Is it possible to eradicate deforestation?

The causes of deforestation in the Amazon - a brief overview

By Thomas Fatheuer, head of the Heinrich Böll Foundation's office in Rio de Janeiro

You can download the full article here.

Dossier: Climate and change in the Amazon

The causes of deforestation: Everything seems clear and yet is not easy to understand. In the past few decades, the image of the ancient antagonist of civilization, the forest, has changed immensely. The brooding gloom, as described by Joseph Conrad in his books, has become the treasure trove of biodiversity, which perhaps houses plants that bring healing to mankind. The central role of the forest for the climate was later discovered, first in the handy but unsustainable formula of the “lungs of the earth”, and now as an important CO2 store. The forest is highly valued within the ecologically enlightened, international community. This also applies to Brazil, the country with the largest forest area on earth. At least since the Cardoso government and its participation in the international Amazon program PPG7, forest conservation has been the country's official government policy. Since Lula da Silva took over government in 2003, the highly respected and honest Marina da Silva has been Minister of the Environment. There can be no doubt about the government's good intentions - but about their effectiveness. Because despite the significant "forest turnaround", the destruction of the rainforest apparently continues unabated - carefully observed by satellites.

The modernity of the satellites is in sharp contrast to the continuity of archaic practices in the lowlands of the earth. Of course, this immediately raises the question of “why”, which is to be explored here in a brief overview. A review of the publications shows that many contributions trace the dynamics of deforestation rather than answer the question of the cause. Perhaps there is a good reason for this, since research into the causes can easily get a metaphysical drive.

And maybe the answer to the question about the cause of deforestation in the Amazon is simply too banal: it's worth it. The implications and ramifications of this statement may not be so banal. All of the dynamics of deforestation - with one exception, the accidental forest fire - have an economic background. That is by no means a matter of course. Deforestation in antiquity, for example, was largely due to military reasons (building a fleet), as was, of course, the use of plant poisons in the Vietnam War. Deforestation in the Amazon is usually hard work and costs, so it is also an investment. It follows an economic rationality that it would be a big mistake to underestimate. Ecologists made this mistake in the 1980s. At that time, many studies showed not only the ecological, but also the economic madness of animal husbandry and agriculture in the Amazon. It was reasonable to assume that these economic activities basically only served to obtain subsidies. A central demand was therefore also that of the dismantling of subsidies. However, this has turned out to be a fatal error. Today we are confronted with the fact that livestock farming and agriculture in large parts of the Amazon are economically attractive, even without government funding. For a long time, such statements have been misunderstood as an apology for deforestation - understandably because these arguments were often put forward by apologists for deforestation.

Another warning sign must be set up, even if it does not announce any news: Amazonia is big, very big. Proudhon claimed that whoever says humanity wants to cheat. Perhaps the same applies to the Amazon. Many studies refer to a very specific place, but then draw conclusions for the whole of the Amazon. This would be roughly as if a researcher examined a certain tendency in land use in Ostwestfalen-Lippe and then wanted his results to apply to all of Europe. The necessary differentiation of the Amazon image has progressed significantly in recent years, but often has not reached those who are committed to the environment. Because some ecological beliefs also need to be revised. Today it is undisputed that the Amazon is a patchwork of different ecosystems and climatic zones. The soil conditions are of course also different. The ecological discovery of how the lush rainforest can thrive on nutrient-poor soils does not allow the wrong conclusion that wherever rainforest grows, the soils are nutrient-poor. The observation that is so important for ecological theory that the roots in the Amazon are extremely shallow has now been put into perspective. Amazonia is nowhere near as homogeneous as aerial photos suggest. But this also means that general statements about the sense and nonsense of agriculture and animal husbandry are hardly permissible for the whole of the Amazon.

An up-to-date look at deforestation

In January 2008 the Brazilian government had to admit that the success numbers of the deforestation season 2006/7 will not be repeated. The current numbers indicate a drastic increase in deforestation. In Brazil, too, the new figures have brought the public discussion about the deforestation of the Amazon forest back into focus. All the major newspapers reported on the first page.

The Folha de São Paulo immediately sent a team to the region with the highest deforestation rates. Alta Floresta, on the border between Mato Grosso and Pará, is one of the 36 municipalities where half of the deforestation is concentrated. There the reporters observed: “The devastation begins with lumberjacks chopping down selected trees with chainsaws. Then tractors tear down the remaining trees. Finally, a fire is set to clear the area and prepare it for use as pasture ”(Folha de São Paulo of January 26th, 2008). On their flight in the direction of Pará, the reporters can observe a mosaic of timber stores, pastures, small reservoirs and illegal roads, with forest islands in between. There is also an overwhelmed representative of the environmental authority IBAMA, who is completely inadequately equipped to control the vast area in its jurisdiction. Claudio Cazal, the local IBAMA boss, is responsible for thirteen municipalities with an area of ​​92,000 square kilometers. That is bigger than the Free State of Bavaria with its 70,000 square kilometers. To do this, he has three employees and four broken cars. Cazal comments on the government's immediate action on the new deforestation figures with astonishing frankness: “That only shows how little Brasilia knows the reality in Amazonia. It's a type of autism. What good is it to suspend all deforestation licenses if the majority of deforestation is carried out without a license anyway. If we want to go out to the controls now, we don't have the means. That is the reality ”(Folha de São Paulo, January 17th, 2008).

The dear cattle

The debate about deforestation factors has centered heavily on soy and sugar cane in recent years. It is all the more important that Amigos da Terra Amazonia, through a study published in January entitled “O Reino do Gado”, reminded people that cattle breeding is the main cause of deforestation in the Amazon. Cattle breeding has developed almost explosively in the last ten years. The number of cattle in the Amazon rose from 34 million to 73 million between 1992 and 2006 - the last official figures are from this year. Between 2000 and 2006, almost the entire expansion of the sector took place in the Amazon. And last year, Brazil became the world's largest exporter of beef. Cattle breeding is an old acquaintance among the driving forces behind deforestation in the Amazon. Obviously, this sector has gained new momentum. The study names the following reasons for this:

• The still low land prices in Amazonia.
• The intensification of agriculture in other parts of the country and the expansion of soy and sugar cane lead to the conversion of pastures into agricultural areas in other parts of the country and thus push cattle breeding towards the Amazon.

The expansion is made possible and accompanied by a remarkable modernization of the sector. According to figures from the Brazilian statistical office IBGE, 74% of the deforested area of ​​the Amazon is used for cattle pastures. This does not mean that this area was originally deforested for cattle breeding, but it is a clear indicator of the paramount importance of this sector in the deforestation dynamics. The newer numbers from the IBGE are very similar to older studies. In 2000, Chomitz and Thomas from the World Bank stated that 77.4% of the deforested areas were covered by pastures and only 10% were used for cultivation. The rest seems unused.

But why is livestock growing so dramatically in the rainforest? In 1998 Faminow summed up the advantages of cattle breeding in the Amazon as follows:

• Cattle on pastures secure the right to property - a factor that should hardly be underestimated at the agricultural frontier.
• The risks of cattle breeding are far lower than those of agriculture in terms of marketing, price developments, climatic conditions and diseases.
• Initial investments are lower than in agriculture, the return is faster.
• Cattle are liquid and easy to sell property.
• Transport is relatively easy.
• The need for labor is low.
• Livestock breeding offers a good chance of avoiding any kind of government supervision and taxation.

These arguments for the attractiveness of cattle breeding in the Amazon are still valid today and show the great influence of the sector on the development dynamics in the Amazon - especially when it is combined with the new dynamics (modernization, intensification of agriculture in other parts of the country). The outstanding contribution of cattle breeding to the deforestation of the Amazon is hardly controversial, even if many details still need to be investigated. The question of what role small farmers play in the expansion of cattle breeding, however, remains a hotly debated one.

Soy as a cause of deforestation

The quoted figures on the role of livestock in deforestation always serve as a justification for the soy sector. This is not an important player in deforestation, but only uses areas that have already been deforested. That is certainly partly true, but in recent years some research has shed new light on the role of soybean cultivation. The basis for all further discussions is the study published in 2006 by Douglas Morton, a specialist in remote observation. Morton concludes that some 16% of deforestation in the state of Mato Grosso in 2003 was directly converted into soybean fields. 2003 was a year of high world market prices for soy: a phenomenon that is now repeated. Morton therefore believes it is possible that the current deforestation boom in Mato Grosso is in turn related to a faster conversion into soybean fields.
Field research by Brazilian NGOs from 2004 points in the same direction. Three years after the deforestation, only soy was left on the seven farms visited. But even one year after the deforestation, soy was dominant in seven other farms, and cattle breeding in only five. The random checks carried out on a total of 31 farms indicate a strong correlation between soy cultivation and deforestation.
Both studies relate to the agricultural border in Mato Grosso, the stronghold of soy cultivation, and only suggest conclusions for this region. Nevertheless, it is understandable that the alarm bells rang when soy cultivation began to spread in Santarém, in the middle of the Amazon region, from 2002 onwards. Here the expansion tendencies have not continued in recent years, a fact the reasons for which have yet to be investigated.
Even if soy cultivation is not the main cause of deforestation in the Amazon, these studies suggest that at least in Mato Grosso there is a close connection between deforestation dynamics and soy cultivation.

Sugar cane

The expansion of sugar cane cultivation in Brazil has raised concerns that this, too, could harm the rainforest. The concern is understandable: Brazil is the world's largest producer of sugar cane-based alcohol. And the financial prospects for further expansion are exorbitant. Nevertheless, the Brazilian government categorically denies any danger to the rainforest. During a visit to Brussels in July 2007, President Lula said: “The sugar cane growing area is far from the Amazon, a region that is not suitable for cultivation.” He went on to say that sugar cane does not grow in the rainforest because the climatic conditions do so not allowed.

These claims do not stand up to empirical verification. Sugar is grown in the Amazon, for example in Presidente Figueiredo to supply the Coca-Cola factory in Manaus. The government's official harvest statistics also list sugar production in the Amazon. The government of the state of Acre, which is provided by the PT, the party of the president, actively supports the development of the agro-industrial complex "Green Alcohol". Here, sugar cane is grown on two million hectares and processed into alcohol. The ex-governor of Acre, Jorge Viana, has already announced the construction of a second alcohol distillery.
So sugar cane grows in the Amazon. However, the scope is modest, because the large centers of sugar production are actually far from the Amazon region.
The fact that sugar cane cultivation and rainforest destruction could be mentioned in the same breath is a nightmare for fuel growers. They fear the worldwide outrage and the end for their expansion plans. So the situation remains confusing. In 2007, Environment Minister Marina Silva announced in the national and international press that sugar cane cultivation in Amazonia would be banned as part of a national land use plan, known as “macrozoning”. Agriculture Minister Stephanes immediately declared that sugar cane should and can of course be grown in the Amazon - albeit on areas that have already been deforested. In the meantime, the government has announced that it will present a land use plan by the end of 2008 that will specify the areas in which sugar cane may be grown. It remained unclear whether such “zoning” only serves as a guide for financing or whether cultivation should actually be regulated, which would run into considerable legal difficulties.
So currently the cultivation of sugar cane is not a direct and significant contribution to deforestation. The connections are rather indirect - due to the increasing relocation of cattle breeding to the Amazon. The example of soy shows, however, that sugar cane may have a great future in parts of the Amazon.

Wood sector

The role of the timber sector in causing deforestation is not easy to determine. The current discussion focuses heavily on the satellite-observable substitution of the forest by cattle grazing or agricultural use. As a rule, logging is not carried out with the intention of deforestation. Rather, it is about getting commercially usable trees out of the forest. The term “selective logging” has become established for this. If this, as is the rule in Amazonia, is carried out without the practice of sustainable forest management, it will cause severe damage to the natural forest. A case study in Paragominas has shown that for every commercially usable tree 27 different trees were felled or damaged (Verissimo et al. 1992). Logging does not contribute directly to deforestation, but it does cause severe damage to the forest.
According to more recent surveys (Imazon 2006) only 38% of the logging meets the minimum legal requirements, which in turn do not guarantee good practices, for example the existence of a PMSF, a sustainable management plan. The rest is obviously illegal. The control of the sector is made even more difficult by the fact that around 60% of the logging is "tercerized", that is, carried out by small actors, so-called "toreiros" (suppliers of tree trunks).

Despite this desperate state of the wood sector, unlike livestock and agriculture, it is also considered to be a great bearer of hope, especially in the plans of the Ministry of the Environment. The valorization of the standing forest is the counter-strategy to deforestation. The creation of an ecologically sustainable wood sector is seen as the key to forest conservation in the Amazon. This is the aim of the Ministry of Environment's efforts to establish a licensing system in state forests (Florestas Nacionais). So far, timber has been extracted either in non-legalized areas or on private property. This strategy is important and controversial. The generalized condemnation as "privatization of the Amazon" certainly does not do justice to the complexity of the question.


Purposely set fire is an instrument of deforestation. Part of the deforestation is due to unintended fires, i.e. forest fires. These can be a purely natural phenomenon (after a lightning strike), they can be caused by the spread of intended fires, but they can also be favored by the degradation of the forest through selective logging or climate change. The perception of fire as an important factor in forest destruction has booms. When about 12,000 square kilometers burned down during the El Niño in Roraima in 1997/98, the debate about fire and fire strategies reached a climax. Years of research - especially by IPAM - have now produced results that should not be forgotten in the current discussion about deforestation.

A vicious circle of three factors strongly influences the vulnerability of the Amazon forest. Ground fires have not yet been adequately recorded because they are not visible on satellite images. Apparently large areas of the Amazon forest have already been damaged by ground fires. Selective logging reduces the canopy of leaves, exposes the soil to stronger sunlight and creates a drier microclimate. And finally, prolonged dry seasons - be it due to El Niño or climate change - increase the possibility and spread of forest fires. The result is an increased "flammability" of the forest.

By publishing a study by Daniel Nepstad, the WWF has placed the discussion about fire and flammability in the context of climate change. Much cannot be clearly quantified, but it remains important to note that an exclusive fixation of the discussion on deforestation shortens the overall picture of the damage to the forest and thus probably does not sufficiently focus on future causes of deforestation. Even the frequently repeated statement that 80% of the forest is still preserved does not mean that this 80% cannot be partially damaged. However, degraded forests are more prone to forest fires and are likely to be the first to suffer from the effects of climate change.

Big or small

Whether it is rather small farmers or large landowners who clear the primary forest is a question that has been discussed again and again. Confusion has often arisen in the past due to failure to take into account that the size of the deforested area is not the same as the size of the property. Philip Fearnside, who has paid a lot of attention to this question, concludes that around 75% of deforestation comes at the expense of large landowners. This also makes sense when one takes into account the distribution of property in the Amazon. As everywhere in Brazil, most of the land is in the hands of large landowners. However, this does not mean that it is always the large landowners who lay hands on the forest or let others do it. The role of intermediary actors - illegal loggers, settlers - is difficult to determine, but ultimately remains ephemeral.

The most controversial question in recent years is the role of settlements due to land reform (assentamentos). By 2002, 1,354 of these settlements had been established in the Amazon, they cover 231,000 square kilometers, a considerable area almost the size of Great Britain. Imazon comes to the conclusion in a study published in 2006 that the assentamentos are responsible for about 15% of the accumulated deforestation (until 2004). This is not a negligible number, especially considering that the assentamentos are concentrated in some regions. In the state of Pará, for example, the role of the assentamentos must be perceived as an important part of the deforestation dynamic.

This is confirmed by current discussions. In 2005, 100,000 hectares of forest area were designated for assentamentos in the region of Santarém (West Pará). In the meantime, numerous allegations have been made that these settlements are primarily suppliers of timber to timber merchants and that government policies serve their interests. "The level of violations of the law in the establishment of the assentamentos is appalling," noted the highly respected prosecutor Felipe Braga. The head of the authority responsible for the agricultural reform Incra in Santarém has since resigned.

The case from Westpará is just one example of the fact that the discussion about the role of the assentamentos is highly topical and important, but it also raises delicate dimensions of this current debate: Does it make sense to connect large landowners who produce meat for export with landless smallholders throw a pot? Are the smallholders actors or rather victims of deforestation? However, the fact that assentamentos continue to be planted in forest areas under the Lula government is certainly an important aspect for the discussion about strategies to avoid deforestation.

Roads and major projects

Deforestation is concentrated along roads - that is a fairly obvious fact. The conclusions from this are less clear. If there were campaigns against road construction in the Amazon in the past, the realization has now prevailed that it is hardly possible, and perhaps also not wise, to completely condemn road construction in the Amazon. The question today is rather how it can be prevented that the necessary and desirable expansion of roads has as little impact as possible on the dynamics of deforestation. This is to be tested on the BR 163, which connects Santarém with Cuiabá. Participatory structures, the establishment of protected areas and zoning plans are the key words for this attempt to integrate road construction into a concept of sustainable regional development. It remains to be seen to what extent this really works.

However, it is worrying that in the PAC Development Program - Accelerated Growth Program - the focus of the proposed investments is on two areas: roads and energy. With the completion of the planned road projects, the long-awaited connection to the Pacific - via Acre and Peru - would become a reality. This significantly shortens the transport route for soy for parts of the Amazon and, in particular, facilitates its export to Asia. According to Gerson Texeira, an employee of the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment, “the necessary logistics would be established for the final transformation of the Amazon as the last major agricultural frontier for the Brazilian agribusiness”.

In December last year, the license for a large dam on the Rio Madeira in the Amazon region was successfully auctioned. After a twenty-year break, a large dam project has now been tackled again. The government is celebrating this as a breakthrough - for a large number of other projects in the region. If the plans are implemented even partially, this will have an immense impact on the deforestation dynamics in the Amazon. Because the dam on the Rio Madeira will not only cause the usual environmental damage of a major project. As part of the South American IIRSA development program, it is intended to help expand the area under cultivation for soy by around 70,000 square kilometers.

The PAC concept shows that forest conservation is still not a central concern of Brazilian development policy. Forest conservation is treated more as a departmental matter for which the Ministry of the Environment is responsible. However, many good approaches and projects for forest conservation will come to nothing if they do not become part of the strategic orientation of national development policy.