The human body cannot live without lungs. The Amazon Rainforest has been likened to the lungs of the planet—a testament to the importance of this forest for the world. The Amazon is home to many people, as well as millions of species of fauna and flora. Yet this rainforest is under siege, with vast tracts of land being deforested at alarming rates. Much of this is due to animal agriculture, creating products for international markets including North America.
Should the rate of deforestation continue at current levels for much longer, the Amazon ecosystem could be irreparably damaged, pitching the world into unknown climatic conditions. But people are fighting for the survival of the forest. This article will explore the threats and impacts posed by Amazon deforestation and what can be done to prevent further damage.
Why is there deforestation in the Amazon?
The Amazon Rainforest has long been a target of modern-day development. The canopy is ripped apart for timber, the earth scoured for minerals, and the land scorched to make way for ranching.
Around 1.5 million square miles of the Amazon Rainforest lie within Brazil’s borders, making up a majority of the forest. Over the last decade, protections were put into place which curbed the rate of deforestation in the Amazon. However, things changed in 2018, following the election of Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro. The Bolsonaro administration scrambled to loosen environmental protections, empowering ranchers and loggers to increase the pace of development in the forest, bringing them into direct conflict with indigenous people who live in and around the forest and depend upon it for survival.
As long as governments like Brazil push a pro-development agenda, deforestation in the Amazon will likely continue.
How much of the Amazon Rainforest has been destroyed?
By the year 2018, 17% of the Amazon forest was reported as having been lost. Deforestation rates in the Amazon peaked in the late 1990s and early 2000s, with some years seeing 10,000 square miles razed within 12 month periods.
Because the Amazon Rainforest is enduring a near-constant onslaught from ranchers, farmers, loggers, and land-grabbers, it’s impossible to pin down a precise figure of just how much has been lost to date. In 2019 the National Institute for Space Research (NISR) revealed that 3,769 square miles were destroyed during a 12 month period, marking a 30 percent increase during the previous yearlong period. During the first three months of 2020 alone, NISR observed just over 300 square miles of forest were destroyed. These figures are up over 50 percent from the same time the year previous. According to the watchdog organization Imazon, deforestation exploded by 279 percent in March 2020, as compared with last year.
Direct Drivers of Deforestation in the Amazon
There are many drivers of deforestation within the countries that host the Amazon Rainforest. Below are some of the primary concerns, which are either directly caused by people, or are the result of climatic changes brought on by human activity in the area.
One of the leading causes of deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest is linked to beef consumption. Vast areas of forest are cleared by cutting down trees and burning the forest down in order to create pasture land for grazing cattle. Brazil is a major supplier of beef to countries like the United States and China, exporting 1.82 million tons in 2019 alone. The Brazilian company JBS, the world’s largest meat processor, is intimately connected to deforestation since its suppliers are constantly expanding their ranching lands into the forest. The greatest rates of deforestation are also seen near slaughterhouses and along roads leading to slaughterhouses. Tellingly, JBS’s stock soared along with Bolsonaro’s election, in anticipation of the administration’s pro-development agenda. As long as global demand for beef remains strong in places like the United States, so too will the rate of Amazon deforestation.
Small-scale agriculture has long been touted as a major driver of deforestation in the Amazon Rainforest. As with ranching, small-scale agriculture requires the forest to be “slashed and burned” to clear the ground for crops and grazing of various types.
While many agree that small-scale agriculture plays a key role in deforestation, at times these activities can garner somewhat outsized blame—something that also helps deflect attention from multinational agribusinesses which are the most significant drivers of deforestation. The nuances of small-scale agriculture are important to take into consideration, since these farmers are often subsistence and operate much more sustainably than their larger industrial counterparts.
Unlike other types of forests, the Amazon did not evolve to burn. And in the Amazon basin, fires can actually be spurred by deforestation. As their name suggests, rainforests contain high levels of moisture, which helps buffer them from fire. Areas of forest that have been cleared become drier and more susceptible to burning—a vicious cycle that will be more difficult to disrupt as more rainforest is destroyed. The fire season in 2019 was one of the worst on record, with 76,000 fires burning simultaneously across the Amazon. This alarming future represented an increase of over 80 percent over the same time the year previous.
Many fires in the Amazon are intentionally started by ranchers in order to clear lands for cattle, or by industrial farmers clearing the way for vast soy mono-crops. In many cases, trees that have been cut down in months previous are left to dry out, creating kindling on a mass scale that can be ignited intentionally by people. Adding to the man-made causes of fires are seasonal fluctuation such as El Niño conditions, which can create droughts, further exacerbating fire-prone conditions.
Industrial agriculture operations are becoming increasingly common in the Amazon Rainforest. Soy is a particularly popular crop for freshly-cleared land—but this soy isn’t going to make tofu. Instead, Amazonian soy is used to feed animals confined in concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), also known as factory farms. As with many environmental problems facing the world today, meat-heavy diets play a big role in Amazon deforestation. And it’s not just the forest that’s at risk: the Cerrado, a lesser-known yet also critically important area of savannah that covers a fifth of Brazil, has also seen serious degradation thanks largely to soy monocultures.
Timber from the Amazon has long been in demand from countries around the world. But one of the lesser-known threats posed by logging is that these activities create literal inroads towards deeper reaches of the forest, paving the path towards further destruction since roads allow easier passage for heavy equipment and more people.
Other causes of forest loss in the Amazon
Mining operations, for sought-after minerals such as gold, account for further damage to the Amazon forest. Mining operations can range in size, from artisanal to operations run by international corporations. Across the board, mining causes deforestation, pollution, and encroachment on indigenous lands. Illegal mining in the Amazon increased by roughly 25 percent between the years 2018 and 2019.
The impacts of deforestation in the Amazon basin carry many serious implications, many of which are already being felt. Predictive models of what the future could hold for the Amazon Rainforest are raising grave concerns. Impacts on indigenous communities, water supply for South American cities, and local climatic changes are explored below.
Impact on Indigenous people
In an interview conducted in the summer of 2020, Célia Xakriabá, a leader of the Xakriabá people, talked about the impacts on indigenous people who have lived in relative harmony with the Amazon for thousands of years. From the first waves of colonization, beginning in the 16th century, up to the current day, indigenous communities have had to assert their rights to remain on their land and live as they choose, without interference from governments and corporations acting at the behest of neoliberal capitalism. Célia spoke about the loss of biodiversity she has witnessed, as well as the loss of connection with the earth that city-dwellers often experience. She spoke about birds singing songs of misery “because most of them, they are alone. They have lost their partners… And we, the indigenous are becoming more alone, because they’re taking people from us.”
Indigenous resistance has long been at the forefront of the battle to save the Amazon. Truly, it is a matter of life and death. In 2019 alone, ten indigenous people—including seven tribal leaders—were murdered in Brazil. Since Bolsonaro’s administration came to power in 2018, invasions into indigenous territories have more than doubled, emboldened by the President’s vocal support of agribusiness, mining, and other activities. Experts consider these killing and others like them as being part of an “institutionalized genocide.” Yet indigenous people in countries across South America are refusing to back down, showing incredible fortitude and securing important victories in the face of devastating loss.
Impacts on water supply
Incredibly, the Amazon Rainforest generates roughly half of its own rainfall—it is an extremely self-sufficient forest when allowed to thrive. However, deforestation seriously disrupts this critical hydrological cycle. Now, experts worry that the forest may be headed towards a critical tipping point. Research has shown that 40 percent deforestation would lead to diminished rainfall, a lengthier dry season, and a widespread transition into savannah landscapes—in other words, the complete transformation of the rainforest ecosystem would take place. Scientists are concerned that the deforestation tipping point needed for “flipping” these ecosystems is at around 20-25 percent deforestation. And given that 17 percent of the Amazon was reported as being deforested in 2018, alarm bells are being sounded for good reason.
Rainfall from the Amazon also contributes to reservoirs supplying urban areas including São Paulo. The destruction and changes in the Amazon were likely among the causes of the city’s drought crisis in 2015.
Impact on local temperature
As trees are cut down in the Amazon, temperatures will continue to rise. Trees provide shade and help keep ground temperatures cool. By contrast, savannah landscapes feature far less shade, as do pasture lands or areas being used as mono-crops. Researchers found that areas in which tree cover was reduced by 70 percent wound being 0.44 degrees celsius hotter. During the driest parts of the year, deforested areas increased in temperature by up to 1.5 degrees celsius.
Amazon Forests Facts
- The Amazon basin is close to the same size of the United States, and is the biggest rainforest in the world.
- One 2017 review found evidence of nearly 400 new species, discovered between a single two-year period – which is the equivalent of one new species discovered every other day.
- The Amazon is home to 3,000 species of fish, 40,000 types of plants, and 2.5 million insect varieties.
- When intact, the forest floor is in permanent darkness thanks to the thickness of the canopy.
- The Amazon Rainforest is referred to as the lungs of the earth due to its production of over 20% of the world’s oxygen.
What will happen if Amazon forest is destroyed?
Deforesting the Amazon Rainforest is a dangerous experiment because no one can truly know the full extent and impact of such devastation. Some things that can be relatively certain: for example, with the rainforest gone, the Amazon ecosystem could become much simpler, which would likely mean the extinction of millions of species of fauna and flora.
Amazon deforestation has implications for the world’s climate as well. The significant reduction of rain once produced by the forest would mean cooler temperatures in the atmosphere above the region. This change could cause a ripple effect in the global atmosphere that would be unpredictable, yet likely very impactful. One modeling study predicts that the snowpack in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which supplies water to California urban centers, would be shrunk by half should the Amazon become completely deforested.
How can we stop deforestation in the Amazon?
Protecting the Amazon Rainforest is an urgent cause requiring action from people around the world. One way to contribute is by supporting indigenous organizations who are working on the ground to defend their rights. Donate or volunteer your time to organizations such as these:
It is also critical for people especially in wealthy countries to understand the connections between Amazon deforestation and dietary choices since much of the deforestation is driven by animal agriculture. By eliminating cows and all other factory-farmed animal products from your diet, you can help reduce demand for pastureland and monocropping in the Amazon. Thanks to plant-based meats and vegan diets becoming more popular in places like the United States, it is easier than ever to reduce your personal role in Amazon deforestation.
Future of the Amazon Rainforest
The future of the Amazon Rainforest remains uncertain. This ecosystem is much more valuable than the resources wrested from it through industrial development. Home to over half the world’s remaining tropical forests, and supporting incredible biodiversity, the Amazon Rainforest is quite simply irreplaceable. While not yet completely understood, the forest’s influence on the global climate makes its destruction an issue of global concern.
There is hope thanks to indigenous communities, scientists, and concerned people throughout South America who are coming together in efforts to stem the tide of destruction. There is precedence for success, with regulations were put into place in the 2000s which decreased deforestation rates during the last decade. But as long as Bolsonaro’s administration remains in power, along with others who are intent upon exploitation, the future of the Amazon hangs in the balance.
The world cannot afford to lose the Amazon Rainforest. Faced with mounting pressures from many fronts, including ranching, agriculture, and logging, there is growing global concern for the future of the rainforest. Political leaders must appreciate the real value of the Amazon in supporting indigenous lives, proliferating biodiversity, and stabilizing local and global climate before it is too late.
Laura is a published fiction & nonfiction author. Her essay on Western dominator identity is featured in The Routledge Handbook of Ecocultural Identity.