Forests burn, soils dwindle and people suffer
Market forces, population pressure and infrastructure advances are continuing to pry open the Amazon rainforest.
As the pressures afflicting the region grow in intensity, it is becoming increasingly clear that the price to be paid is not only loss of biodiversity and habitat – but also of a decreasing life quality for people.
Among the threats behind environmental destruction and degradation in the Amazon are the lack of policy frameworks to support sustainable development and natural resource protection, political instability, the inability of some institutional and governmental entities to establish and enforce legislation for nature conservation, and poverty and inequality.
The price of development at all costsToday, regional government programmes and initiatives are pushing for constant development, often encouraging blind clearance of forests for cattle ranching, oil drilling or soybean production. Such efforts seek to secure much-needed foreign exchange and generally develop economies.
As the countries of the Amazon become increasingly integrated into the global economy and there is increased demand for ever-limited natural resources, efforts to protect the region continue to be threatened by unsustainable economic demands.
Trade, the fuel of deforestationDevelopment activities in the Amazon are responding in part to the insatiable international demand for raw goods. For example, Brazil’s beef exports are closely linked to financial markets and the strength of the Real, the Brazilian currency.
When the real devaluated, the price of beef in real approximately doubled, creating a huge incentive for ranchers to expand their pasture area.
At the same time, the price of Brazilian beef in dollars fell, which made Brazil’s exports more competitive on international markets.1 Conversely, when the real strengthens, exporters struggle to keep their slice of the market.
Trade requires infrastructureResponding to international demands in agricultural products requires infrastructure such as dams and roads. BR-163 and BR-319, two of the main roads to be laid down through the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, are examples of this situation.
But global demand is not limited to cattle and soy. To satisfy its industrial needs, China is involved in mining projects in the eastern Amazon, ranging from aluminium and steel to nickel and copper.2
Deforestation is particularly marked in areas adjacent to urban centres, roads and rivers. But even remote areas that are considered void of human activity are showing signs of human pressures, especially where mahogany and gold are found.4
Some deforestation, when carried out in private properties, can be legal. According to the Brazilian Forestry Code (a federal law), 20% of rainforest in each property can be cleared under a license provided by environmental agencies.
What are the impacts of deforestation?
It is impossible to draw a comprehensive list of everything we stand to lose from deforestation. But here are some of the main aspects:
Loss of biodiversity: Species lose their habitat, or can no longer subsist in the small fragments of forests that are left. Populations dwindle, and eventually some can become extinct. Because of the high degree of endemism, or presence of species that are only found within a specific geographical range, even localized deforestation can result in loss of species.
Habitat degradation: New highways that provide access to settlers and loggers into the heart of the Amazon Basin are causing widespread fragmentation of rainforests. These fragmented landscapes are affected in species structure, composition and microclimate, and are more vulnerable to droughts and fires - alterations that negatively affect a wide variety of animal species.5
Modified global climate: The forests’ ability to absorb the pollutant carbon dioxide (CO2) is reduced. At the same time, there is an increased presence of CO2 released from the burning trees.
Loss of water cycling: Deforestation reduces the critical water cycling services provided by trees. In Brazil, some of the water vapour that emanates from forests will be transported by wind to its Central-South region, where most of the country's agriculture is located. Brazil's annual harvest has a gross value of about US$65 billion, and the dependence of even a small fraction of this on rainfall from Amazonian water vapour corresponds to a substantial value for the country. When rainfall reduction is added to the natural variability that characterizes rainfall in the region, the resulting droughts may lead to major environmental impacts. Fires already occur in areas disturbed by logging.6
Social impacts: With reduced forests, people are less able to benefit from the natural resources these ecosystems provide. This can lead to increased poverty and in cases, people may need to move in order to find forests which can sustain them.
The outlook for Amazon deforestation
The demand for land that is currently causing tropical forests to be burned is expected to remain high, sustaining the continued release of carbon from burning trees into the atmosphere.
If droughts, temperatures and El Niño events increase in frequency and severity - as seems to have been the case over the past 200 years - then the amount of carbon emissions from the tropics could rise rapidly in the future, creating a dangerous feedback loop via the impacts of deforestation.7
1 Kaimowitz et al. 2004. Hamburger Connection Fuels Amazon Destruction: Cattle ranching and deforestation in Brazil's Amazon. Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR). 10 pp.
2 International Herald Tribune. Sunday, November 20, 2005. China's global push for resources makes waves in Amazon basin.
3 Goudie (Ed.) 2001. Encyclopedia of Global Change. Environmental Change and Human Society
4 Barreto et al. 2005. Human Pressure in the Brazilian Amazon. IMAZON.
5 Laurance et al. 2000. Forest loss and fragmentation in the Amazon: implications for wildlife conservation. Oryx, 34 (1), pp. 39-45
6 Goudie (Ed.) 2001. Encyclopedia of Global Change. Environmental Change and Human Society
7 Lewis, S.L. 2005. Tropical Forests and Atmospheric Carbon Dioxide: Current Knowledge & Potential Future Scenarios. Avoiding Dangerous Climate Change Symposium, Exeter, 1-3 February 2005.
Extensive cattle ranching accounts for 80% of current deforestation, while agriculture is largely responsible for the rest.
The vast majority of the deforestation can be found in the eastern and southeastern part of the Amazon (Brazil) in the so-called Arc of Deforestation, and the Northwestern brim of the Basin’s headwaters, primarily in Colombia and Ecuador.