In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Deforestation Monitoring
  • Deforestation Causes
  • Deforestation Actors
  • Infrastructure
  • Agriculture and Ranching
  • Land Grabbing
  • Mining
  • Forest Loss Through Extreme Degradation
  • Fragmentation and Edge Effects
  • Drought as a Threat to Amazon Forest
  • Logging as a Threat to Amazon Forest
  • Fire as Threats to Amazon Forest
  • Tipping Points
  • Bolsonaro Administration
  • Deforestation Impacts
  • Deforestation Control
  • Protected Areas for Biodiversity
  • Indigenous Lands
  • Environmental Services
  • REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation)

Environmental Science Deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia
Philip M. Fearnside
  • LAST REVIEWED: 27 October 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 October 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199363445-0064


Tropical deforestation represents one of the world’s great environmental problems, and Brazilian Amazonia has particular importance owing to the current rate of forest loss and the vast area of remaining forest at risk of future deforestation. Approximately two-thirds of the Amazon Basin is in Brazil. Brazil’s “Legal Amazonia” region refers to a 5 million km2 administrative area covering all or part of nine states; about three-fourths of this area was originally covered by Amazonian forest and one-fourth by cerrado (central-Brazilian savanna) or other non-forest vegetation. The “Amazonia Biome” is the area where the predominant original vegetation was Amazon forest; with the exception of a minuscule area in the state of Maranhão, the Amazonia Biome is entirely contained within Legal Amazonia. When the distinction between these two official Amazon areas is not important, the term “Brazilian Amazonia” is used. Deforestation threatens environmental services in maintaining biodiversity, avoiding greenhouse gas emissions, and recycling water that is essential to maintaining rainfall in Amazonia and in other locations that water vapor is transported to (including São Paulo). Understanding the diverse causes of deforestation in the region is essential to effective efforts to slow and contain the process. This article begins with general compendia, followed by sections covering deforestation monitoring, deforestation causes, deforestation actors, infrastructure, agriculture and ranching, forest loss through extreme degradation, deforestation impacts, deforestation control, protected areas, environmental services, and REDD (reducing emissions from deforestation and degradation). The causes of deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia vary considerably among different parts of this vast region, among landholdings within any given part of the region, and over time at any particular location. Both cumulative and annual statistics for Amazonia represent sums of these diverse actions. A major decline in deforestation rates occurred from 2004 to 2012, followed by oscillation around a lower plateau through 2015. Official statements invariably claim that government control programs can be credited with all of the decline, and they often imply that the decline continues. However, most of the decline occurred in the 2004–2008 period, when virtually all of the change can be explained by falling international prices of soy and beef together with a worsening exchange rate for Brazilian currency from the point-of-view of commodity exporters. After 2008, however, prices recovered while deforestation declined further. The key event in 2008 that appears to explain this change is a resolution of Brazil’s Central Bank barring agricultural credit from government banks for properties with pending environmental fines. The fines themselves can be postponed almost indefinitely through repeated appeals, but the Central Bank decision has no appeal and has an immediate effect on larger landholders who have enjoyed generously subsidized loans for expanding their operations. The loan restriction gives real “teeth” to the Ministry of the Environment’s efforts to control deforestation, greatly increasing the effect of the same investment in inspection and repression. However, the restriction on loans is a fragile protection, as it could be reversed at the stroke of a pen. This is one of the priorities of the powerful “ruralist block” representing large landholders in the National Congress. Another change in 2008 was the government’s publication of “blacklists” of municipalities (counties) with high deforestation rates, thus restricting credit in these municipalities and making them the focus of command-and-control efforts. Events in other years include agreements with major purchasers of soy (in 2006) and beef (in 2009) to bar sales by properties with recent deforestation; these agreements had some effect, despite problems of “laundering” and “leakage.” Although the government’s deforestation-control program is essential, most of the government’s actions are on the other side of the equation: vast plans for more roads, dams, and other infrastructure in Amazonia lead to more rather than less deforestation. The notion that deforestation is under control and that roads and dams can therefore be built without consequences is a dangerous illusion. Since the presidential administration of Jair Bolsonaro began in January 2019, Brazil’s deforestation has accelerated sharply. This has largely resulted from dismantling the country’s environmental agencies, relaxing regulations in myriad ways, and constant rhetoric from the president and his minister of the environment suggesting that environmental regulations need not be obeyed and that any violations will be pardoned. Some of these setbacks can be reversed at a future time, but many, such as building roads that open vast areas of Amazon forest to the entry of deforesters, represent permanent changes that will affect deforestation for as long as there is forest left to clear.

General Overviews

General compendia contain chapters by many authors who have worked with Amazonian deforestation: its causes, impacts, and possible alternatives. The volumes selected here begin with Hemming 1985 on change in the Amazon Basin, covering many fields related to deforestation. Goodman and Hall 1990, on the future of Amazonia, contains an impressive array of threats to the forest, but ends with some suggestions for more sustainable alternatives. Anderson 1990, published in the same year, concentrates on alternatives. Léna and de Oliveira 1991 reviews the various social groups and processes on Amazonian frontiers in the first twenty years since the Transamazon Highway provoked many of these changes. Wood and Porro 2002 looks at the implications of the different land uses in the region for deforestation and for the human populations involved. Laurance and Peres 2006 has more biological information on deforestation and degradation impacts, as well as alternatives such as avoided deforestation to mitigate global warming. Posey and Balick 2006 concentrates on traditional knowledge, particularly that of indigenous peoples, as a value to be protected and presents multiple examples of the contrast between traditional practices and the destruction in Amazonia’s dominant deforestation-based economy. Keller, et al. 2009 contains results from LBA, a massive international research program underway since 1998 to study the relations between Amazon forest and climate, including the process and impacts of deforestation. Fleischresser 2001 presents the views on deforestation causes from researchers convened by Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment. Fearnside 2017 provides a review of deforestation processes and impacts in Brazilian Amazonia.

  • Anderson, A. B., ed. 1990. Alternatives to deforestation: Towards sustainable use of the Amazon Rain Forest. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    Contains chapters on the process and causes of deforestation, on the non-sustainability of the predominant land uses following deforestation, and on various alternatives to current land uses. These include timber management, extraction of non-timber forest products, agroforestry, use of secondary forests and means of recuperating degraded pastures. Available in Spanish from Fundación Natura/Editorial Abya-Yala, Quito, Ecuador.

  • Fearnside, P. M. 2017. Deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon. In Oxford research encyclopedia of environmental science. Edited by H. Shugart. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780199389414.013.102

    This provides a review of deforestation trends, causes, impacts, control, and alternatives in Brazilian Amazonia. The current and potential impacts of Amazon deforestation make the need for changing development policies clear, but this has yet to occur. Available in Portuguese online.

  • Fleischresser, V., ed. 2001. Causas e Dinâmica do Desmatamento na Amazônia. Brasília, Brazil: Ministério do Meio Ambiente.

    Convened by Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment, this looks at causes of deforestation in Amazonia. The lack of enforcement of Brazil’s 1965 Forest Code is clearly shown.

  • Goodman, D., and A. Hall, eds. 1990. The future of Amazonia: Destruction or sustainable development? London: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Contains chapters on existing development strategies such as private and government-organized colonization, hydroelectric dam construction, mining and military initiatives, and on the various social conflicts these cause. The concluding chapters suggest some more sustainable alternatives.

  • Hemming, J., ed. 1985. Change in the Amazon Basin. 2 vols. Manchester: Manchester Univ. Press.

    This two-volume compendium covers a wide variety of issues related to deforestation, including underlying factors such as population migration and growth—and the impacts on indigenous and other traditional peoples in the region. It includes perspectives from agencies such as the World Bank, as well as from workers in an array of social and natural science disciplines.

  • Keller, M., M. Bustamante, J. Gash, and P. da Silva Dias, eds. 2009. Amazonia and global change. Geophysical Monograph Series, Vol. 186. Washington, DC: American Geophysical Union.

    This volume contains a wide range or results from the Large-Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia (LBA), including the “human dimensions” portion of this massive international program. There are chapters on deforestation rates and patterns, logging, fire, econometric and dynamic deforestation simulation models, and the prospects of different land uses in maintaining soil fertility. The English-language version is very expensive, but the Portuguese-language version is available free online.

  • Laurance, W. F., and C. A. Peres, eds. 2006. Emerging threats to tropical forests. Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press.

    Although this compendium includes other parts of the tropics, the majority of it is devoted to Brazilian Amazonia. It includes threats from climate change, fire, hunting (including elimination of dispersers), and forest fragmentation. Avoided deforestation for climate-change mitigation is discussed, as well as payments for conservation and protected-area strategies.

  • Léna, P., and A. E. de Oliveira, eds. 1991. Amazônia: A Fronteira Agrícola 20 Anos Depois. Pará, Brazil: Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi.

    Contains chapters on a wide variety of social groups in the first two decades following the beginning of construction of the Transamazon Highway in 1970, inaugurating the modern era of deforestation. This includes both the actions of small-farmer colonists, ranchers, gold miners, and others and their impacts on indigenous and non-indigenous traditional residents.

  • Posey, D. A., and M. J. Balick, eds. 2006. Human impacts on Amazonia: The role of traditional ecological knowledge in conservation and development. New York: Columbia Univ. Press.

    Darrell Posey, who died five years prior to the publication of this volume, was a pioneering figure in studying the traditional knowledge of Amazonia indigenous peoples and in arguing for their intellectual property rights. This volume includes chapters showing the unsustainability of most of what follows Amazonian deforestation. It also includes proposals for environmental services in various forms as an alternative to this destruction. Traditional knowledge, particularly indigenous knowledge, is emphasized throughout.

  • Wood, C. H., and R. Porro, eds. 2002. Deforestation and land use in the Amazon. Gainesville: Univ. Press of Florida.

    This compendium has chapters on national policies and regional patterns, including population growth and migration. It also treats land-use decisions and deforestation, especially by small farmers, and the trend to ranching and concentration of land ownership. The prospects for intensification of cattle ranching are examined and found unlikely to reduce deforestation. The volume concludes with examples of participatory management and land-use planning.

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