WHAT DO YOU think of when you hear the words “Amazon rainforest”?
Do you think about parrots and poison dart frogs, about marmosets and massive trees, and how tropical rainforests are home to roughly 50% of the species on Earth? Do you think about the vast scale of the Amazon, an immense ecosystem that covers 40% of South America and produces 20% of the world’s oxygen?
Or do you think of deforestation, clear cutting, and environmental disaster?
Such thinking is certainly warranted. Since 1970, an area of the Amazon larger than the size of Texas has been cleared. Apart from the irreplaceable loss of biodiversity and ecosystem services, deforestation emits substantial greenhouse gasses, accounting for nearly 20% of global emissions. In short, deforestation of the Amazon is bad news.
But now, more than ever, there is hope for the Amazon on the horizon.
Deforestation rates in the Amazon rainforest have fallen dramatically in the past decade. In 2004 during peak deforestation, a whopping 27,400 square kilometers of Amazon rainforest were cleared in a single year, an area roughly the size of Massachusetts. By 2014, deforestation rates in the Amazon had decreased to 4,800 square kilometers of forest cleared per year, roughly one sixth of the peak rate in 2004. Under current policies, there is hope for reducing Amazon deforestation to zero within the next decade.
Such progress is largely thanks to Brazil. As the largest Amazon nation, demographic changes, policies and conservation measures taken by Brazil more or less dictate the future of the Amazon rainforest. Before 2005, Brazil struggled to control rampant expansion into the Amazon and the resulting clear-cutting for ranching and soybean production.
How did Brazil accomplish such a drastic change?
- PROTECTED AREAS
Over half of the Brazilian Amazon is now designation as national parks or indigenous lands, effectively protecting an area larger than Greenland from intensive logging and agriculture. The push for more protected areas began in 2003, pioneered by a new Brazilian administration that was determined to curb deforestation and illegal logging. The recognition of indigenous land rights ensures the cooperation of locals and serves to preserve their way of life as well as the forest.
- INDUSTRY COOPERATION
Historically, cattle ranching has been the greatest driver of deforestation in the Amazon, followed in recent decades by growing global demand for soybeans. In 2006, mounting political pressure and bad publicity associated with rainforest destruction pushed the two biggest buyers of Brazilian soybeans, Cargill and McDonalds, to freeze their purchases of soybeans sourced from recently cleared rainforest. Such action led to a national moratorium on soybeans grown on land that had been deforested since 2006, discouraging deforestation in the process. The cattle industry followed suit in 2009, as packing plants and slaughterhouses in Brazil refused to source cattle from ranches within 10km of deforestation fronts. In spite of these new restrictions, the cattle and soybean industries have done well in Brazil, increasing in size and scope in the face of surging international demand.
- SATELLITE MONITORING
Protected areas and geographical restrictions on the spread of soybeans and ranching are great in theory, but without monitoring it is hard to prove that such restrictions are being adhered to. In order to monitor the pace of deforestation, the Brazilian Space Agency launched it’s DETER satellite in 2004. DETER monitors changes in forest cover in real time, producing a report of deforestation hotspots for law enforcement every two weeks. Satellite monitoring in Brazil is estimated to have prevented deforestation of 59,000 square kilometers of rainforest from 2007 to 2011.
- IMPROVED ENFORCEMENT
Scale poses a huge hurdle for any government agency seeking to enforce wildlife law over a large area. The Amazon rainforest covers a whopping 5.5 million square kilometers, and even with satellites flying overhead, someone has to be on the ground to enforce forestry laws. The Brazilian government got tough on rainforest crime with a series of high profile fines for violators by focusing their efforts on patrolling roads leading into the rainforest. Such focus by law enforcement increased the efficiency of patrols over such a large area.
- INTERNATIONAL INCENTIVES
The connection between deforestation and worsening climate change actually helped the Amazon by engaging the larger global community in rainforest conservation. With the goal of reducing emissions from deforestation, the UN established the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation Programme, or REDD+, at the 2007 climate summit in Bali. Through this program, industrialized countries with high carbon emissions pay for carbon storage by preserving forests in developing countries. This offers developing countries additional economic incentives to preserve their forests and to keep emissions low.
Norway has emerged as a leading force in forest conservation by pledging $1 billion to rainforest preservation efforts in the Amazon, or $5 per ton of sequestered carbon. For the plan to be effective, Brazil was paid only after measurable decreases in deforestation had been observed, a process known as a pay for performance program. Such a program sends a powerful message to developing countries that the international community values forests and will help foot the bill for protecting them.
- POLITICAL WILL
The establishment of protected areas, investment into satellite monitoring, increased law enforcement, and the cooperation of key industries doesn’t just happen overnight. An incredible amount of political will was required to accomplish such changes, and the Brazilian people deserve the majority of the credit for creating a social movement. The Zero Deforestation movement, pressure from numerous NGOs, as well as the cooperation of environmentalists, indigenous groups, rubber trappers, and unions, paved the way for the government actions described above.
The Way Forward
Even with promising results in Brazil, deforestation is still a global problem. In 2014, the world lost 182,000 square kilometers of forest, an area the size of North Dakota. Furthermore, the Amazon is not out of the woods yet, with no guarantee that promising trends will continue. However, Brazil has proven that reducing deforestation is possible over a short period of time, and there is real potential for a complete halt to Amazon deforestation in coming years.
Brazil’s actions have provided a roadmap for other tropical nations that struggle with deforestation. Indonesia has surpassed Brazil as the country with the highest deforestation rate due to the expansion of oil palm plantations, and action there is desperately needed. To address the issue, Norway entered into a $1 billion deal with Indonesia through REDD+ in 2010 to halt further logging concessions. While deforestation rates have dipped slightly since then, the situation in Indonesia remains delicate and complex, and only time will tell if Brazil’s success can be duplicated.
What YOU can do
You can do your part to ensure that you don’t inadvertently contribute to rainforest deforestation. Many products, such as chocolate, coconut, palm oil, coffee, vanilla, cinnamon, pepper, exotic woods such as teak and mahogany, and even some medicines, are sourced from rainforests around the world.
This doesn’t mean you have to give up all these things. Many rainforest products can be grown and harvested sustainably, you just might have to pay attention to brands and labels to find sustainable products. Look for fair-trade and organic products, or products certified by the Rainforest Alliance, the Forestry Stewardship Council (FSC), or the Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO).
Look up your favorite snack foods online to learn more about where they come from. If they appear to be unsustainable, email the company. The threat of bad PR or even boycotts from enough consumers can be enough to get some companies to change. If they realize we care about the rainforest, they might begin to care as well.
- 10 Household Products that come from the Amazon
- Environmental Scorecard for 20 Snack food companies that cause deforestation
- Future trends in Amazon deforestation and the roll of other South American nations
- The Strategy of Reforestation to fight Climate Change