Can Amazon Countries Save the Rain Forest?
Backgrounder

Can Amazon Countries Save the Rain Forest?

The Amazon Rainforest plays a critical role in global climate health, but accelerating deforestation continues to raise alarm. How are the region’s governments responding?
A deforested area of the rain forest near the Trans-Amazonian Highway in Brazil.
A deforested area of the rain forest near the Trans-Amazonian Highway in Brazil. Michael Dantas/AFP/Getty Images
Summary
  • Between 17 and 20 percent of the Amazon, the world’s largest rain forest, has been destroyed over the past fifty years. The majority of deforestation has occurred in Brazil, followed by Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru.
  • The widespread loss of forest jeopardizes the Amazon’s ability to mitigate climate change. It also threatens the rain forest’s rich biodiversity and the lives of tens of millions of people who rely on the land to survive.
  • Amid growing international concern, some of the region’s governments have taken steps to expand forest protections, while others have encouraged economic development at all costs.

Introduction

Spanning nearly 2.3 million square miles (6 million square kilometers) across eight South American countries, the Amazon Rainforest is the world’s largest tropical forest. This vast ecosystem, which makes up most of the Amazon River Basin, is one of the most biodiverse places on earth and the home of tens of millions of people, including some four hundred Indigenous groups. It also plays a critical role in mitigating climate change by regulating water and carbon cycles and absorbing greenhouse gas emissions.

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But the health of the Amazon has declined drastically over the last several decades. In that time, urbanization, illegal logging and mining, commodity agriculture, oil and gas development, and devastating forest fires have destroyed nearly one-fifth of the rain forest. The extent of the deforestation has alarmed scientists and sparked international calls for governments in the region to crack down on unchecked development and strengthen environmental protections. But countries have varied in their responses, and experts say more needs to be done to preserve the Amazon.

How bad is deforestation of the Amazon?

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Latin America

Climate Change

Deforestation

Brazil

Bolivia

The roughly 2.3 million square miles of the Amazon Rainforest are spread across eight countries in South America. Some two-thirds of the forest lies within Brazil, while the rest reaches into Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Suriname, Venezuela, and French Guiana, an overseas territory of France. The extent and pace of deforestation vary widely from country to country.

In the last fifty years, Brazil’s Amazon has lost nearly a fifth of its rain forest, or almost 300,000 square miles (777,000 square kilometers). This includes more than 5,000 square miles (13,000 square kilometers) lost in 2021—a fifteen-year high—and record-breaking numbers in the first sixth months of 2022. Experts say that even more areas of the rain forest suffer from “degradation,” which is when the forest’s health diminishes, making full deforestation in those areas more likely in the future. Large-scale deforestation in Brazil began in the 1960s, but it accelerated rapidly under President Jair Bolsonaro, particularly in the states of Pará and Mato Grosso.

After Brazil, Bolivia has recorded the most deforestation, with more than 25,700 square miles (66,700 square kilometers) of tree cover lost between 2001 and 2021, according to the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch. The majority of the tree loss has been in the eastern departments of Santa Cruz de la Sierra and Beni. Colombia and Peru also recorded substantial forest loss during the same period, at nearly 19,000 and 14,000 square miles (49,300 and 36,200 square kilometers), respectively. These countries are followed by Venezuela and Ecuador for forest loss, while French Guiana, 95 percent of which is covered by the Amazon, recorded the least amount of deforestation, at just over 300 square miles (785 square kilometers).

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What are the consequences of Amazon deforestation?

Deforestation contributes to losses in resilience, or the forest’s ability to recover from disturbances such as droughts, fires, and landslides. If this continues, it could cause the Amazon’s historically wet, tropical climate to dry out, a phenomenon known as “dieback.” With enough dieback, the Amazon could hit a critical “tipping point” after which the rain forest will begin transitioning to a dry savanna. Scientists believe this point is between 20 and 25 percent deforestation. According to current estimates, between 17 and 20 percent of the Amazon has already been destroyed, though some scientists put this number closer to 13 percent. The transition to savanna would have a devastating effect on the Amazon’s rich biodiversity, as well as its capacity to regulate regional and global climate systems and redistribute water around South America, says Rhett Butler, founder and CEO of Mongabay, an environmental science news platform. 

The Amazon’s capacity to manage the carbon cycle is already being affected. Often referred to as the “lungs of the earth,” the Amazon produces between 6 and 9 percent of the world’s total oxygen. It has long functioned as a carbon sink, absorbing massive amounts of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas that causes the planet to warm when released into the atmosphere. However, new research has shown that parts of the rain forest now emit more carbon dioxide than they can take in, partly due to soaring deforestation rates. This change has had wide-reaching implications, creating less rainfall through central and southern South America and accelerating a rise in the global average temperature.

More on:

Latin America

Climate Change

Deforestation

Brazil

Bolivia

Climate change also puts the Amazon’s rich biodiversity, including thousands of plant and animal species and millions of insect species, at risk by causing hotter temperatures, more frequent fires, and shifting rain patterns. Already, the Amazon’s dry seasons have become longer and droughts more common, which has affected water, food, and energy supplies, particularly hydroelectric power.

Likewise at risk are the livelihoods of tens of millions of city dwellers, farmers, ranchers, and Indigenous peoples, some of whom have lived in the forest for thousands of years. Several Indigenous groups, such as the Awá of Brazil, have been forcibly displaced, while others are seeing their territory encroached upon by illegal loggers and gold miners. In some cases, Indigenous communities have mobilized response groups and used surveillance technology, such as cameras and drones, to document the threats to their land.

What is driving the problem?

Reasons for clearing the land include:

Agriculture. Cattle ranching is by far the leading cause of deforestation in nearly every Amazon country, with the ranchers who fell large swaths of the forest typically using slash-and-burn techniques. Researchers in one study estimate that approximately 70 percent of deforested land in the Amazon has been cleared for cattle pastures. These ranches are often then converted into farmland for commodity crops, including soybeans, coffee, maize, sorghum, and cotton. Speculators who clear land in hopes of selling it at a high profit in the future also drive much of the problem.

Logging. While some Amazon countries have laws authorizing logging in designated areas, the majority of logging that occurs in the rain forest is illegal. (A recent study found that 94 percent of logging in the Brazilian Amazon is done so illegally.) Loggers generally remove valuable hardwoods first and then burn what remains. This burning can increase the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, accelerate biodiversity loss, and lead to more forest fires.

Roads. Road construction opens access to previously inaccessible areas of the rain forest, making it easier for people to poach, mine, or log deeper into the Amazon. Major projects, including the Trans-Amazonian Highway that extends across most of Brazil, have caused habitat fragmentation, cut through Indigenous lands, and accelerated deforestation by exposing the rain forest to further exploitation.

Mining. The Amazon’s wealth of copper, tin, nickel, bauxite, iron ore, and gold has long driven both legal and illegal extraction. While mining tends to lead to less deforestation than industries such as agriculture do, it can still contaminate nearby water and food sources.

Oil. The Amazon possesses several large oil reserves, particularly in Ecuador and Peru. While oil exports can be a boon for a country’s economy, extraction efforts can have major environmental impacts, including deforestation to make way for roads, drilling platforms, and pipelines, as well as contamination from leaks, spills, or broken pipes. In some countries, oil exploration blocks overlap with protected areas and Indigenous lands. 

What are notable examples of governments contributing to deforestation?

In some countries, governments have encouraged activities that contribute to deforestation to boost economic growth, even at the expense of the Amazon.

After taking office in 2019, for example, Brazilian President Bolsonaro took several steps that encouraged development of the Amazon. In addition to sending to Congress a proposal that would open Indigenous lands to commercial exploitation, he announced plans to extend an existing highway named BR-163, a critical transportation route that cuts through the forest. He also weakened existing environmental protections and approved reductions of billions of dollars from the combined environmental budgets for 2021 and 2022. 

In Bolivia, President Evo Morales Ayma signed legislation in 2019 allowing farmers and ranchers to burn and clear more of the forest for agricultural purposes, which critics say facilitated the country’s surge in wildfires later that summer. Agriculture, which contributed almost 13 percent of the value added to Bolivia’s gross domestic product (GDP) in 2021, has been the primary driver of deforestation in the country’s Amazon. And in 2015, Morales issued a decree that opened up more than 92,700 square miles (240,000 square kilometers) of land, including at least half of the country’s national protected areas, to oil and gas extraction. Today, researchers estimate that 27 percent of Bolivia’s protected lands are at risk of being used for oil and gas development.

Likewise, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, in power from 1990 to 2000, opened up his country’s Amazon to small-, medium-, and large-scale agriculture and promoted foreign investment in the area. Shortly after, Peru saw an increase in the number of agro-industrial companies operating in the rain forest. Meanwhile in Venezuela, known for being a major producer and exporter of minerals such as bauxite, diamonds, and gold, demand for natural resources is fueling forest loss. In 2016, President Nicolás Maduro established the Orinoco Mining Arc, with an estimated potential value of $2 trillion. Since its creation, mining activity has extended beyond the project’s original boundaries and into protected areas, such as the Canaima National Park World Heritage Site.

What steps have governments taken to address the issue?

Several efforts aimed at protecting and preserving the Amazon have been made at the local level. Guyana has maintained the extensive, ecologically intact forests that cover approximately 90 percent of the country and experienced a low rate of deforestation, and Indigenous groups are at the forefront of these efforts. The South Rupununi District Council (SRDC), a representative body of the Wapichan people, patrols remote parts of the rain forest to find and report incidents of illegal activity to government regulators. Additionally, Guyana has a strong land titling system for Indigenous communities. This ensures their legal rights over the land where they reside, in contrast with Brazil and elsewhere where such rights have steadily been eroded. “Once [a] title is given to a community it’s absolute and forever,” Kid James, a program coordinator for the SRDC, said in 2021.

Other countries have sought to balance preservation of the Amazon with economic growth. In Colombia, the government has focused on developing its so-called bioeconomy, an economy centered on renewable resources. Bogotá has encouraged regenerative agroforestry, a farming method that seeks to mimic natural ecosystems. In one community, farmers are using regenerative techniques to cultivate marketable native crops, including cacao, coconut, guava, and hibiscus. This type of sustainable agriculture still generates a profit for small farmers while aiding reforestation efforts, making it a viable alternative economic model to monoculture farming and cattle ranching.

Colombia is also one of a few dozen countries in the world—and the only one in the Amazon—to have a carbon tax, which incentivizes companies to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions or switch to more efficient processes or cleaner fuels. The tax was introduced in 2016, but the results have largely been poor. While it has generated a small amount of additional tax revenue, investigators have found that the program erroneously created millions of extra carbon credits, leading to no overall emissions reductions and causing an estimated loss of $25 million in potential revenue. 

In neighboring Ecuador, the government’s Socio Bosque program [PDF] offers annual payments to low-income landowners who commit to protecting their forests. The program aims to reduce deforestation while also alleviating poverty. As of 2020, it had resulted in over 2,600 conservation agreements covering more than 6,000 square miles (16,000 square kilometers) of forest, or about 15 percent of Ecuador’s territory. However, the program relies largely on international funding, and in 2019, President Lenín Moreno approved a 71 percent reduction to the program amid a wave of environmental budget cuts, amounting to a loss of more than $16 million in funding.

At the same time, some countries have tried to crack down on illegal activity in an effort to address widespread impunity for environmental crimes. In Colombia, a 2021 law imposed harsher penalties and longer jail sentences for illegal activities that resulted in deforestation. Peru has repeatedly deployed its military to spearhead efforts against illegal gold mining and other illicit activity in the Amazon, though with limited success—the region’s militaries often do not have experience or training as environmental enforcers. And Brazil has sent federal police and environmental officials to patrol the rain forest, but they regularly encounter fierce opposition, and there are simply not enough personnel to cover its vast expanse.

What has been done at the international level?

There is a concerted global effort to save the rain forest before it approaches the tipping point. Following the 2022 reelection of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, commonly known as Lula, as president of Brazil, Germany and Norway said they would resume making payments to the Amazon Fund, created in 2008 to promote sustainable use of the rain forest. The two countries had previously paid more than $1.2 billion to the fund, which supports hundreds of diverse projects across the region, before Bolsonaro shelved it in 2019. Brazil’s previous track record of reducing deforestation—including a more than 70 percent drop in the rate of deforestation during Lula’s 2003–2010 presidency—offers a model for neighboring countries, Mongabay’s Butler says. And at the latest UN climate talks in November 2022, the leaders of Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Indonesia announced a new joint effort aimed at securing funding to restore climate-critical ecosystems in their respective countries. 

Other major global initiatives include the Architecture for REDD+ Transactions (ART), through which private sector companies and donor countries issue emissions reduction credits to incentivize governments to reduce emissions and protect intact forests. There is also the Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest Finance (LEAF) Coalition, a public-private endeavor that aims to mobilize billions of dollars in corporate financing to help protect the world’s tropical rain forests. In 2021, Ecuador became the first Amazon country to sign a LEAF agreement, though critics have since raised concerns [PDF] that the program does little to stop extractive industries from violating Indigenous land rights.

“It’s important to not lose sight of the fact that progress has been made in the past, and it is possible,” Butler says. “There is still an opportunity to address these issues.”

Recommended Resources

This 2021 report [PDF] by the Inter-American Dialogue’s Lisa Viscidi and Sarah Phillips analyzes the energy and mining industries in the Amazon.

Nature magazine investigates the threats to Indigenous communities living in the Peruvian Amazon and assesses potential solutions. 

The World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch monitors the state of forests around the world, including the Amazon.

A panel of Latin America experts discusses how the private sector can protect the Amazon Rainforest at this 2022 Wilson Center event.

In this photo essay [in Spanish] for El País, Pablo Albarenga and Francesc Badia i Dalmases depict life for Indigenous people living in the Kapoto village in Brazil’s Mato Grosso State.

The EcoCrime platform from the independent, Brazil-based Igarapé Institute works to detect and disrupt environmental crime in the Amazon Basin.

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Michael Bricknell and Will Merrow helped create the graphics for this Backgrounder.

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