The act of clearing forest for animal agriculture, logging, mining, infrastructure or urban development has caused the Amazon rainforest to emit more carbon dioxide than it absorbs. Deforestation in the Amazon has eliminated thousands of species of wildlife and plants, put the lives of local communities at risk and crippled one of nature’s most important tools in storing carbon and staving off the climate crisis.
What Is the Amazon Rainforest?
The Amazon is the world’s single largest rainforest. This vibrant and extensive ecosystem is home to millions of species of flora and fauna, as well as a large human population. Quite simply — it’s one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet.
Which Countries Does the Amazon Rainforest Span?
The rainforest spans parts of Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia. Brazil contains the largest portion of this natural resource — just over 1.5 million square miles of the Amazon — where the majority of deforestation took place in 2021.
How Big Is the Amazon Rainforest?
How Much of the Amazon Rainforest Has Been Explored?
Much of the Amazon rainforest remains unexplored — and its remoteness helps limit its destruction. Native wildlife flora and fauna are still able to flourish in the most remote areas, and Indigenous people are able to remain isolated. Researchers believe there are still several dozen tribes of Indigenous people in the Amazon who have never been in contact with the outside world.
Why Is the Amazon Rainforest Important?
Not only does the rainforest provide a habitat for thousands of species of wildlife and millions of plant species, but it plays an important role in counteracting global climate change. By current estimates, the Amazon holds around 123 billion tons of carbon, which would otherwise be released into the atmosphere in the form of carbon dioxide emissions.
Why Is the Amazon Rainforest in Danger?
Large swaths of the Amazon rainforest have been slashed and burned to be used for intensive animal agriculture, crop production, mining and industrial development. By 2018 these activities, among others, had resulted in deforestation of 17 percent of the Amazon. In the past 20 years, 8 percent of the rainforest has been destroyed as the rainforest continues to lose resilience.
Causes of Deforestation in the Amazon
A substantial amount of the Amazon rainforest is now used for commercial activities like ranching and feed crops, mining and logging. As these enterprises grow, more areas of the Amazon are cleared at a dangerous rate.
Cattle ranching is a leading driver of deforestation in the Amazon, accounting for around 80 percent of the destruction there, and the release of 340 million tons of carbon per year. The region has experienced an 8 percent increase in cattle since 2020.
The cumulative effects of small-scale agriculture are also devastating the Amazon. Research suggests an increase in the number of smaller-scale agriculture operations started across Amazonia between 2001 to 2014 are an effort by landowners to deforest while evading government monitoring systems.
Just like animal agriculture, crop production in the Amazon involves the clearing and burning of large areas of land. The crops grown on these areas of land include soy, sugar cane, palm oil, cotton and rice. Since soy is a key ingredient in animal feed, its demand is rising along with the global demand for meat.
In addition to the issues caused by the clearing of such vast areas of the rainforest, agricultural practices such as the use of pesticides and fertilizers have implications for the native wildlife, plant species and Indigenous people of the region.
Selective logging in the Amazon is also driving deforestation and destroying native habitats.
The Amazon region is often mined for gold, copper, iron, manganese and other materials. In order to mine these materials, landowners clear vast areas of forest in order to dig mining pits. Gold mining is on the rise in recent years and, in one area of the Amazon along the Guiana Shield, gold mining accounts for around 90 percent of deforestation. The process of mining gold has further ecological impacts due to its use of mercury, which can contaminate local water supplies.
Increasing deforestation rates impede the Amazon’s ability to store carbon and counter climate change. Our changing climate is also having an impact on deforestation. As the forest becomes drier and contains less moisture, it becomes more susceptible to wildfires.
The development of road networks has made parts of the rainforest accessible that were previously difficult to reach. The majority of deforestation hotspots in Brazil in 2021 were found along major road networks.
Lack of Sufficient Governance
When decision-makers have a simplistic pro-development agenda they tend to have little regard for the devastating ecological and social impact of deforestation. Destructive activities surged in the Amazon after 2019, when president Bolsonaro’s government in Brazil weakened the protections that were previously put in place to protect the rainforest.
Lack of Law Enforcement
The Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources was set up to monitor activities related to the conservation of natural resources in Brazil. In 2019 and 2020, however, the agency acted on only 1.3 percent of the alerts for illegal deforestation activity in Brazil. Estimates suggest 94 percent of deforestation in the Amazon and the Cerrado may involve illegal activity, or around 18 million hectares of habitat.
Fires are often started deliberately in the Amazon to clear land for animal agriculture, crop production and other related activities. In addition to intentionally destroying thousands of hectares of the rainforest, fires can easily escape control. While the natural moisture of a rainforest should provide protection from the spread of fire, increasingly dry conditions can impede the rainforest’s ability to protect itself from fire. Wildfires clear even more areas of land and in turn, increase susceptibility to further fires.
Impact on Indigenous People
Deforestation is impacting millions of people who live in the Amazon, including Indigenous communities. While there has been much debate over how far pre-Columbian societies altered the landscape of the Amazon, one study published in 2021 suggests that native inhabitants of parts of northeastern Peru have lived there for thousands of years with very little impact on its ecosystem.
Impacts on Water Supply
Through a process known as transpiration, the Amazon expels large amounts of water into the atmosphere. This water then falls as rain, providing around half of the region’s rainfall. Clearing the rainforest’s cover interferes with this process and alters the ecosystem.
Impact on Local Temperature
With a reduction in the number of trees, the Amazon has less cover, contains and releases less moisture, and can no longer cool the local climate in the way it once did.
When Did Deforestation Start in the Amazon?
Researchers believe mass deforestation began in the 1960s, driven by land owners and their commercial activities.
How Much of the Amazon Rainforest Has Been Destroyed?
When Will the Amazon Rainforest Be Gone?
If deforestation continues at its current rate, we could see the demise of the Amazon rainforest by 2064, particularly in the southern and eastern areas. By this point periods of severe drought will prevent recovery and destroy native wildlife.
- Since the 1970s around 18 percent of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed.
- Since 1998 an average of 10,000 acres of rainforest cover has been destroyed every day.
- In 2021 alone 4.8 million acres of the Amazon rainforest were lost.
- The clearing of land for cattle ranching accounts for 80 percent of deforestation in the Amazon.
- In one Brazilian state 400 square miles of forest has been cleared for soy farming in the last 10 years.
- In 2021 deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil rose to its highest level in 15 years.
Facts About the Amazon Rainforest
- The Amazon is the largest rainforest on Earth and covers an area of 6.7 million square kilometers.
- The Amazon currently stores an estimated 123 billion tons of carbon.
- The Amazon provides a habitat for 2.5 million species of insects and thousands of species of animals.
What You Can Do
To play your part in reducing the demand for meat products you can shift to a plant-rich diet. Without the demand, landowners will not profit from clearing and destroying the rainforest. You can also support organizations and Indigenous groups that safeguard the region.