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Amazon Rainforest Deforestation: Causes & Effects

Instructor: Lauren Posey

Lauren has taught intermediate reading in an English Language Institute, and she has her Master's degree in Linguistics.

Deforestation is a major issue in the Amazon rainforest. In this lesson, you'll learn about some of the causes of deforestation as well as the effects the clearing has had and will have in the future.

Destruction of the Rainforest

The Amazon rainforest, located in Brazil, is over two million square miles. That's more than eight times the size of Texas! When you think about something that enormous, it seems impossible that it could ever go away completely, doesn't it? Unfortunately, the Amazon is more fragile than it seems, and there are a number of human activities contributing to its destruction.

The biggest issue facing the rainforest right now is deforestation, which occurs when huge areas of land are completely cleared of trees. Every few minutes, an area the size of 200 football fields is cleared. Over the last 40 years, close to 20% of the Amazon has been destroyed - that's more than all of the previous years since European colonization! Of course the Amazon is a protected area, but the IBAMA (Brazil's environmental protection agency) is severely understaffed and ill-equipped to deal with all of the illegal activities contributing to deforestation.

This satellite image shows huge bare areas where the Amazon rainforest has been cleared
Amazon deforestation

Causes

So what exactly are these activities? There are several different factors at play, and the variety, as well as the huge land area of the Amazon, makes it even harder for police and the IBAMA to prosecute the people behind these actions.

Logging

Logging is one major contributor. Amazon hardwoods, like mahogany, are very valuable and sell for high prices in the timber market. Loggers clear cut hundreds of acres at a time when harvesting trees. Even if these trees were replanted (which they are not), the destruction is so vast that the forest would take decades to recover.

Selective logging is also an issue, and one that is much harder to see. This is when loggers go in and selectively cut down only the valuable and endangered hardwoods, rather than clear cutting huge areas. It is just as harmful to the rainforest ecosystem as clear cutting, but much harder to account for when looking at forest loss.

Farms

Soy farmers and cattle ranchers are also responsible for clearing large tracts of land. In particular, soy is a hugely profitable market, and there are several major companies importing soy from the Amazon. These companies do not always follow the regulations set in place to protect the rainforest. One example is Cargill, a food corporation based in Minnesota. According to a National Geographic article titled 'Last of the Amazon,' 'federal prosecutors are suing the company over its alleged failure to provide an adequate environmental impact study of the port.' The port is the company's base of export from the area.

Grileiros

There are also people who follow logging roads deep into the Amazon in order to grab land for themselves. They completely clear a tract of land in order to make it appear as though they own it. These people are called grileiros, which comes from the Portuguese word grilo, meaning 'cricket.' This is because they have been known to fake land titles and age them in a drawer full of hungry crickets so they appear more authentic.

Effects

All of these activities contribute to the major deforestation we are seeing now, and this destruction is hugely detrimental to the environment.

Drought

One effect of the clearing is drought. The rainforest produces half of its own rainfall as the trees release moisture into the atmosphere. As trees disappear, so does this rain, causing the remaining trees to dry up and die. The drought can also lead to wildfires, which destroy even more of rainforest. In addition, it will cause a severe drop in the water level of the Amazon River, negatively affecting hundreds of communities that live on the banks of the river.

Greenhouse Gases

Burning is a popular method of clear cutting land for farms. This has made Brazil one of the world's leading emitters of greenhouse gases that build up in the atmosphere and add to climate change. In addition, the Amazon is a huge source of carbon sequestration, which is when the trees absorb carbon dioxide and help clean the atmosphere. Deforestation reduces the forest's ability to do this, and releases the carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

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