A History of Amazon Deforestation

Jillian Ada Burrows
Nov 14, 2019 · 24 min read

The problem with Brazil doing any settler-colonizer style agriculture is they have just the smallest bit of suitable land. They have just the smallest bit of natural prairie at the south side of the country. It’s only in the State of Rio Grande do Sol. That same prairie bioregion extends down into Uruguay and Buenos Aires, but it’s absolutely tiny in Brazil (Overbeck et al., 2008). So what’s Brazil to do? The grileiros (from grilos, locusts) come to plague the land. They tear down existing biospheres. They steal land and kill Indigenous people. (Butler, 2011), (Arsenault & Mendes, 2017), (Zaitchik, 2019)

Animation of Amazon deforestation for 1984–2016.
A section of the

They could never keep up with demand using only their natural grassland. Since that land was occupied and utilized quite quickly, people started expanding into the Cerrado region. One who knows Spanish might recognize Cerrado as “closed”. It used to be closed. It was rough land with snarling plants. It is the next bioregion north of the prairie land, just south of the Amazon Rain Forest. It is the second largest bioregion in Brazil containing 5% of the worlds biodiversity. Starting in the mid 60s, they caused some egregious damage which has not stopped. They only encouraged it more through the 80s and now it’s hollowed out. It has lost over 50% of the biomass from its native plants (Sax, 2019), (Spring, 2018), (Ortolani, 2019). As of 2010, Brazillian agriculture has been using approximatlely 1/3 of Brazil’s land. This is only going to grow (Morton et al., 2006), (Sparovek et al., 2010).

The Cerrado region highlighted (Wikipedia).

The animation at the top shows the damage from the Cerrado region spreading north into the Amazon rain forest. The deforested area becomes grassland or cropland and looks like a lighter green in the animation. This animation is 33 years of destruction, not even showing most of the damage done to the Cerrado region in the years prior. The pattern grows slowly at first but then it starts growing faster and then it slows down. It eats away at Indigenous land preserves — the people invading la selva (the forest) are called by the locusts they use after all.

It has hollowed an area larger than the country of Germany between 1988 and 2017 in the rain forest itself (Arsenault & Mendes, 2017). If one prefers measuring in US states, it is an area larger than Texas (Zaitchik, 2019). The problem will only compound as demand for soy and cattle grow in China and around the world and as Brazil’s population increases. If we leave this unchecked, many of the Indigenous people of Brazil will have to adopt a completely different lifestyle and will start loosing their traditions. Just like what happened further north. It too will be hollowed out, just like the Cerrado region.

The integrity of the forest is being destroyed for the sake of capitalism. This will cause many problems. One problem is the carbon emissions of a deteriorating forest. When a forest is healthy and has plenty of integrity and old growth, it is a net carbon store. Not only do Brazilians kill the forest, they kill the Indigenous people who care for the land and help it to retain it’s character as a store of carbon (Frechette A et al., 2018), (Scharlemann et al., 2009). Once the forest is destroyed by logging or other degradation, that rich carbon store starts releasing intense amounts of carbon.

Stored above and below ground carbon (Scharlemann et al., 2009).

A 2017 study found deforestation, while still a big issue, had a smaller impact than logging and other impacts on the forest which disturb and degrade the forest, yet still retain its character as a forest. This follows up work from a 2015 study which wondered if the forest could become a carbon emitter (Brienen et al., 2015). The study showed that through this degradation alone, the forest released 255,000,000,000 Kg C per year from 2003–2014. It showed that human activity had made the forest a source of carbon emissions. (Baccini A et al., 2017), (Zaitchik, 2019), (Watts, 2017, September 28), (Dunne, 2017). This means more than just deforestation impacts the land, activities such as mining, building dams, and logging which only thin the forest all have immense detrimental impacts. We still need to stop even the smallest impacts on all the intricately linked life in la selva.

Any logging makes the rainforest more susceptible to fires. Fires have an interesting effect of making the forest even more susceptible to fire. This is because the logging dries of the forest floor and turns it into kindling. Once that is caught on fire, it burns slowly and kills trees and other plants which are not adapted to regular fire. These dead plants become fuel for the next fire in a reinforcing cycle. In addition to this, the area no long holds in and moderates the flow of water once converted to a new use. Flash floods have become more common because of this. (Fearnside, 2005)

As this population continues to grow and fill up larger spaces, Brazil continues to develop hydroelectricity. Hydroelectricity has a reputation of being a renewable and low emissions since it doesn’t burn any fuel. The high rain fall and difference in height between the Andes and the ocean makes hydroelectricity very appealing (Finer & Jenkins, 2012). Unfortunately for Brazil, hydroelectricity does not have low emissions in regions where tropical rain forest is being destroyed (Fearnside & Pueyo, 2012).

Hydroelectric dams in tropical regions are net emitters of greenhouse gasses. This is not because of their operation, but because of the damage to the environment during their construction. The map above shows how much carbon is embedded in the forest and soil, and all of that carbon is released when the ground and forest are disrupted by moving ground to build the reservoir. As the wide reservoirs are flooded plant matter is covered by water, it decomposes, and it emits significant amounts of methane (Fearnside & Pueyo, 2012), (Finer & Jenkins, 2012). When roads are built for maintenance of the dams and transmission lines are built, it disrupts the contiguity of the of the forest and encourages people to develop the land, furthering deforestation along the new infrastructure (Fearnside, 2005), (Fearnside & Pueyo, 2012), (Finer & Jenkins, 2012).

Aside from the abrupt release of carbon, there are impacts of dams which spread through the network of the ecology. The dams segment the rivers, disrupting the habitats of many species in both land and water (Finer & Jenkins, 2012), (Anderson et al., 2018). There are anywhere from 3500 to 5000 freshwater species which are endangered by these projects and they form the basis of most ecosystem networks. These developments threaten to create permanent changes to the Amazonian river ecosystems (Anderson et al., 2018). The death of these lifeforms will also release carbon that has been stored in those lives.

Dams are not just an issue in the Amazon, over half of the worlds large rivers have been disrupted by dams (Anderson et al., 2018). In the Pacific Northwest of the United States and Canada, this same ecological disaster has been playing out. More people are calling for more dams to be taken down, especially now as other forms of renewable energy are becoming cheaper than hydropower. Studies have shown that removing the dams along the Snake River would increase the salmon population by two or three times (Leslie, 2019). This population decrease has not impacted tribes and commercial fishing, it has impacted orcas and bears (Leslie, 2019), (Flaccus, 2019), (Jackson, 2019). Orcas have died and those living have been so starved they are emaciated and have misshapen heads (Leslie, 2019). Bears have also been emaciated, sometimes swimming about 50 miles to Vancouver Island, where they are not native, just to find a little food (Jackson, 2019). These are just a few examples. The true devastation and links between all of the loss is just now being researched, but if these projects continue in the Amazon, the only thing swimming upstream in the Amazon will be a slow march of death.

There are two programs at the INPE (Brazilian National Institute of Space Research) which track deforestation. One of the programs functioning as an early warning system detected an uptick in deforestation earlier this year. Due to a recent dispute with Bolsonaro, the program is in danger and the head scientist has been fired (Showstack, 2019), (Escobar, 2019), (Mendes, 2019). The other system, PRODES, more accurately keeps track of deforestation but takes more time. If you access the PRODES dashboard, you can see the following chart. Combined with the animation above, one can start to get a sense of the scale of the damage. The numbers represent the rate of deforestation per year in square kilometers.

Rates of deforestatation per year in km². Unless these rates go negative, the forest is still shrinking.

In the late 1980s strict demarcations of Indigenous reserves were implemented, but not all Indigenous land was included. The new laws started to have an effect, but the locusts still kept eating away at the forest. Starting in 2005 until 2012 the rate deforestation diminished. There was optimism that perhaps deforestation could be stopped, despite Brazil being the world leader in deforestation (Nepstead et al., 2009). This was due to policies being implemented which punish people who logged and farmed in the the restricted forest (Nepstad D et al., 2014). Next, measures for ensuring sustainability in the land already cleared were implemented (Nepstad D et al., 2014). These tactics stopped being effective right after the sustainability push. Why? Market forces increased the profitability of soy and beef by increasing demand. Since they don’t have much land for farming to begin with, the deforestation increased yet again.

In the following analysis the population will be a baseline for measuring growth. The amount of land used for soy and corn should be compared as well as how many cattle were raised. There are some very interesting patterns in how they are related to the history of the area. Please note, the charts contain the history starting from 1961, and not 1988 as the graph of deforestation. So please be mindful of only the second half of these charts lining up with the above chart.


Notice that the population of Brazil is basically a straight line. This means any growth not linear in any of the following charts is likely due to economic pressures. So we should look at those areas not directly correlated with population growth for any correlations with economic pressures.


First we see an increase in maize production which starts fluctuating around the population growth curve in the 1980s, but those fluctuations make it really difficult to correlate the data to anything. Then there is a more recent trend of increased growth. What we don’t know are the factors causing that, because it could be biofuel (Sparovek et al., 2010), increased exports, or something else.


There are three particular years which have higher level of deforestation than others: 1988, 1995, and 2004. In 1988 there is a bump in soy fields planted and the head of cattle curve starts to be a little steeper in 1985. In 1997 soy fields really start taking off, just two years after another major clearing in the forest. In that same year, head of cattle returns to the level from 1995 and starts increasing year over year. In 2004, after two years of increased deforestation, there’s a correlated increase in soy fields and cattle. According to (Morton et al., 2006) there was a 36,000 km² increase in industrialized agriculture during 2001–2004, this coincides with high soybean crop prices and the largest increase of deforestation in recent times. After that, soy just starts taking off (especially after 2012). Relative to no soy planted in 1961, the amount grown today 58 years later is astounding.

The economic pressure was so great, the state of Mato Grosso actually loosened it laws. The method of forest clearing called correntao came back in 2012 as the ban was lifted. This method uses a pair of tractors dragging a giant chain between them. They push over and rip up everything, including the roots. This was all triggered by the growing number of ruralistas (land owners) in congress. Some recent congress members even tried to bring back slave labor in 2017 (Zaitchik, 2019). A lot of this directly contributed to Brazil overtaking USA as the top soybean producer in 2012.(Durisin & Dodge, 2018).

One can trace a path all the way back to the beginning of settler colonialism to understand the framework of Brazil’s export driven economy. Brazilwood, sugar cane, gold, rubber, and coffee were all harvested in a quite extractive manner from the beginning. In the 1930s, the main export coffee stopped being profitable due to overproduction lowering prices. During the election, Getúlio Vargas lost, but that loss lead to a military coup. The military installed Vargas, who sent out a call to develop the Amazon in order to restore their economy. He remained in control until his suicide in 1954, despite multiple attempts of coup.

The next point in that path is a US backed military coup starting in 1964. The US forces weren’t needed, but they were standing by to help. João Goulart was ousted by the military and Castelo Branco was placed in power as the first of five military presidents. They developed a dirt road, route BR-364, which ran along all 435 miles (700 km) of the state of Rondônia. This is exactly when soy fields were first planted in Brazil. They took off totaling 5 million hectacres in 1974 and doubling by 1985.

Interestingly, there is a declassified 1973 CIA intelligence memorandum which classified Brazil’s nearly decade old soy export business a threat to US exports. In their words: “High profits have, of course, been the major impetus behind the continuing rapid growth of soybean output. […] At prevailing market prices, Brazilian soybean farmers are enjoying a bonanza.” The missing ellipsis is succinctly: Prices could drop and Brazil would still make a killing despite transportation costs (CIA, 1973).

Later in the 1980s, we find the next point in that line, paving over 900 miles (1448 km) of the same road (Zaitchik, 2019). That paving triggered the most deforestation in the state of Rondônia. Looking at the animated map, there were other roads, for example BR-163, which is now showing the most uptick in deforestation in recent years.

Around 1980, there is some wavering in growth of soybeans. This is correlated with increasing debt, land reform, increased oil exploration, and uncertainty about the economy. Towards 1984, the transition to the Sixth Brazilian Republic began. The new president José Sarney took office around 1985. In the intervening years, the major increases in exports of soybeans are correlated with the administrations of both Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003–2010) and Dilma Rousseff (2011–2016). The year 2005 brought a decrease in soy exports which correlated with a bribery scandal, which involved several MPs. Both administrations had strong positions on economics growth, and the numbers for soybeans and beef reflect that.

As recent revelations into Brazil’s corrupt politics have shown, corrupt right-wing politicians imperiled both Rousseff and da Silva in order to get more time in office. Presidents da Silva and Rousseff both may have been pulled into the corruption which already existed in the government, but they also both help Operation Car Wash be successful (Watts, 2017, June 1). Rousseff was impeached for taking loans from state banks without congressional approval, but the real reasons are quite varied and potentially corrupt (Watts, 2016). Then when allegations of corruption were brought against President Temer, the court dismissed the case (Reuters & The Associated Press, 2017). Da Silva was imprisoned and prevented from running in the 2018 election (Andreoni, Londoño, & Darlington, 2018). It has been shown that da Silva’s imprisonment was orchestrated (González, Goodman, & Greenwald, 2019). This was likely a move to keep him from running against Bolsonaro in the election.

Most recently, Bolsonaro has once again emboldened the locusts and they are starting to consume more of the forest. This uptick reported by several agencies lead to the firing of the department head mentioned above. Bolsonaro wants to get rid of the protected status of Indigenous reserves. He also wants to arm every farmer (Cowie, 2019). Bolsonaro is basically one of the grileiros (Zaitchik, 2019).

These locusts have an awful culture they inherited from colonialism and capitalism. In order to sustain a capitalist society, they need to extract resources from either the Earth and/or other people. They see an economic opportunity in depleting the forest and exporting goods demanded by the larger world. If there was no demand for soy or cattle, the rate of deforestation would be slower. If there was no demand for hydroelectricity, the dams would not be built. If there was no demand for minerals mined from the ground and wood from the forest, the degradation of the forest would not be happening to the degree it is.

All countries importing soy and meat from Brazil are complicit with the deaths of Indigenous people and destruction of the rainforest. Since 2003, the Pastoral Land Commission had logged over 600 murders related to the land theifs (Zaitchik, 2019). Those are only the reported deaths. Every person involved in the decisions to import from Brazil are directly contributing to this death and destruction. It is those people making agreements with the people running the government and corporations in Brazil who are most directly responsible. They are literally pledging money to kill indigenous lives.

This means the countries importing soy from Brazil should reconsider their choices: China — 54.4 million metric tons (mmt), Spain — 2.04 mmt, Netherlands — 1.65 mmt, Thailand — 1.57 mmt, Iran — 1.31 mmt, Russia — 1.06 mmt, Taiwan — 1.03 mmt, Pakistan — 0.96 mmt, Vietnam — 0.61 mmt, and the UK — 0.59 mmt (Rubio, 2018). These numbers come from the marketing year which started February 2016 and ended in January 2017, commonly written as “2016/17”.

Since 2010, Brazil’s total exports of soybeans and oil have increased. That year, the emissions from agriculture overtook the emissions from land use change (Tubeillo et al. 2015). In 2010/11 world exports made up 50 million metric tons (mmt) of 82 mmt (O’Kray, 2014). By 2015/16 it was at 72.6 mmt of 100 mmt (Rubio, 2016). In 2016/17, total soybean exports account for 84 mmt of the 124 mmt harvested (Rubio, 2018). In 2017/18 it was up to 102 mmt out of 122 mmt. In 2018/19 it was down to 86 million metric tons out of 116 mmt (Unstinova, 2019, BR1909). In 2019, it is back up to 92 mmt out of 129 mmt total production (Flake, 2019).

Through all the time since 2010, and possibly earlier, China has been the largest importer of Brazilian soybeans. Now with the trade war between USA and China, there is a chance they will start preferring Brazil. That would drive up demand and deforestation. In 2017 China imported 32 to 37.5 million metric tons of soybeans from the US (Newton & Nelson, 2018), but, now with the trade war and a conveniently timed incidence of African swine fever in China, things are uncertain. Chinese imports of soybean are down overall from both US and Brazil because of the infection (Flake, 2019). Given the typical dependence of China on both US and Brazillian soybean, once the infestation of African swine fever is over and swine populations are restored, demand for both USA and Brazilian soybeans will increase — unless the trade relationships have really been damaged. If they don’t recover from the infestation soon, it will turn into a trade war over winning the most swine exports to China.

In terms of beef, Brazil consumed 7.8 million metric tons of beef and exported 1.5 mmt during 2012. That year they had a yield of 9.3 mmt of beef from 40 million head head of cattle which went to slaughter. They also exported 512k head of cattle (Silva, 2014). For comparison, 2018 yielded 9.9 mmt of beef from 39.6 million head of cattle which went to slaughter, while 790k head were exported. In 2018 domestic consumption was 7.9 mmt while exports were 2 mmt (Silva, 2019). If one looks carefully at these numbers and the head of cattle chart above, one will see a huge discrepancy. That is because the head of cattle includes several generations of cattle which are not mature enough for slaughter.

The largest importers were China, Hong Kong, Egypt, Chile, and the EU. Despite USA current having a ban on fresh meat, they do not have a ban on frozen meet. USA imported 16.4 mmt in 2018, and as of August, has imported 20.5 mmt in 2019 (Silva, 2019). However, exports having been making up an increasing amount of production, up from 19% in 2012 to 28% in 2018.

Despite several studies showing the connection between China’s imports of soybean and beef (Fearnside & Figueiredo, 2015), most of any damage which may be done by beef, is mostly self inflicted by Brazil’s love of the meat. It makes up 40% of the meat Brazil consumes (Silva, 2019). It makes up 37.7 Kg of beef per capita in a year, which is just slightly higher than US beef consumption per capita (Du Y et al., 2018). There has been a 3.14 fold increase in head of cattle in the last 50 years, while the human population has only risen 2.3 times. All of the countries importing meat from Brazil should take a good hard look at why they are doing it, especially the USA because there’s no reason such a large beef exporter should be importing the meat (pricing aside).

Brazil also needs to reconsider how much cattle they consume and where it’s grown. Cattle take up to 8 times the amount of land that swine do and 6 times the C02 emissions (Clark & Tilman, 2017). Continuing to increase the amount of cattle grown in such limited land will continue to deforest the Amazon. As discussed above, the amount of carbon released through agricultural use of the amazon is not sustainable. The rainforest needs to be restored, otherwise it will continue to deteriorate.

There’s something a bit more insidious about Brazils agricultural industry which has developed over the last few decades. In previous ages of Brazil, most of the agriculture was subsistence agriculture. This is what started changing rapidly in the 1930s. What has happend recently is the rise of international agriculture corporations which have bought a lot of the subsistence farms. There’s corruption which ties foreign investment interests to multiple governments (Lappé, 2019), (Fang, 2019), (Amazon Watch, 2019). Some are even helping out to the grileiros and purchasing land from them using the forged and artificially aged titles to the land (Hammond, 2009). It is this which connects all the financing to the violence.

Bunge (US), Cargill (US), ADM (US), and Luis Dreyfus (Netherlands) all dominate the soy and grain export business. Credit is extended to these groups by BNP Paribas, JPMorgan Chase, Bayclays BLC, Bank of America, Citigroup, Deutche Bank, HSBC, FCSCFG, ING Group, Rabobank, ABN Amro, Bank of NY Mellon, and Wells Fargo. Vanguard, State Farm, BlackRock, State Street and T. Rowe Price hold the majority of shares in those export businesses. (Amazon Watch, 2019)

JBS, MARFRIG, and MINERVA are Brazil’s largest beef companies. The banks extending credit to these companies are: HSBS, Banco Santander, JPMorgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Bank of America, Credit Suisse, Barclays BLC, and IFC. Capital Group, BlackRock, Fidelity, Vangard, Dimensional Fund Advisors are the top five companies holding stock in those beef companies. (Amazon Watch, 2019)

These are fairly well known companies. This is unfortunate, because many retirement funds are managed through these companies. This means that even people who are not actively investing in anything particular are likely somehow complicit in helping finance the death and destruction in the Amazon.

Brazil was haphazardly carved out of Indigenous land with no real idea of how well the land could support a growing population and export driven economy. This has really only been discussed in the recent century. Now that the environments and damage is known, Brazil is left with few options to sustain their population while also minimizing and reversing damage to their environments.

The main stresses of environmental destruction and degradation are mostly population driven:

  • Need for farmland where the only available land is in the cerrado or in la selva.
  • Hydropower causing deforestation and degradation.
  • Mineral and oil extraction causing environmental degradation.
  • Infrastructure for power distribution, oil extraction, and maintenance of distant power and mining infrastructure.
  • Existing degradation causing further damage, by increased fires.
  • Continued degradation releasing more CO2.

Brazil is in a bad situation. In order to minimize the ecological damage, Brazil would need to import most of their food, placing the ecological burden of production on another bioregion. This is unlikely. Due to their economic woes, importing most of their food, oil, minerals, etc. would be out of reach.

What is Brazil to do? When are the rest of the nations of the world going to have to make similar decisions? What will we all decide to do? Will we be mature enough to make the right decisions? Or will we all perish? Here are a few words from the Kayapó Chief Raoni Metuktire (Metuktire, 2019):

What you are doing will change the whole world and will destroy our home — and it will destroy your home too.

We have set aside our divided history to come together. Only a generation ago, many of our tribes were fighting each other, but now we are together, fighting together against our common enemy. And that common enemy is you, the non-indigenous peoples who have invaded our lands and are now burning even those small parts of the forests where we live that you have left for us. President Bolsonaro of Brazil is encouraging the farm owners near our lands to clear the forest — and he is not doing anything to prevent them from invading our territory.

We call on you to stop what you are doing, to stop the destruction, to stop your attack on the spirits of the Earth. When you cut down the trees you assault the spirits of our ancestors. When you dig for minerals you impale the heart of the Earth. And when you pour poisons on the land and into the rivers — chemicals from agriculture and mercury from gold mines — you weaken the spirits, the plants, the animals and the land itself. When you weaken the land like that, it starts to die. If the land dies, if our Earth dies, then none of us will be able to live, and we too will all die.

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If the INPE PRODES program and it’s data does get destroyed, all the required imagery is available through Google Earth Engine. It isn’t even the hardest problem either, it’s very similar to what you are doing with your mind watching the video above. It’s just counting pixels and using Facebook’s Dectectron2 open source code trained on appropriate data. Then do a simple calculation to convert pixels to km² and the numbers are ready.

Jill Burrows

Dissecting the world layer by layer.

Jill Burrows

Dissecting the world layer by layer. From creative writing to more in-depth research, we seek to educate and fill the furtive gap of history’s connections to the present.

Jillian Ada Burrows

Written by

I am very odd. One day, I’ll one-up myself and get even. If you like what I write, please share it. https://patreon.com/adaburrows

Jill Burrows

Dissecting the world layer by layer. From creative writing to more in-depth research, we seek to educate and fill the furtive gap of history’s connections to the present.

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