One-third of the world’s tropical forest is found in the Amazon, which stretches across parts of Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname and French Guiana. Its intricate web of life is home to one in every 10 species on Earth, from more than 100,000 types of insects and nearly 40,000 plant species.
More than 30 million people live in the region, and many depend on the forest and its rivers for their livelihoods. As Earth’s largest river basin, the Amazon is the source of around one-sixth of all the water that flows into the sea from the world’s rivers.
The Amazon also plays a huge role in the Earth’s climate – not just as a massive store of carbon, but in the way it affects rainfall patterns. Climate models suggest Amazon deforestation could lead to droughts and crop failures across the Americas, and possibly in other agricultural regions as far away as Europe.
The Soy Factor
Soy production is one of a number of drivers of deforestation in the Amazon, along with pasture expansion for cattle rearing; fires; legal and illegal logging; opening up paved roads; and degradation due to climate change. The complex underlying causes of forest loss include land tenure issues, crime (direct and through money laundering), poverty and population growth.
Until recently, the Amazon was considered unsuitable for soy production, but crop breeding and other advances have increased production potential. Rapidly growing soy production has been identified as a driver of forest conversion, mainly in Brazil and Bolivia. As well as direct conversion of Amazon rainforest to soy, much soy expansion in Brazil now occurs on land previously used for cattle grazing.
While this has the potential to be part of the solution, there is the danger that it can contribute indirectly to deforestation by pushing cattle production into the forest. Off-site impacts of soy, such as pollution of watercourses from agrochemicals and soil erosion, have also had an impact on natural ecosystems.
If deforestation rates seen over the last few decades continue, nearly one-quarter of the remaining Amazon forest could be lost within the next 30 years, and 37% within 50 years. More pessimistic estimates suggest that 55% could be lost in the next 20 years as increased demand for agricultural commodities exacerbates a vicious circle of climate feedbacks, such as increased drought and forest fires.
There are some positive signs that catastrophic forest loss may yet be avoided. In Brazil, a moratorium on soy grown on land cleared from Amazon forest has resulted in a sharp downturn in direct impacts. New legal controls have also contributed to the deforestation rate declining by 70 per cent to 0.7 million ha/year in 2009.
In 2012, overall forest clearing reached its lowest level since annual record-keeping began in the late 1980s. But the reduction in forest loss remains fragile, and there are fears that changes to Brazil’s Forest Code, which came into force in mid-2012, could see deforestation rates rise again.
According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research’s near-real-time tracking system, at least 61,500 ha of rainforest were cleared in the Brazilian Amazon between November 2012 and February 2013. This deforestation rate continues to accelerate: between August 2012 and July 2013 more than 200,000 ha of forest were cleared, 92 % more than the previous year.