Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest, near Manaus the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas. Brazil. Photo by Neil Palmer / CIAT. Flickr.

What’s happening with deforestation in the Amazon?

Deforestation is dropping in Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Here’s why.

The Amazon rainforest is on the brink of a tipping point that could cause it to dry out as soon as 2050, releasing vast amounts of carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

But there’s good news: after years of record-breaking deforestation, the world’s largest tropical rainforest is finally enjoying some respite.

In 2023, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon fell 50 percent year on year, while neighboring Colombia, Peru and Bolivia also saw major declines in forest loss.

But why exactly is deforestation falling – and how can we keep that momentum going, while also safeguarding other lesser-known but equally critical ecosystems in the region?

Let’s dive into the latest data on Amazon deforestation, the factors behind them and trends to watch out for in 2024.

Is Amazon deforestation declining in 2024?

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has fallen to its lowest rate since 2018, reducing the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 7.5 percent. However, it’s still nearly twice the level in 2012, when it reached a record low.

Meanwhile, in Colombia, which hosts about 10 percent of the rainforest, Amazon deforestation rates declined by 70 percent in the first nine months of 2023, reaching a nine-year low.

But the Colombian government has noted that those trends could still change depending on the activities of illegal armed groups, as well as on weather conditions caused by El Niño.

Finally, the Peruvian and Bolivian Amazon saw forest loss drop by 37 percent and 60 percent respectively as of November 2023, according to an independent analysis by the nonprofit Amazon Conservation.

How does Amazon deforestation affect climate change?

About 16 percent of annual greenhouse gas emissions can be attributed to land use change – most of it caused by deforestation.

In 2022, the world lost around 4 million hectares of primary forest – a 10 percent increase from 2021, according to the World Resources Institute.

Brazil accounted for a whopping 40 percent of that forest loss, followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo (12.5 percent) and Bolivia (9.4 percent).

The Amazon basin spans nine countries, with nearly 60 percent of the rainforest located in Brazil. That means what happens with deforestation in Brazil is pivotal to the ecosystem’s future.

Last year, the decline in tree loss in the Brazilian Amazon amounted to an area roughly the size of London, according to the country’s National Institute of Space Research (INPE).

In other words, policy changes in Brazil and other Amazonian countries can steer deforestation in a more encouraging direction – and thus help combat both the climate and biodiversity crises.

Why is deforestation decreasing in Brazil?

In Brazil, Amazon deforestation reached a 15-year high under former president Jair Bolsonaro, who weakened environmental protections, undermined Indigenous rights and promoted the expansion of agriculture, cattle ranching and mining in the biome.

This trend has sharply reversed since the current president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, took office in January 2023 under a pledge to halt net deforestation by 2030 – two years beyond his current term.

Deforestation in the Amazon is often the result of land grabbing to establish pastures. This means law enforcement is key to halting forest loss, and the Lula administration has since boosted its efforts in this arena.

Last year, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) issued more than twice as many infraction notices than in 2022.

The new government has reactivated the Amazon Fund, which the previous administration had prevented from receiving donations or approving projects for the preservation and sustainable use of the rainforest.

Brazil is also hiring more staff for its environmental agencies and recently announced that it will provide financial support to municipalities in the Amazon that have excelled in curbing deforestation.

However, the country’s conservative Senate has passed a law that will significantly restrict Indigenous land rights. This could have dire implications not only for the Amazon’s native inhabitants but also for its ecosystems, given that Indigenous Peoples have a solid track record in preventing deforestation.

A bird’s eye view of the stark contrast between the forest and agricultural landscapes near Rio Branco, Acre, Brazil. Photo by Kate Evans / CIFOR. Flickr

Is deforestation decreasing in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia?

Colombia elected a new government on a pro-conservation platform in 2022. It will host the UN Biodiversity Conference (COP16) this October and has pledged to put nature at the heart of the event’s agenda.

As part of its plans to reduce deforestation, the new administration is ramping up law enforcement and offering economic incentives to communities that protect and sustainably use the forest.

Deforestation decreased 29 percent year on year in 2022, reaching its lowest level in nearly a decade. However, it must be noted that the new government only took office in August of that year.

Other potential factors include civil society-led conservation projects and an unusually long La Niña, a weather phenomenon that contributed to devastating floods – but prevented wildfires – in Colombia towards the end of 2022.

Finally, armed groups also appear to have played a role by taking the fight against illegal logging into their own hands.

In 2016, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) signed a peace deal, ending an insurgency that had lasted over 60 years – but at the cost of the country’s forests.

That year alone, deforestation increased by 44 percent as ranchers, illegal loggers and miners and criminal networks sought to grab the lands vacated by the FARC.

To this day, though, parts of the country remain under control of dissidents who rejected the peace deal. These militias have banned logging in the areas they control, most likely to provide leverage for peace negotiations with the government, according to experts.

As for Peru and Bolivia, the authors of the MAAP analysis said it was not immediately apparent what drove the decline in those countries. However, they noted that many of the large-scale wildfires in Bolivia had taken place outside the Amazon.

What about deforestation in the Cerrado?

Despite successes in the Amazon, deforestation has continued to rise in the Cerrado, a tropical savanna region bordering the Amazon.

In the Brazilian Cerrado, deforestation surged by nearly 45 percent in 2023 compared to 2022 – reaching its highest level since 2019.

The Cerrado is home to 30 percent of Brazil’s biodiversity and is one of the country’s major water reserves, but it doesn’t attract the same levels of attention or protection as the Amazon.

Landowners in the Cerrado are allowed to cut down up to 80 percent of trees on their lands, compared to just 20 percent in the Amazon. As a result, deforestation in the savanna is often legal and takes place on private land.

Even as the government clamps down on Amazon deforestation, threats to the Cerrado from agricultural expansion are continuing to multiply as policies to protect the savanna remain inadequate.

Deforestation in the Amazon. Carajas, Brazil, true color, 2017. Flickr.

What can we expect for the Amazon in 2024?

This year is likely to see global temperature records continue to fall due to El Niño, which could increase the risk of drought and wildfires in the Amazon region, jeopardizing much of the progress achieved so far.

In fact, the Amazon is already in the midst of an unprecedented drought caused by the climate crisis, with millions of people in the region affected by water shortages, power cuts and crop failure.

In January, Colombia declared a state of disaster due to wildfires raging across several parts of the country. Deforestation could also potentially resume in rebel-controlled areas if peace negotiations stall.

And in Peru, Congress recently approved changes to the country’s forestry and wildlife law, effectively decriminalizing illegal logging for agricultural and livestock purposes.

The law also poses a serious threat to the rights of Indigenous Peoples, including isolated groups, as decried by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.

So, while Amazon deforestation is finally moving in the right direction, there’s no time for complacency – especially when collapse could be just decades away.

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