The Amazon Basin is the largest tropical rainforest in the world, and encompasses numerous types of forests and landscapes within its vast biome.
The Amazon has an estimated 390 billion individual trees, which is about half of the remaining rainforest trees on the planet. The biodiversity of this vast area helps sustain all life on earth, but it’s under threat by many corporate interests.
In fact, an average of 7 billion trees per year are cut down in the Amazon Basin in the past few years, representing a combined loss of around 17% of the total forest since the 1970s.
If deforestation continues at current rates 27% of the Amazon Basin is expected to be devoid of trees by 2030.
Taking deforestation seriously
Stretching 6,992 kilometers, the Amazon River winds through the vast Amazon Basin, encompassing parts of Brazil, Peru, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, Guyana, , the French territory of French Guiana and Suriname.
This massive biome plays a key role in the health of the world, including the rain cycle and climate stability, having sometimes been referred to as the “lungs of the world.”
As Thomas A. Rhett notes about the Amazon Basin:
“A stabilizer of the global climate, it contains one-third of all species on Earth and a large percentage of the world’s flowing fresh water.”
With more than one billion species estimated still to be discovered, the Amazon is a world hub of biodiversity.
But unless deforestation is faced head-on, that biodiversity faces a serious threat.
Over the years, nations like Brazil have steadily allowed the Amazon to be at the forefront of reckless clearcutting for short-term profit.
Rampant logging projects, large scale cattle farms and soy fields stretch on and on nowadays, in what used to be pure virgin forest.
Worldwide demand for beef just keeps going up, and the Amazon is a prime source of pumping it out, cutting down more and more land for profitable beef cattle to graze. Americans alone bought 320 million pounds of Brazil beef in 2021 and over twice as much in 2022, helping fuel the Amazon’s destruction.
The hard numbers directly corroborate this trend 0f beef cattle grazing being behind the deforestation in the Amazon.
“As much as 90 percent of all forest that’s been cleared in the Brazilian Amazon is now covered in pasture, most of which is for cattle.”
This has a massive impact and the observable loss of trees in the Amazon Basin is measurable and devastating.
“Between August 1, 2018, and July 31, 2021, more than 34,000 square km (8.4 million acres) disappeared from the Brazilian Amazon,” Jones explains, adding that this is up “52 percent compared to the previous three years” and “larger than the entire nation of Belgium.”
That’s a lot of the Amazon, gone forever in order to satisfy people’s craving for beef and make some corporations filthy rich off cheap land.
The beef problem
Officially speaking, a lot of the deforestation and land clearing going on in the Amazon shouldn’t even be happening.
But there’s a big difference between official regulations and actual enforcement of regulations, as satellite footage over the years has conclusively demonstrated.
As Jones demonstrates conclusively in his piece, one of the reasons for this is “cattle laundering,” where cattle are grazed illegally and then herded into legal and “clean” ranches for processing so that there origin is not clear on shipping labels and records.
In addition, part of the challenge is the vast size of the Amazon Basin itself and the numerous jurisdictions involved, but there’s also certainly a challenge with the motive to crack down when cattle farming and other ventures prove so profitable to the economies of some of these areas and provide lifeblood to the poor laborers living there.
The Amazon isn’t particularly well suited to raising beef cattle, it’s simply an enormously profitable venture that popped up there as something companies and locals can make money from.
Generally, forests are cut down and the wood is sold off as timber products. Then the remaining scrub is burned down, emitting destructive carbon into the air and worsening air pollution and global climate change.
After revelations of wrongdoing in 2009, large beef companies like Marfrig, JBS and Minerva said they wouldn’t buy beef cattle who had any hoofprint on recently clearcut land.
Despite officially doing their best to abide by this, large meatpackers are generally outwitted by cattle launderers who make sure their cows have no official link to deforested territory and get cycled through enough farms before slaughter to have no environmental dirt on them.
Specific cases even show the same farmers transferring cows between their own illegal clearcuts and their legal ranches in order to doctor their origins.
This wide scale chopping down of trees and burning of the surrounding vegetation and smaller trees has serious environmental impacts, as does the importation of hundreds of thousands of cattle onto vast tracts of land.
“Burning trees produces greenhouse gas emissions, while, at the same time, undermines the forest’s ability to suck up carbon.
“That pushes the forest toward a dangerous tipping point, whereby parts of the Amazon could dry out, causing more forest to die without any fire or chainsaws.
“Meanwhile, grazing cattle belch methane, a potent greenhouse gas.”
A troubled history
Starting in the 1970s, Brazil’s hardline military-run government at the time encouraged immigration to the Amazon to get cheap land for farm laborers and Brazilians hard on their luck.
That meant millions of people in search of whatever work they could find and new opportunities.
New roads brought folks from the south of Brazil, including recent immigrants, to the north of the country where they hoped to get rich with farming, ranching and timber.
The end result was mass deforestation and animal extinction, as well as incredible profits for cattle barons and land developers:
In fact 25% of Brazil’s GDP comes from its booming agro-business sector, which also contributed significantly to the support for Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil’s last election among those afraid that Lula might undercut agro and cattle operations.
The 23% of the land in the Amazon that belongs to indigenous tribes has often been a focal point of conservation groups in pushing back on development, but frequent incursions by profiteers, forceful assimilation efforts and open attacks continue by developers.
With post-colonial attitudes and greed feeding into a cycle of deforestation, it’s hard to be overly optimistic about the future.
The best thing that conservationists have on their side is a growing awareness about what’s going on in the Amazon as well as more pressure on governments and private entities to actually do something.
As in many such cases, a principal challenge remains in motivating and pressuring action that is good for the collective when that may go against the short-term profit motive and interests of parties involved.
As we have seen in the United States, for example, the argument of why should the US do anything to cut emissions if China won’t do more as a typical “whataboutism” to avoid action on pollution and climate change.
What’s being done?
Legislation has been attempted in the EU and US to block cattle laundering and stop the kind of incentives that are driving the destruction of the rainforest, but they have had limited effect.
The recent reelection of Lula to the presidency in Brazil has been accompanied by a lot of promises that he will turn around the kind of deregulation that ruled the roost under his predecessor Jair Bolsonaro, but Lula’s track record on the Amazon is also checkered.
While many non-governmental organizations and non-profits continue to work to protect the Amazon and indigenous rights, the bigger picture continues to be one of deforestation.
With deforestation continuing, it’s important to focus increasingly on the Amazon, where rising global temperatures are also a recipe for disaster.
As Matt Sandy explains in his engrossing report on the deforestation of the Amazon for TIME:
“If, as predicted, global temperatures rise by 4°C, much of the central, eastern and southern Amazon will certainly become barren scrubland.
“…Inside the crucible of this ancient forest, relentless colonization is combining with environmental vandalism and a warming climate to create a crisis.
“If things continue as they are now, the Amazon might not exist at all within a few generations, with dire consequences for all life on earth.”
Large areas of the Brazilian states of Para, Mato Grosso and Rondonia are especially threatened by the massive deforestation taking place, particularly for cattle ranching.
Sandy’s warning would be well heeded, with development in the Amazon largely continuing and future consequences that could dry up parts of the river, see vast areas turned into savannah and decimate the global climate and rain cycle beyond repair.