evidence that illegal logging is quite widespread in Brazil. In recent years, Ibama—Brazil's environmental enforcement agency—has made several large seizures of illegally harvested timber including one in September 2003 when 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.

Other causes of forest loss in Brazil

Historically, hydroelectric projects have flooded vast areas of Amazon rainforest. The Balbina dam flooded some 2,400 square kilometers (920 square miles) of rainforest when it was completed. Phillip Fearnside, a leading expert on the Amazon, calculated that in the first three years of its existence, the Balbina Reservoir emitted 23,750,000 tons of carbon dioxide and 140,000 tons of methane, both potent greenhouse gases which contribute to global climate change.

Mining has impacted some parts of the Amazon Basin. During the 1980s, over 100,000 prospectors invaded the state of Para when a large gold deposit was discovered, while wildcat miners are still active in the state of Roraima near the Venezuelan border. Typically, miners clear forest for building material, fuelwood collection, and subsistence agriculture.


Virtually all forest clearing, by small farmer and plantation owner alike, is done by fire. Though these fires are intended to burn only limited areas, they frequently escape agricultural plots and pastures and char pristine rainforest, especially in dry years like 2005. Many of the fires set for clearing forest for these purposes are set during the three-month burning season and the smoke produced creates widespread problems across the region, including airport closings and hospitalizations from smoke inhalation. These fires cover a vast area of forest. In 1987 during a four-month period (July-October), about 19,300 square miles (50,000 sq. km) of Brazilian Amazon were burned in the states of Parà, Rondonia, Mato Grosso, and Acre. The burning produced carbon dioxide containing more than 500 million tons of carbon, 44 million tons of carbon monoxide, and millions of tons of other particles and nitrogen oxides. An estimated 20 percent of fires that burn between June and October cause new deforestation, while another 10 percent is the burning of ground cover in virgin forests.

Fires and climate change are having a dramatic impact on the Amazon. Recent studies suggest that the Amazon rainforest may be losing its ability to stay green all year long as forest degradation and drought make it dangerously flammable. Scientists say that as much as 50 percent of the Amazon could go up in smoke should fires continue. Humidity levels were the lowest ever recorded in the Amazon in 2005.

Q: What is Carbon Dioxide?
Carbon dioxide (CO2) is emitted in a number of ways. It is emitted naturally through the carbon cycle and through human activities like the burning of fossil fuels.

Natural sources of CO2 occur within the carbon cycle where billions of tons of atmospheric CO2 are removed from the atmosphere by oceans and growing plants, also known as ‘sinks,’ and are emitted back into the atmosphere annually through natural processes also known as ‘sources.’ When in balance, the total carbon dioxide emissions and removals from the entire carbon cycle are roughly equal.

Since the Industrial Revolution in the 1700’s, human activities, such as the burning of oil, coal and gas, and deforestation, have increased CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere. In 2005, global atmospheric concentrations of CO2 were 35% higher than they were before the Industrial Revolution.

Q: How is the rainforest linked to world-wide ‘greenhouse effect’?
A: Even experts disagree on the significance of the greenhouse effect. One thing is for sure: we will always need the oxygen the rainforest produces. Experts have determined that one Rainforest Tile™ (1/8-acre) absorbs about 183 lbs. of carbon dioxide (CO2) per year. Conversely, burning of the world’s rainforest accounts for 20-25% of the CO2 emitted into the atmosphere by man.

Q: How is the rainforest linked to medicine?
A: Nearly half of all medicinal compounds used daily come from plants endemic to the tropical rainforest. If a cure for cancer or AIDS is to be found, there is a better then 50% chance it will involve the rainforest. 70% of the plant species identified by the US National Cancer Institute as holding anti-cancer properties come from rainforests.

Q: How many of the rainforest plants have been studied so far?
A: 90% of the rainforest plants used by Amazonian Indians as medicines have not been examined by modern science. Of the few rainforest plant species that have been studied by modern medicine, treatments have been found for childhood leukemia, breast cancer, high blood pressure, asthma and scores of other illnesses.

Q: How fast is the rainforest being destroyed?
A: 1.5 acres are lost every second. Experts estimate that if present rates of destruction continue, half of the remaining rainforests will be gone by 2025, and by 2060 no rainforest will remain.

Every second . . . we lose an area the size of two football fields!
Every minute . . . we lose an area 29 times the size of the Pentagon!
Every hour . . . we lose an area 684 times larger than the New Orleans Superdome!
Every day . . . we lose an area larger than all five boroughs of New York City!
Every week . . . we lose an area twice the size of Rhode Island!
Every month . . . we lose an area the size of Belize!
Every year . . . we lose an area more than twice the size of Florida!

Q: Can't you plant tress on the already cleared areas and allow the rainforest a chance to "come back"?
A: The vast majority of deforested land in Amazonia becomes cattle pasture which, by the time it has degraded to the point where it is abandoned to secondary vegetation, has left the soil compacted, biologically impoverished, and depleted of basic nutrients.


• There are more fish species in the Amazon river than in the entire Atlantic Ocean.
• A single rainforest reserve in Peru is home to more species of birds than the entire United States.
• At least 1/3 of the planet’s bird species live in the Amazon rainforest.
• 37% of all medicines prescribed in the US have active ingredients derived from rainforest plants.
• 70% of the plant species identified by the US National Cancer Institute as holding anti-cancer properties come from rainforests.
• 90% of the rainforest plants used by Amazonian Indians as medicines have not yet been examined by modern science.
• Of the few rainforest plant species that have been studied by modern medicine, treatments have been found for childhood leukemia, breast cancer, high blood pressure, asthma, and scores of other illnesses.
• Birds in your backyard winter in the Amazon rainforest. Where will they go when their habitat there disappears?
• Just 2.5 acres of rainforest absorbs one ton of harmful carbon dioxide per year.
• The clearing and burning of the world’s rainforest accounts for 20-25% of the harmful carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere by man. It therefore could play a significant role in any so called "greenhouse effect" underway in our atmosphere.
• Almost half of the world’s original four billion acres of rainforest are now gone. The lost area equals the combined size of Washington, Idaho, California, Nevada and Arizona.
• We are presently experiencing the largest mass extinction since the demise of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago; only this time it’s occurring at a much faster rate.


Dr. Philip Fearnside, National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA) in Manaus, Amazonas
Rhett Butler, www.mongabay.com

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