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Ruining the Rainforest

Destructive deforestation


By 2030, most of the Amazon could be destroyed if current rates of deforestation continue. But what effect will this have on us and how can we help stop it?

When we think of the Amazon, most of us conjure images of a lush, leafy, humid forest, home to an exotic array of tropical species. We envision a peaceful place –the soothing quiet broken only by the call of a bird or the gurgle of a stream. Unfortunately, the Amazon most of us imagine is quickly disappearing.

By 2030, 60 percent of the Amazon could be destroyed if current deforestation practices continue. Increased demands for soy production and cattle ranching have led to rapid destruction of one of the world’s most treasured rainforests. Read on to find out what’s threatening the Amazon and how it could affect you.

The Amazing Amazon

The Amazon plays an integral role in keeping the earth healthy. The rainforest the river supports directly impacts our climate, provides us with oxygen (approximately 20 percent of the world’s supply), absorbs and holds carbon, impacts the world’s water cycle, and potentially contains cures to diseases within its unexplored species. But all of its contributions to the health of our planet are in jeopardy if current deforestation practices continue.

“The Amazon along with other major intact forest areas on the planet such as the Canadian boreal forest, the rainforests of the Congo basin, the Russian boreal forest and the Indonesian rainforests are essential to the future health of the planet,” says Richard Brooks, forest campaign coordinator with Greenpeace Canada. “The tropical rainforests, including the Amazon, stock large amounts of CO2 on an annual basis. When these forests are removed, burned, or cut, or the health of these forests is impacted in a significant way, we lose key regulators of global climate.”

Threats to the Amazon

The most recent burst of destruction and deforestation in the Amazon has been inspired by the rapid expansion of soy farming and cattle grazing. Global demand for soy products, beef, and timber have skyrocketed, fuelling the degradation of South America’s famous forest.

“The expansion of soy production is a relatively new pressure on the Amazon rainforest, but highly destructive,” says Brooks. Areas of the Amazon are first logged for timber, then slashed and burned to make way for pasture or cash crops, he says.

Greenpeace and the National Institute for Space Research (INPE), a government agency, both monitor the rate of deforestation in the Amazon. INPE uses satellite images from two different systems. The first, called PRODES, is used for yearly qualitative analysis and provides the official annual rate of deforestation. The second, called DETER is aimed at helping officials in Brazil detect deforestation (nearly in real time). Every two weeks this system produces an image that informs the Brazilian Environmental Agency of areas of new deforestation. Aside from these two systems, Greenpeace, which has been working in the Amazon since 1988, has its own satellite mapping team in the Amazon. They also have an on-ground investigation team and they use aerial surveillance in order to investigate and expose criminal deforestation.

Destruction on the Rise

Destruction of the Amazon has doubled to new record levels. After three years of declining deforestation, as reported by the Brazilian authorities, increased demand for products such as soy and beef is behind this recent surge.

Between 2005 and 2007 global prices for soy and beef products dropped, resulting in less pressure to clear land for their production. But renewed demand for these products is causing deforestation to forge ahead at a record rate.

In 2004-2005 there were 1,200 million hectares of soy planted in the Amazon, according to statistics from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics. In 2006-2007 the area increased to 1,540 million hectares–an increase of 20 percent.

Logging timber for domestic and international markets and the expansion of sugarcane production for the biofuels industry are also contributing to deforestation. A recent push by the United States to subsidize biofuels made from corn is yet another factor; according to Greenpeace American farmers are replacing soy crops with corn, inflating both the demand for soy and its global price.

What is Being Done?

Though much more needs to be done, in 2006 soy producers took one small step toward reducing deforestation in the Amazon. They agreed to a two-year moratorium on buying soy from deforested areas. During the 2004-2005 crop season, the area of Brazil planted with soy peaked at a record 23.3 million hectares (47 percent of the land is planted with grains in the country). During the 2006-2007 crop season, the area planted with soy was reduced to 20.7 million hectares thanks in large part to dropping soy prices and the soy moratorium. The 2007-2008 season is expected to show a small increase (estimates suggest 20.9 million hectares).

Reports on the level of deforestation from the first year of the soy moratorium are also encouraging. Deforestation in Mato Grosso, one of Brazil’s largest states, was reduced between August 2006 and May 2007, at a rate equal to only 40 percent of the area deforested during the same period the year before. But a report by EarthTrends, an initiative of the environmental think tank World Resources Institute, suggests that the rising price of soy could threaten the continued success of the moratorium. A detailed report outlining the success of the second year of the moratorium is due out later this year.

In the meantime, the Brazilian government is beginning to take steps to protect the Amazon from further destruction. In 2004 they launched an action plan involving 13 ministries to help fight deforestation. They also recently announced a plan to compensate residents who use traditional farming and ranching techniques which cause less damage to the fragile land of the Amazon. But according to Greenpeace, the problem is a lack of governance in the Amazon and failure by the Brazilian government to properly enforce the laws.

Though the situation in the Amazon is urgent, individual and collective action can still reverse some of the damage and stop further destruction. Implementing existing policies, enforcing legislation, and following sustainable logging techniques will help protect what’s left of the Amazon.

“If Brazil is to make an effective contribution to preventing catastrophic climate change and biodiversity loss, then it needs to cut its deforestation rate drastically and aim to stop Amazon destruction in the near future,” says Brooks. He cautions that once these areas of rainforest are gone, they are likely gone forever.

“Because of the severe impact on soils and microclimate, the forest that may regrow will never have the same characteristics of the ancient forest that has been standing for thousands of years,” he says.

Things are Heating Up

The effects of continued deforestation in the Amazon on global warming will be staggering if the destruction keeps up at its current pace.

“The forest is a major storehouse of carbon, holding about 185 billion tons in its soil and trees. Disrupt this forest through logging and other development and this carbon is released into the atmosphere further exacerbating global climate change. Some call this massive release of carbon, the carbon bomb,” says Brooks of Greenpeace.

“Deforestation, mainly in the Amazon rainforest, is largely responsible for Brazil being the world’s fourth-largest contributor to global warming,” says Brooks. Fifty-nine percent of Brazil’s emissions are from Amazon deforestation.

How Much Land is Affected?

“In the past 40 years 700,000 square kilometres, an area larger than France, has been deforested. Between August 2006 and July 2007, more than 11,000 square kilometres of the Amazon were deforested,” says Richard Brooks of Greenpeace Canada.

Do Your Part

  • Make sure any wood products you purchase from Amazonian species are Forest Stewardship Council-certified (this ensures they come from areas that were managed responsibly). Look for the FSC logo.
  • Pressure companies such as supermarkets and restaurant chains to commit themselves not to buy or sell soy products coming from Amazon deforestation.
  • Contact soy manufacturers to make sure their products aren’t from the Amazon.

“This will help keep the pressure on soy purchasers and manufacturers because it will signal to them that people around the world are paying close attention and are concerned by deforestation for soy production. If the manufacturer indicates the soy is from the Amazon basin, then tell them that you are ending your purchase of their products until they change suppliers,” advises Brooks.



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Matthew Kadey, MSc, RDMatthew Kadey, MSc, RD