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Tropical rainforests have an outsized role in the world, with their significance marked by the World Rainforest Day. Of the Earth’s ecosystems, rainforests support the largest variety of plants and animal species, house the majority of indigenous groups still living in isolation from the rest of humanity, and power the mightiest rivers. Rainforests lock up vast amounts of carbon, moderate local temperature, and influence rainfall and weather patterns at regional and planetary scales.

Despite their importance however, deforestation in the world’s tropical forests has remained persistently high since the 1980s due to rising human demand for food, fibre, and fuel and the failure to recognize the value of forests as healthy and productive ecosystems. Since 2002, an average of 3.2 million hectares of primary tropical forests—the most biodiverse and carbon-dense type of forest—have been destroyed per year. An even larger area of secondary forest is cleared or degraded.

Below is a brief look at the state of the world’s largest remaining tropical rainforests.

Note: All figures below are based on 2020 data from the University of Maryland (UMD) and World Resources Institute (WRI) using a 30% canopy cover threshold. Tree cover loss does not account for regrowth, reforestation, or afforestation.

1. The Amazon Rainforest

The Amazon is the world’s largest and best known tropical rainforest. As measured by primary forest extent, the Amazon rainforest is more than three times larger than that of the Congo Basin, the world’s second largest rainforest. The Amazon rainforest accounts for just over a third of tree cover across the tropics.

The Amazon River, which drains an area nearly the size of the forty-eight contiguous United States, is the world’s biggest river. It carries more than five times the volume of the Congo or twelve times that of the Mississippi. By one estimate, 70% of South America’s GDP is produced in areas that receive rainfall generated by the Amazon rainforest. This includes South America’s agricultural breadbasket and some of its largest cities.

Due to its size, the Amazon leads all tropical forest areas in terms of its annual area of forest loss. Between 2002 and 2019, more than 30 million hectares of primary forest was cleared in the region, or about half the world’s total tropical primary forest loss during that period.

The Amazon is thought to house more than half the world’s “uncontacted” tribes living in voluntary isolation from the rest of humanity. However the vast majority of indigenous peoples in the Amazon live in cities, towns, and villages.

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world rainforests amazon

Extent: 628 million hectares of tree cover, including 526 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: About 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest lies within the borders of Brazil; the balance is found in parts of Peru (13%), Colombia (8%), Venezuela (6%), Bolivia (6%), Guyana (3%), Ecuador (2%), and Suriname (2%), as well as French Guiana (1%), a department of France.

Most famous species: Jaguar; tapir; capybara; river dolphins; various monkeys and parrots. Bulk numbers: more than 40,000 plant species, including 16,000 tree species; 3,000 fish; 1,300 birds, 1,000 amphibians; 430 mammals, and 400 reptiles.

Deforestation trend: Rising in most countries, led by Brazil. The Amazon lost over 30 million hectares of primary forest (5.5% of the 2001 extent) and 44.5 million hectares of tree cover (6.6%) between 2002 and 2019.

2. The Congo Rainforest

The second largest block of tropical rainforest is found in the Congo Basin, which drains an area of 3.7 million square kilometers. The majority of the Congo rainforest lies within the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which accounts for 60 percent of Central Africa’s lowland primary forest. Gabon, Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Central African Republic, and Equatorial Guinea account for nearly all the rest of the Congo Basin rainforest.

Until the early 2010s, deforestation in the Congo Basin was relatively low. War and chronic political instability, poor infrastructure, and lack of large-scale industrial agriculture help limit forest loss in the region. Most deforestation was driven by subsistence activities, though degradation due to logging was substantial. The situation is changing however: deforestation has been trending sharply upward in recent years.

world rainforests congo

Extent: 288 million hectares of tree cover, including 168 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (60% of the Congo’s primary forest), Gabon (13%), Republic of the Congo (12%), Cameroon (10%), Central African Republic (3%), and Equatorial Guinea (1%).

Most famous species: Forest elephants; okapi; great apes including gorillas, bonobos, and chimps.

Deforestation trend: Deforestation is rising rapidly though it remains lower on a percentage basis than other major forest regions. The Congo lost over 6 million hectares of primary forest (3.5% of the 2001 extent) and 13.5 million hectares of tree cover (4.5%) between 2002 and 2019.

3. Australiasian Realm

The Australiasian rainforest includes tropical forests on the island of New Guinea and northeastern Australia as well as scattered islands that were connected when sea levels dropped during that last ice age. As a consequence of this linkage, both land masses have common assemblages of plants and animals, while conspicuously lacking groups found on islands further west. For example, cats, monkeys, and civets are absent from New Guinea and Australia, but both have an unusually high diversity of marsupials like kangaroos, wallabies, cuscuses, and opossums.

Virtually all this region’s primary tropical rainforest is on the island of New Guinea, which is roughly split between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse island on the planet with some 800 languages. There are believed to be a few uncontacted groups in remote parts of New Guinea.

Among major forest areas, Australiasia had the second lowest rate of primary forest loss since 2001, but deforestation is trending upward due to logging and conversion for plantations.

world rainforests australia

Extent: 89 million hectares of tree cover, including 64 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua (51% of the region’s primary forest), Papua New Guinea (49%), and Australia (under 1%).

Most famous species: Tree kangaroos; cassowaries; giant ground pigeons; saltwater crocodiles.

Deforestation trend: Deforestation is rising rapidly due to plantation agriculture, especially oil palm. The Indonesian part of New Guinea lost 605,000 hectares of primary forest since 2002 (1.8% of its 2001 cover), while PNG lost 732,000 hectares (2.2%). New Guinea is seen as the last frontier for large-scale agroindustrial expansion in Indonesia.

4. Sundaland

Sundaland includes the islands of Borneo, Sumatra, and Java, among others as well as Peninsular Malaysia. Most of the region’s remaining forest is on the island of Borneo, which is divided politically between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei.

Sundaland lost the world’s largest share of primary forest cover between 2002 and 2019. Borneo lost 15% of such forests, while Sumatra lost 25%. Deforestation for oil palm and timber plantations, as well as fires set for land-clearing, are the biggest drivers of deforestation. However deforestation has been slowing since the mid-2010s.

world rainforests sundaland

Extent: 103 million hectares of tree cover, including 51 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Indonesia (73% of the region’s primary forest cover) and Malaysia (26%). Brunei and Singapore have less than 1% of the region’s forests.

Most famous species: Elephants; orangutans; two species of rhino; tigers; various hornbill and monkey species.

Deforestation trend: Deforestation is the highest of any major forest region, but trending downward. Between 2002 and 2019, Borneo lost 5.8 million hectares of primary forest (15% of 2001 cover), Sumatra 3.8 million hectares (25%), and Peninsular Malaysia 726,000 hectares (14%). Indonesia accounted for 75% of primary forest loss in the region, compared with 25% for Malaysia.

5. Indo-Burma

The Indo-Burma region includes a mix of tropical forest types, from mangroves to lowland rainforests to seasonal forests. Historical large-scale forest loss due to human population pressure means that surviving forests in this region are more fragmented than other regions mentioned so far. Most of the region’s tree cover consists of plantations, crops, and secondary forests.

The largest extent of primary forests in this region are in Myanmar, which has about one-third of the total area.

Indo-Burma lost about 8% of its primary forests and 12% of its tree cover since 2001. Cambodia accounted for more than a third of the region’s primary forest loss during this period.

world rainforests indo-burma

Extent: 139 million hectares of tree cover, including 40 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Myanmar (34% of the region’s primary forest cover), Laos (19%), Vietnam (15%), Thailand (14%), Cambodia (8%), far eastern India (6%), and parts of southern China (4%).

Most famous species: Elephants; two species of rhino; tigers; gibbons; leopards.

Deforestation trend: The rate of primary forest loss was roughly flat over the past 20 years, while tree cover loss is accelerating. Cambodia accounted for 34% of primary forest loss, followed by Laos (21%), Vietnam (18%), and Myanmar (16%). Cambodia lost over 28% of its 2001 primary forest cover over the period as natural forests were increasingly converted to plantations and industrial projects.

6. Mesoamerica

Mesoamerican rainforests extend from southern Mexico to southern Panama. Costa Rica’s rainforests are arguably the best known in the region thanks to its world-famous ecotourism industry, but the country ranks fifth in terms of primary forest cover.

world rainforests mesoamerica

Extent: 51 million hectares of tree cover, including 16 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Mexico (39% of Mesoamerica’s primary forest cover), Guatemala (13%), Honduras (11%), Panama (11%), Nicaragua (10%), and Costa Rica (9%).

Most famous species: Jaguar; puma; tapir; peccary.

Deforestation trend: The rate of primary forest loss and tree cover loss accelerated toward the end of the 2010s driven by increasing incidence of fire, coupled with conversion of forests for cattle pasture, plantations, and smallholder agriculture. Mexico (534,000 hectares of primary forest loss), Guatemala (480,000), and Nicaragua (460,000) lost the greatest area of primary forest between 2002 and 2019. Costa Rica lost less than 2% of its primary forest during the period. In contrast, Nicaragua lost nearly 30%.

6. Wallacea

Wallacea represents a biogeographic oddity. When sea levels fell during the last ice age, islands to the west of this area joined continental Asia, while islands to the east got connected to land mass formed from Australia and New Guinea. As a result, Wallacea today has an unusual mix of species, drawing plant and animal groups from both regions, but also having high levels of endemism.

world rainforests wallacea

Extent: 24.4 million hectares of tree cover, including 14.6 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Indonesia. More than 60% of Wallacea’s primary forest cover is on the island of Sulawesi. The Maluku islands account for 34%.

Most famous species: Babirusa; tarsiers and various monkeys; hornbills; cuscuses.

Deforestation trend: The rate of primary forest loss and tree cover loss jumped in 2015 and 2016 following a particularly bad fire season. Deforestation for industrial plantations, including oil palm and coconut, increased in the 2010s.

7. Guinean Forests of West Africa

The Guinean Forests of West Africa consists of the lowland tropical forests that extend from Liberia and Sierra Leone to the Nigeria-Cameroon border. These forests have been greatly diminished by agriculture, including subsistence farming by small-holders and commercial cacao, timber, and oil palm plantations.

west africa

Extent: 42 million hectares of tree cover, including 10.2 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Liberia (41% of the region’s primary forest cover), Cameroon (17%), Nigeria (17%), Côte d’Ivoire (10%), and Ghana (10%).

Most famous species: Gorillas and chimps; pygmy hippo; various monkey species.

Deforestation trend: The rate of primary forest loss has been rising since the mid 2000s. Tree cover loss sharply accelerated in the 2010s. While Côte d’Ivoire accounted for only an eighth of the region’s primary forest cover in 2001, it had nearly 40% of total primary forest loss between 2002 and 2019. The country lost about a third of its total primary forests in less than 20 years.

8. Atlantic Forest

The Atlantic Forest once extended from northeastern Brazil into the hinterlands of Argentina and Paraguay. Today it has been greatly reduced by agriculture and urbanization. Most of the tree cover in this region is crops, plantations, or secondary forests.

atlantic forest

Extent: 89 million hectares of tree cover, including 9.3 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Brazil (86% of the region’s primary forest cover), Argentina (9.5%), and Paraguay (4%).

Most famous species: Jaguar; Puma; Golden Lion Tamarin; Howler monkeys.

Deforestation trend: The rate of primary forest loss in the Atlantic Forest—known as the Mata Atlântica in Brazil—has slowed since the 20th century, with annual deforestation remaining relatively flat.

9. Chocó-Darien

The Chocó rainforest extends from southern Panama and along the Pacific Coast of South America through Colombia and Ecuador. It is the world’s wettest rainforest and has the lowest deforestation rate of any of the regions covered in this post. The Chocó is home to both Amerindian tribes and Afroindigenous or “maroon” communities.

 choco-darien

Extent: 15.6 million hectares of tree cover, including 8.4 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Colombia (79% of the region’s primary forest cover), Panama (13%), and Ecuador (8%).

Most famous species: Jaguar; Puma; various monkeys.

Deforestation trend: Primary forest loss in the Chocó amounted to 1.4% of its 2001 extent between 2002 and 2019. Ecuador and Panama accounted for a disproportionately large share of this loss.

10. Other Regions

This list is limited to the ten largest rainforests. Missing the cut are the forests of the Eastern Himalayas; East Melanesian Islands; the Philippines; Indian Ocean islands, including Madagascar; Eastern Afromontane; the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka; the Caribbean; and Polynesia-Micronesia.

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Rhett A. Butler, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon surged to a 12-year high in the year between August 2019 and July 2020. 

During this time, 11 088 sq km of rainforest was destroyed- up 9.5% from the previous year and the highest level of destruction since 2008, according to the INPE during its annual news conference this week. 

Brazil’s vice-president, Hamilton Mourão, attempted to be positive about the figures as he visited INPE’s headquarters in São José dos Campos this week. Mourão claimed the annual increase of 9.5% was less than half the anticipated figure of about 20%. He said, “We’re not here to commemorate any of this, because it’s nothing to commemorate. But it means that the efforts being launched [against Amazon deforestation] are starting to yield fruit.”

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What is Happening?

The Amazon is the world’s largest rainforest and is called the “lungs of the world” as one of the planet’s best defenses against climate change. The rainforest is capable of pulling billions of tons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. 

Featured image by: Wikimedia Commons

A Greenpeace study in Hong Kong has found that nearly one-third of the city’s supply of beef comes from Brazilian ranches located in deforested areas of the Amazon rainforest.

The survey, conducted in August, found that imported beef from Marfrig, JBS and Minerva Foods, meat packers that represent nearly half of the cattle slaughtered in the Amazon, is being sold in at least one major supermarket chain in Hong Kong. 

Frances Yeung Hoi-shan, a senior campaigner at Greenpeace, says to the South China Morning Post, “Some of the supply chains are like ‘beef laundering’. The smaller ranchers that farm on destroyed Amazon forest land sell to other ranchers, who then sell to larger farms, before it ends up with consumers. This means beef from ranches on destroyed forest land is mixed in with beef from other farms that are not on deforested areas.”

Hong Kong and China are the top two destinations for Brazilian beef, according to the US Department of Agriculture. In 2017, Hong Kong imported 780 000 tons of frozen beef and offal, of which 53% came from Brazil. 60% of this beef in Brazil came from the three meat packers, which is how Greenpeace arrived at its figure of 30% of beef consumed by Hong Kongers coming from these three companies.

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Cattle ranchers, loggers and farmers in Brazil often set fire to the Amazon rainforest to clear land for their activities. The pace of deforestation has increased rapidly since President Jair Bolsonaro came into power. He says that farming and mining in the forest is the only way to lift the country out of poverty.

The National Institute for Space Research (INPE) reported that 796 square kilometers of forest were cut down during the first three months of this year. A third of the devastation happened on land including national forests and conservation areas, which in general have become targets for land grabbers eager for big profits. According to the Institute, reports of deforestation were up 51% between January and March as compared to 2019.

According to the SCMP, while Yata and City’super responded to Greenpeace saying that they “rarely” sold Brazilian beef, ParknShop, one of the biggest supermarket chains in the city, said it sourced a “small portion” of beef from JBS and would switch to other suppliers once its current stock had sold out.

Hong Kong is already being affected by the climate crisis, seen in reports that this summer was the hottest since records began in 1884. The number of “very hot days” recorded this year has already reached 43, 32.8 days above the annual norm.

The Ministry of Environment in Brazil has said that it will continue operations to restrict deforestation and fires in the Amazon and other regions. The announcement follows an earlier decision to halt such operations starting on August 31. 

The decision was shared on the ministry’s website on August 28 after vice president Hamilton Mourão said Environment Minister Ricardo Salles acted “hastily” when he said the government had run out of money for operations against deforestation.

The ministry had previously said that it had been blocked from accessing over $11 million for environmental protection, which would have demobilised over 1 300 firefighters, hundreds of inspection agents, six helicopters and 10 planes. However, Mourão told reporters that no operations would be stopped despite the ministry’s statement and that Brazil would continue to work to restrict deforestation in the Amazon. 

In May, president Jair Bolsonaro put the army in charge of protecting the Amazon rainforest in May, following international demands for action after wildfires in the rainforest skyrocketed recently. However, the operation proved to be a failure, as investigation and prosecution of rainforest destruction by ranchers, farmers and miners ended, even as this year’s burning season increased. Instead, the army seems to be focusing on small road-and-bridge-building projects that allow exporters to flow faster to ports and ease access to protected areas in the forest. There have also been no major raids against illegal activity since Bolsonaro required military approval for them a few months ago.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon

According to data published by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP), 516 fires covering 376 416 hectares have been detected between May 28 and August 25. 83% of these fires have burned in recently deforested areas, while 12% have occurred within intact forests. 97% of the fires are illegal. 

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A graph showing the accumulated Amazon deforestation rates from August 1 to July 31 from 2008 to 2020 (Source: Mongabay).

Overall, deforestation in the Amazon has risen sharply since January 2019 when Jair Bolsonaro became president. Bolsonaro promised to open the Amazon to more mining, logging and industrial agriculture. His administration has subsequently relaxed environmental law enforcement and penalties and issued executive orders opening up protected areas and indigenous lands to logging, mining and agribusiness. 

Featured image by: Amazônia Real

A report warns that the atmosphere above the Amazon rainforest has become increasingly dry over the past two decades due to human activities and is at risk of drying out completely. This could increase the rainforest’s demand for water and make it more vulnerable to droughts and fires. 

The study, published in the journal, Science, observed an increasing trend in a measure called Vapour Pressure Deficit (VPD) over tropical South America in dry season months. VPD is a combined function of air temperature and relative humidity and is a critical variable in determining plant photosynthesis. Higher VPD values indicate a decline in atmospheric moisture. This implies that the Amazon is likely to increasingly struggle to sustain its water demands, triggering more widespread and severe droughts. As a result, wildfire risk and tree mortality will increase, causing a significant loss of carbon over the Amazon basin

This has already been seen with previous droughts. After the 2005 megadrought, where more than 70 million hectares of pristine forests in southwestern Amazonia were affected, the most negative annual carbon balance ever was recorded in the region. This decrease can be attributed to extensive and severe damage to the forest canopy that was detectable by satellite. The older, larger, more vulnerable canopy trees were especially susceptible to dieback and tree falls. Even when rainfall levels recovered in the following years, about half of the forest affected by the 2005 megadrought – an area the size of California – did not recover by the time the next major drought began in 2010.

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Furthermore, during the 2015 Amazonia drought, the highest VPD since 1979 was recorded. Similar values that are well beyond the scope of natural variability have been observed across the last decades, insinuating a human influence. The researchers suggest that elevated levels of greenhouse gases account for approximately half of the increase in atmospheric dryness. Other influencing factors are unclear, but burning of rainforest biomass for agriculture that causes widespread land-cover change, is thought to be another predominant cause. Satellite data taken in 2018 revealed that an area of Amazon rainforest roughly the size of a football pitch is now being cleared every single minute. 

Dr Armineh Barkhordarian from the University of California and lead author of the study said, “We observed that in the last two decades, there has been a significant increase in dryness in the atmosphere as well as in the atmospheric demand for water above the rainforest. In comparing this trend to data from models that estimate climate variability over thousands of years, we determined that the change in atmospheric aridity is well beyond what would be expected from natural climate variability.”

Higher VPD levels are concerning as the Amazon rainforest- commonly coined ‘the lungs of the Earth’- is critical in regulating the global climate. The multitude of flora found in tropical forests enable them to extract half of the atmospheric carbon dioxide via photosynthesis – thus helping to reduce levels of this greenhouse gas and help mitigate global warming. 

In addition, the Amazon basin plays an important role by regulating rainfall in the region. It cycles water between the forest and the atmosphere via rainfall and transpiration of leaves, leading to a freshwater ocean in South America – the rivers and groundwater – that maintains rainfall in the southern agricultural regions of the continent. However, the Amazon rainforest is extremely vulnerable to increases in atmospheric drying and warming, as they are thought to produce up to 80% of their own rainfall. A decrease in atmospheric moisture, combined with an increase in global temperatures, decreases the ability of the Amazon to regulate its rainfall, thus increasing the vulnerability of major Brazilian cities to water shortages

Will the Amazon rainforest survive?

The dire potential situation has highlighted the need for a greater focus on halting deforestation in the Amazon basin, in conjunction with decreasing emissions of greenhouse gases. Both will help decrease VPD and hence reduce the potential risk of droughts and the associated threat of wildfires and tree mortality. It has never been more critical to address this drying out issue because if the Amazon forest is lost, the crucial ecosystem services it provides will also be lost.

Featured image by: Anna & Michal

National and Amazon-region Indigenous federations and communities in Ecuador have launched a global campaign and have filed legal actions demanding that the flow of crude oil through Ecuador’s major pipelines be suspended. The federations are supported by Amazon Frontlines, COICA and a coalition of regional international human rights organisations. 

On April 7, the country’s SOTE and OCP pipelines ruptured as a result of neglecting to address erosion on the Coca and Napo rivers. Indigenous groups affected by the spill filed a lawsuit asking for clean up, redress and an end to oil company impunity, however the court case has been indefinitely suspended since June. Erosion and massive landslides are threatening a second oil spill, which would contaminate rivers flowing into Peru and Brazil.

In light of this, Kichwa communities have filed dozens of lawsuits demanding court-ordered injunctions to immediately shut down the oil pipelines until safety is restored to the area. 

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Indigenous people have called for the suspension of all resource extraction in the Amazon. A suspension of the SOTE and OCP pipelines would equate to a suspension of all oil production in Ecuador at a time when Indigenous communities living along the pipeline are dually threatened by the pandemic and oil contamination. Half of the oil produced at these pipelines are shipped to refineries in California and Washington

Gregorio Mirabel, General Coordinator of COICA, says, “Oil spills and poison in our rivers are caused by corporations that plunder and line their pockets and governments that promote the exploitation of resources in the Amazon Basin. When our Indigenous brothers and sisters are threatened for these reasons, we are all threatened. COICA will not let them fight alone. We are here to fight together for our rights.”

Ongoing resource extraction has accelerated the spread of COVID-19 in the world’s most biodiverse tropical rainforest. According to the Pan-American Health Organization, the virus has infected at least 20 000 people in Indigenous communities of the Amazon. Indigenous peoples are the first line of defense for the Amazon rainforest. At the first World Assembly for the Amazon in July, Indigenous organisations from Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, French Guyana and Suriname called for a moratorium on extractive activities to confront toxic contamination, raging fires, loss of territory and biodiversity, climate change and, now, infection.

Mitch Anderson, Executive Director of Amazon Frontlines, says, “For too long, oil companies have acted with total impunity in Ecuador. Now, with a global pandemic raging, climate change accelerating, and the survival of thousands of Indigenous peoples at risk, it is imperative that the Ecuadorian court impose an immediate suspension of the country’s oil pipelines to avoid another disaster. It’s time to stand with Indigenous peoples, who put their own lives on the line every day to protect our planet’s best natural defense against climate change, the Amazon rainforest.”

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This article comes from the frontline activities of Amazon Frontlines, whose mission it is to support indigenous peoples to defend their rights to land, life and cultural survival in the Amazon Rainforest

Amazon Frontlines

Amazon Frontlines is a non-profit organisation based in Lago Agrio, Ecuador that leverages technology, legal advocacy and movement building to support indigenous peoples to defend their rights to land, life and cultural survival in the Amazon Rainforest. For more information, visit www.amazonfrontlines.org.

Global Wildlife Conservation

GWC conserves biodiversity on Earth through the safeguarding of wildlands and wildlife protection. It engages in biodiversity exploration, habitat conservation, protected area management, wildlife crime prevention and endangered species recovery. For more information, visit https://globalwildlife.org

Featured image by: Fibonacci Blue

A recent study has found that around half of beef exports and almost a quarter of soy exports from Brazil to the EU could be linked to illegal deforestation in two of the country’s most ecologically important regions, the Amazon and Cerraro. This could have detrimental implications for international trade agreements and efforts to combat the climate crisis. 

The study, published in the journal Science, found that 2% of properties in the Amazon and Cerraro are responsible for 62% of illegal deforestation, of which a significant proportion is linked to agricultural exports. “This small but very destructive portion of the sector poses a threat to the economic prospects of Brazil’s agribusiness, in addition to causing regional and global environmental consequences,” the researchers said. 

Cerrado is regarded as a ‘biodiversity hotspot’, marked by savannahs, grasslands, and forests that spans approximately 200 million hectares. Significant proportions of these important ecological areas in Brazil are being cleared to accommodate the global demand for beef by making way for cattle ranches, which are then converted to soy fields with the purpose of feeding livestock or to be exported to other countries.

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The findings demonstrated that about 1.9 million metric tons of soy grown on properties with illegal deforestation reaches EU markets every year- indicating that about 22% of all soy exports from Brazil to the EU could be contaminated. The researchers noted that the true percentage may be higher as their study only covered 80% of the soy plantations, and did not sample the cumulative total.

41% of the EU’s soy imports originate from Brazil, which equates to 13.6 million metric tons per year. Between 25% to 40% of beef imports come directly from properties with illegal deforestation. The study estimates that 12% of the 4.1 million cows traded to slaughterhouses in the states of Para and Mato Grosso in 2017, came from properties potentially engaging in illegal deforestation. 

However, the figure increases to about 50% when considering the suppliers that had indirect contamination with illegal deforestation- such as when a ranch does not deforest but buys cattle from one that does.

In Mato Grosso, contamination of beef exports by illegal deforestation could be as high as 44% in the Amazon and 61% in the Cerrado regions. 

How Did the Researchers Conduct the Investigation?

In order to produce these figures, and draw parallels between illegal deforestation and agricultural exports, the researchers gathered land-use and deforestation data maps for Brazil as well as information on approximately 815 000 rural properties in the Amazon and Cerrado. They also examined cattle transport documents. They then developed software that calculated the level to which each property was complying with environmental and deforestation laws. 

Implications 

The findings of this study could have extensive implications for how countries confront trade agreements in the future knowing a portion of the imports could be associated with illegal deforestation of the Amazon. 

“International buyers of Brazil’s agricultural commodities have raised concerns about products that are contaminated by deforestation,” the researchers said. “Among the concerns is that increasing greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and forest fires in Brazil could cancel out EU climate change mitigation efforts.”

Global Demand 

The BBC reported that ‘as the global demand for meat soars, and as China turns to Brazil for its supply of soybeans amid the trade war with the US, experts worry that Brazil’s agricultural boom will come at the cost of habitats like the Cerrado and Amazon’. 

The researchers said that “all economic partners of Brazil should share the blame for indirectly promoting deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions by not barring imports and consuming agricultural products contaminated with deforestation, illegal or not.” They further noted that their investigation is an essential stepping stone in pressing Brazil ‘to conserve its environmental assets’ and encourage international efforts to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions.  

Deforestation in the Brazilian rainforest is speeding up. In June 2020, it increased by 10.7% compared to the previous year. The dismantling of environmental protections and president Jair Bolsonaro’s economic policies have set the stage for environmental disaster. The international community needs to pressure Brazil into complying with its climate commitments as the country has an important responsibility in the fight against the climate crisis because of the Amazon, a fight it is currently losing. 

New data from Brazil’s National Space Research Agency (INPE) shows that deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest rose 10.7% in the last month compared to June 2019, marking 14 months of continuous tree and habitat loss.

In the first half of 2020, deforestation had risen by 25% from the same period in 2019, totalling 4 879 sq km

Researchers at the IPAM estimated that deforestation and the fires that have occurred in Brazil’s Amazon over the past six months have emitted 115 million metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the equivalent of the annual emissions of 25 million cars and a 20% increase over the same period last year.  

Ane Alencar, science director at the Instituo de Pesquia Ambiental de Amazonia (IPAM), stressed that if the Amazon rainforest continues to endure the same trends of deforestation, 2020 will mark the worst year for deforestation in over a decade, with approximately 14 998 sq km of affected forest. 

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What is Being Done?

President Bolsonaro has deployed military in the region to stop illegal land clearing, and has issued a ban on fires in the Amazon region for 120 days from the week of July 13. Whether this would constitute ‘enough action’ to sufficiently protect the Amazon rainforest and combat the deforestation problem has been debated. 

Suely Vaz, the former head of environment regulator at the Brazilian government’s environmental ministry, said, “Control of deforestation isn’t done by sending a lot of inexperienced people to the field.” Vaz stressed that although the army would be able to help, the operations need to be conducted by environmental authorities with appropriate technical planning and intelligence to stop deforestation altogether. 

In recent months, international trade groups, financial institutions and major corporations have urged the President to take steps to stop deforestation. European countries have warned Brazil that it would back out of the USD$19 trillion Union-Mercosur free trade agreement if the country doesn’t do more to protect the Amazon. Further, a letter signed by 29 financial institutions said that the country’s dismantling of environmental policies and indigenous rights are ‘creating widespread uncertainty about the conditions for investing’. 

Rubens Ricupero, Brazil’s former environment minister, stated how the pressure from international investors to act and mitigate the problem should not be overlooked- especially in consideration of post-pandemic infrastructure projects: “right now, there is no investment, from Brazilians or foreigners. But the concern is that as the pandemic begins to weaken, the government will want to revive the economy … and for that the government will need to be able to attract investments from overseas.”

Featured image by: Animal Equality International

One in every 10 pieces of beef served up on Brazilian plates is paid for by tax dollars. The beef industry, including cattle ranches, is one of the most heavily subsidized by state and federal governments in Brazil, to the tune of 12.3 billion reais ($2.2 billion) per year in the form of tax incentives, easy credit, and even debt forgiveness.

Even though it’s a multibillion-dollar industry — on March 25 this year, JBS, the world’s biggest meatpacking company, reported 6 billion reais ($1.1 billion) in profit for 2019, the best results in its history to date — the tax revenue it contributes to the Brazilian treasury, averaging 15.1 billion reais ($3 billion) per year, is small compared to the incentives.

That means that for every $1 collected in taxes from the beef sector, only 20 cents effectively goes to society; the rest goes back to the producers in the form of various benefits.

This calculation is based on the period between 2008 and 2017. In 2015 and 2016, tax revenue from the sector was actually less than the amount it received back in benefits from state and federal governments.

These are some of the conclusions in a recent study, “From pasture to plate: The subsidization and environmental footprint of beef,” by Instituto Escolhas, a São Paulo-based organization that looks at sustainability issues through an economic lens.

“The government invested 123 billion reais [$22.2 billion] in one decade. This is something completely new, that has never happened before in this industry or any other in the nation,” Petterson Molina Vale, an economist and coordinator of the economic side of the study, said in an interview on the Instituto Escolhas website. Vale declined to answer questions Mongabay sent about the study.

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Environmental Cost of Cattle Ranches in Brazil

If beef production in Brazil is propped up by a comfortable cushion of public funding, it has failed to carry any commitment to the environment, especially in the Amazon and Cerrado regions, where cattle ranches are a primary driver of deforestation.

Instituto Escolhas estimates the carbon footprint of beef production — from cattle ranches to meatpacking — in the nine states that make up the Amazon region in Brazil is six times higher on average than other states in the nation.

In the Matopiba region, where the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia converge, emissions from the cattle supply chain are eight times greater than in the rest of the nation. A mix of Amazon rainforest and Cerrado savanna, the area is rapidly becoming the new Brazilian agricultural frontier.

“These are the highest emissions per kilogram of meat produced,” said Roberto Strumpf, a biologist and environmental coordinator of the Instituto Escolhas study. “However, in absolute terms, the Amazon emits much more because it is more extensive and the fallen trees contain a much larger quantity of carbon.”

Three large meatpackers — JBS, Marfrig and Minerva — account for 42% of all cattle slaughtered in the Brazilian Amazon. And last year the Public Prosecutor’s Office said that, even with the responsibility agreements made by industry and retailers, it is impossible to assure beef production without deforestation when ranching takes place in forested areas.

Public Funds Financing Deforestation?

Instituto Escolhas has shown in a previous study that a zero-deforestation policy in Brazil could have no impact on cattle farming and ranches. Such a policy would not impede its growth even if the land being used is already deforested and if best agricultural practices are followed.

“If there is already land that can be used to increase production, then wouldn’t the subsidies be being used to stimulate deforestation?” the authors of the new study write in their executive summary.

The findings can’t prove that public funds are financing deforestation; the authors suggest that “the subsidies could be adopted to stimulate more sustainable productive practices or healthier products.”

“To be able to conclude that part of taxpayer money is financing deforestation would require deeper study,” said Jaqueline Ferreira, project and product manager at Instituto Escolhas. “But at the moment, we know that the beef production chain depends largely on public funding and we also know what its environmental impact is, so it is possible to debate which type of production we want to finance.”

The study looks at the entire beef production chain in calculating its environmental footprint, including water consumption and greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of beef produced inside the Amazon, Matopiba and the rest of Brazil. It did the same for calculating the subsidies granted, from both state and federal governments.

The parameters they looked at included production inputs, information about cattle husbandry and fattening, soil management and removal of natural vegetation, use of agricultural machinery, and also meat processing (slaughter and meatpacking) and distribution, whether for the domestic market or for export.

“The beef productive chain is fundamental,” Ferreira said. “It generates a great deal of income and is also important from the cultural standpoint and from that of productive occupation. But today it is the main vector of deforestation, specifically in the Amazon. We are proposing an economic approach to debate one of the main environmental issues and try to somehow move forward, past bottlenecks, toward sustainable development.”

A Decade of Emission Reductions in the Amazon at Risk

As the researchers expected, the Instituto Escolhas study showed that deforestation contributed the most to the carbon footprint of any stage of the beef chain.

They compared scenarios in three large regions of Brazil (the Amazon, Matopiba, and other states together) and the national average, considering emissions from the herds themselves and the pastures, as well as the areas of logged vegetation based on data from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE).

The result is that throughout Brazil, the carbon footprint accumulated over a decade (2008-2017) jumps from 25 kg of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per kilo of beef, to 78 kg CO2e/kg when deforestation is taken into account.

In the Amazon, the carbon footprint increases 8.5 times when logged forest comes into the calculation: from 17 kg CO2e/kg to 145 kg CO2e/kg.

The average over 10 years hides one relevant piece of data: emissions are falling even inside the Amazon. They dropped from 344 kg of CO2e per kilo of beef in 2008 to 66 kg CO2e/kg in 2017, representing an 81% reduction over the decade.

The problem is that the study ends at the year 2017. “All the INPE data from 2018 and 2109 show a substantial increase in deforestation,” Strumpf said. “We have to pay attention to this, because if we continue on this environmental backslide, all the gain could be lost, which will impact the sector’s reputation and could result in non-tariff barriers for Brazilian beef.”

The study also measured the impact of beef production on water resources, which turned out to be better than expected: an average of 64 liters of water per kilo of beef produced over the decade between 2008 and 2017. “It’s much less than in other countries,” Strumpf said. This is called the “blue footprint,” referring to the use of underground water or reservoirs that could compete with other productive activities or even with human consumption.

Since the sector is mostly supplied by cattle raised on pastureland, most of the water involved in production is rainwater. This is the “green footprint,” which in Brazil’s case is high but doesn’t compromise water resources and has a low environmental impact, according to Strumpf.

But with climatic changes underway, the alarm is sounding for beef production in Brazil’s central-west region, home to a large part of the country’s herds. Rain patterns in this region rely heavily on the Amazon, which is moving toward a process of becoming savanna if the current rate of deforestation is not stopped. In other words, in times of drought, the economic scenario will be affected.

Carbon-Negative Ranching- With the Right Management

Given that most carbon emissions from the beef production chain come from cattle ranches — because many are on deforested land in Brazil — the study points to a possible path to maintain activity while also reducing harm to the environment. According to the study, integrated plant crop-cattle farming systems, where producers grow crops in alternate periods on pastureland, could allow for greenhouse gases to be sequestered from the atmosphere, as opposed to the current system that results in net carbon emissions and contributes to global warming.

Inside the Amazon, this integrated crop-cattle method of farming resulted in negative emissions in every year monitored by the study — even considering the impacts of deforestation. However, only 4% of pastureland in the region uses this integrated system, while 35% of pasture area is considered “well managed,” a step below that ideal.

“The capacity for the Earth to remove carbon from the atmosphere has been debated in academia for some time, but there was always little data,” Strumpf said. He said the study offers numbers comparable to measures already taken but now broken down by region, which had not existed before.

What remains unanswered is how long this well-cared-for pasture system can hold carbon instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. “Soil with carbon behaves like a sponge with water,” Strumpf said. “If it’s dry, the sponge has an enormous capacity to absorb water, but it will reach a point when it’s saturated. Soil is much the same, except that we still don’t know how long it can keep absorbing.”

The extent of degraded pastureland puts the Matopiba region on top in the carbon footprint study: 48% of pastures in this region have this characteristic. But with such large variations between individual ranches’ environmental impact, the Instituto Escolhas researchers suggest a shift away from the less efficient practices toward more sustainable ones.

“As the Brazilian cattle farming industry includes efficient producers and others that are quite unproductive, could we question whether public treasury may be being spent to maintain producers that would have no way of competing under normal market conditions due to their inefficiency and low profitability?” they wrote in the report’s executive summary. “What bottlenecks can public policy overcome so these practices gain scale?”

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Naira Hofmeister, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

Featured image by: Andrew

 

Deforestation in Earth’s largest rainforest increased for the fourteenth consecutive month according to data released this month by the Brazilian government. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is currently pacing 83% ahead of where it was a year ago.

Amazon Rainforest’s Deforestation Rate

Data from Brazil’s national space research institute INPE shows that 830 square kilometers (sq km) of rainforest was cleared in the “Legal Amazon” during the month of May, bringing the total clearing since the August 1 to 6,437 sq km, an area larger than Delaware or Palestine. Brazil tracks deforestation based on a year that runs from August 1 to July 31.

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amazon deforestation
A graph showing deforestation in the Amazon from January to April in 2009 to 2020 (Source: Mongabay via INPE).

Since January 1, deforestation in the region has amounted to 2,033 sq km, compared with 1,454 sq km through the first five months of 2019, an increase of 40%.

Independent analysis by Imazon, a Brazilian NGO, tracks roughly inline with what is being reported officially by the government.

The new data was released two days after INPE revised its official 2019 estimate for Amazon deforestation upwards to 10,129 sq km, marking the first time forest clearing in the region has topped 10,000 sq km since 2008. Deforestation is also trending upward in other Amazon countries, according to data from the University of Maryland (UMD) and World Resources Institute (WRI).

Effects of Deforestation in the Amazon

The rise in deforestation troubles scientists who fear that the combination of forest loss and the effects of climate change could trigger the Amazon rainforest to tip toward a drier ecosystem which is more prone to fire, generates less local and regional rainfall, sequesters less carbon from the atmosphere, and is less hospitable to species adapted to the dense and humid forests of lowland Amazonia. The impacts on local and regional economies that depend on precipitation from the Amazon could be devastating, depriving agricultural areas, hydroelectric dams, and cities across South America of water. There are already signs of sustained drying trends in the Amazon portending what may lie ahead.

Near term, the high level of deforestation through the first few months of 2020 means the year is shaping up to have a bad fire season. Typically trees are cut after the rainy season subsides in April or May. Burning normally peaks during the dry season from July through October, but this year burning is already underway: earlier this week researchers at the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project (MAAP) reported on the first major Amazon fire of 2020. The data thus suggests 2020 could be a particularly dire year for the Amazon.

Featured image by: Matt Zimmerman

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Rhett A. Butler, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

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