When the Amazon rainforest is in danger, we all are.
The world’s largest intact forest, the Amazon plays a key role in regulating the global climate. It is home to Indigenous Peoples and traditional communities whose land stewardship practices can lead us all toward a more sustainable future. It is perhaps the world’s most biodiverse region yet also a place where there are likely still many species unknown to science.
The Amazon is, simply put, amazing. And, yet, it is being destroyed.
Tree by tree, kilometer by kilometer, the Amazon is being weakened by deforestation carried out by those who put short-term profits over people, over the planet, and even over our collective future. From January through July 2022, the highest rate of deforestation ever for the first months of the year was recorded, according to data from INPE, with an area of forest five times the size of New York City deforested in the Amazon during that span.
Life as we know it can not exist without strong standing forests.
Understanding the problems facing the Amazon — notably deforestation and fires fueled by the anti-environment policies of Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s government — can empower us to see the solutions.
Let’s start with the basics facts about the Amazon rainforest, deforestation, and the fires in the region.
Where is the Amazon rainforest?
The world’s largest intact forest, the Amazon rainforest covers 2.6 million square miles across nine countries in South America: Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana. Approximately 60 percent of the Amazon Basin is in Brazil, where Greenpeace Brazil has been working for 30 years to protect it.
What causes fires in the Amazon rainforest?
Around the world, we have watched in horror over the last few years as images of smoke and fire have emerged from the under-threat forest in Brazil, but it is important to remember that fires in the Amazon are generally NOT a naturally occurring phenomenon.
Healthy, moist rainforests normally do not burn without intervention from humans.
The fires in the Amazon are often started intentionally by people — many of whom are illegal land grabbers emboldened by the anti-environment policies of Bolsonaro’s government — who are attempting to clear forested land for other uses.
This process of destroying trees to clear forested land is known as deforestation.
As it is often done intentionally, the burning in the Amazon is different from the wildfires experienced in places like California or the Mediterranean that can be naturally occurring or ignited by accident.
Wait, fires are started intentionally as part of deforestation?
Yes. In the Amazon, fire is used in the deforestation process to clear the land of vegetation, often after large trees have previously been cut down and left to dry out. The burning season generally starts peaking in July each year to coincide with the natural dry season which extends through November. However, with intentionally diminished enforcement of environmental laws under Bolsonaro as well as increasingly dry conditions due to the climate crisis, there are fires in the Amazon all year round now.
While Indigenous Peoples and traditional communities have understood responsible uses of fire in land stewardship for generations, the fires generating global headlines in the Amazon are often ignited by those people who do not care about the long-term health of the ecosystem or the communities who live there.
These people putting short-term profits over the forest — as well as the global climate — include land grabbers and speculators, illegal loggers and miners, and those looking to seize public forests for private uses such as creating cattle pasture. Such enemies of the environment have been able to operate recklessly and with diminished fear of law enforcement since Bolsanaro became president of Brazil at the start of 2019.
In August 2019, there was a massive coordinated wave of simultaneous fires started in the Amazon in the state of Pará as part of the infamous “Day of Fire.” The cattle ranchers associated with these illegal burnings were inspired in part by Bolsonaro who has made clear he supports a destructive economic development model.
Overall, the fires that month were the worst in the Amazon since 2010. In ensuing years, deforestation and burning have continued even as scientists have warned that Amazon is hurtling toward a climate tipping point of no return.
OK, got all that? The Amazon is under threat from deforestation and the fires used for forest destruction by those putting profits over people and the planet.
Now we’re going to take a closer look at what is driving deforestation and how it has been increasing in recent years.
How much of the Amazon Rainforest has been deforested so far?
In the last 40 years, the Amazon had already had approximately 17% of its total area deforested, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). These numbers don’t count areas of forest undergoing degradation, a lesser but still significant degree of forest damage which also affects biodiversity.
While deforestation is not a new threat to the Amazon, forest destruction has spiked under Bolsonaro’s anti-environment government. Deforestation threatens biodiversity, the lives of Indigenous Peoples and traditional communities and even the global climate.
What is the point of deforestation? Why is it happening in the Amazon?
Deforestation is the cutting down of natural forests and removal of trees from land in order to convert it for non-forest uses such as cattle ranching, growing animal feed, or illegal logging. This destructive economic development model has long been practiced in the Amazon, but it has been reinforced by the Bolsonaro government.
One third of all deforestation in the Amazon is perpetrated by land grabbers seizing public lands in Brazil. This land is stolen from the Brazilian public, often to create more cattle pasture and animal feed for the global meat industry. A survey released by the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) in October 2021 showed that cattle pastures occupied 75% of the deforested area on public lands in the Amazon.
All the while, this criminal activity is rewarded by climate-wrecking Brazilian politicians, candidates as well as major banks and buyers of animal feed or beef around the world who continue to look the other way.
Agribusiness and meat consumption are the primary drivers of deforestation in the Amazon and other biomes in Brazil such as the Pantanal and the Cerrado, but they are not the only ones as the construction of new highways, logging roads, dams, mines, also act as catalysts for deforestation.
Is deforestation pushing the Amazon toward a climate tipping point?
Scientists have warned that further deforestation could push the Amazon rainforest beyond a tipping point where the moisture and carbon balance of much of the Amazon biome would become broken. Beyond this tipping point, the Amazon could effectively fail as a rainforest and begin to become a much dryer ecosystem, similar to a savannah.
According to some studies, this tipping point would be reached when 20% to 25% of the forested area is lost to deforestation. Given that approximately 17% of the rainforest has been lost already, we are perilously close to this catastrophic tipping point.
If such a fate befalls the Amazon there would be disastrous consequences for the climate, people, and biodiversity.
Is deforestation in the Amazon increasing anyway?
Yes. In 2021, the Amazon registered its highest annual rate of deforestation since 2006. That was the year when Brazil started a historic program — Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Deforestation in the Legal Amazon (PPCDAm) —that resulted in a drastic decrease in deforestation.
Unfortunately, all the work that went into curbing deforestation is being undone as the world watches.
From August 2020 through July 2021, INPE’s Amazon Deforestation Monitoring Project (PRODES) recorded deforested areas in the Amazon totaling 13,235 km². This was an increase of 21.97% in the rate of forest destruction compared to the same time period in the previous year, when 10,851 km² were deforested.
How is the Bolsonaro government emboldening deforestation?
The numbers don’t lie, even if the Bolsonaro government tries to greenwash over them: The area deforested each year in the Amazon increased by 52.9% in the first three years of the Bolsonaro administration (average of 11,405 km² between 2019 and 2021) compared to the previous three-year average (average of 7,458 km² between 2016 and 2018).
This destructive trend isn’t an accident, it’s a climate-wrecking philosophy that exploits the forest, denies the rights of Indigenous Peoples and traditional communities, and has dire impacts for the global climate.
One of the ways in which the Bolsonaro government has made it easier for illegal land grabbers to break environmental law is by taking money away from agencies responsible for enforcement. In 2021, the Brazilian government budget for the environment was the lowest in 21 years, as shown in a report by the Brazilian Climate Observatory.
The clear increase in deforestation in the Amazon is a result of the current administration’s anti-environmental agenda, which has deliberately weakened forest inspection and protection systems.
With the PRODES and DETER reports making it clear that deforestation is increasing and massive burning seasons are becoming an annual danger, it is easy to experience climate grief. But there are ways for us to work together, wherever we are, to stand up for the Amazon and to support the Guardians of the Forest in their generational struggle to protect their forest and their ways of life.
Let’s take a look at some of the tools and strategies that exist to protect the Amazon:
How can the Amazon be protected from deforestation?
With the Brazilian presidential election looming in October 2022, it’s clear that this is a crucial moment for the Amazon. The Bolsonaro government has revealed itself time and again as destructive, greedy, and short-sighted when it comes to the environment and the future of Brazil.
In order to combat deforestation and the rapid loss of biodiversity caused by forest destruction, the Brazilian government must reverse the dismantling of environmental law enforcement that has occurred in recent years.
In addition to actually enforcing existing environmental protections, the Brazilian government must use the effective tools it already has available for forest protection. Data indicates that legally designated “Protected Areas” are an effective tool to prevent deforestation in Brazil. The government can create these legal conservation units by designating the public land it already holds.
When public land in Brazil has no official designation, it is vulnerable to illegal land grabbers because it has neither a private owner nor an engaged government caretaker. For example, PRODES data revealed the loss of 1,300 km² of undesignated public forests in the Brazilian states of Amazonas, Acre and Rondônia (also known as the “AMACRO” region) between August 2020 and July 2021. That is equivalent to an area larger than the city of Rio de Janeiro.
Another key aspect of protecting the forest is recognizing Indigenous Lands as well as the rights of traditional communities and quilombola territories. Unfortunately, under Bolsonaro, the Brazilian national congress has been considering legislation like Marco Temporal that benefit land grabbers and threaten to wipe Indigenous communities off the map.
Why are Indigenous Land rights so important to protecting forests?
Not only is the demarcation of Indigenous Lands absolutely crucial from a human rights perspective, but the recognition of Indigenous Lands remains one of the most effective and least costly tools for effectively combating deforestation. For generations, Indigenous Peoples have lived sustainably in the forest, developing and deploying agricultural techniques that do not destroy the ecosystem.
While deforestation has ramped up throughout the Amazon in recent years, Indigenous Peoples have continually proven to be responsible protectors of their lands. In the Brazilian Amazon, legally recognized Indigenous Lands and local communities suffer deforestation at 11x lower rates than the areas surrounding them, according to World Resources Institute. Indigenous Peoples continue to be guardians of the forest. Protecting the rights of Indigenous Peoples and their lands means protecting everyone’s future.
Unfortunately, Bolsonaro’s anti-environment government has continually sought to undermine the rights of Indigenous Peoples, whether it with his public comments or through legislation that rewards land grabbers.
We must fix the broken global food system!
Industrial agriculture is the biggest driver of deforestation in the world. In Brazil, cattle ranchers and land-grabbers set the Amazon on fire to illegally clear land and expand their destructive business. They do this because the global meat industry — and its paying customers — have historically been willing to sacrifice forests — and our futures — for profits.
Land in Brazil is being destroyed and the survival of Indigenous Peoples is being threatened to make way for cattle raising as well as to grow soy destined to feed all of this livestock. Even though deforestation for soy production is banned in the Brazilian Amazon, the biodiversity-rich Cerrado has become a gigantic soy farming field, displacing traditional communities that have lived in the region for generations.
Thanks to people everywhere, especially those directly impacted in Brazil, the meat industry and governments around the world are finally being forced to face their complicity in this destruction. But neither awareness nor well-intentioned but non-binding pledges are enough to keep the Amazon from reaching a climate tipping point.
Companies need to end deforestation in their supply chains and stop buying products linked to the destruction of the forest. We need to see ambitious commitments — inside Brazil and beyond — to forest protection and to reinventing the global food system in a way that increases safety and equity in the Amazon as well as food security elsewhere without sacrificing forests like the Amazon.
Stand with Indigenous Peoples and local environmental organizations!
The battle to stop deforestation in the Amazon rainforest is one we must win. And there’s only one way to win it: Together.
Wherever you are, you can educate yourself and support Indigenous Peoples and environmental organizations advocating for forests. Greenpeace Brazil has three decades of experience working to protect the Amazon and has the support of a global network of Greenpeace organizations, many also pressuring leaders and companies in their local regions to stop encouraging deforestation through climate-wrecking business practices and trade deals.
But there are many other groups and organizations working at the intersection of the Indigenous rights and climate movements who also need support, such as Articulação dos Povos Indígenas do Brasil (APIB), Amazon Watch, Instituto Socio Ambiental, and CIMI.
However you can do it in your own life, stand with the Indigenous People and traditional communities of the Amazon to preserve the standing forest.
Chris Greenberg - editor for Greenpeace International based in Brooklyn, New York.