Conversation with Dr. Lovejoy

The Amazon rainforest is the largest tropical forest on Earth. Its destruction would mean a disastrous loss of biodiversity, acceleration of climate change, and disruption of global weather patterns.

Deforestation comes in many forms. Typically, it begins with the construction of a road, granting loggers, farmers, miners and hunters access to previously isolated areas. About 95% of all forest destruction in the Amazon occurs within 5 km of a road 1.

Both local and international economic demand drives deforestation, as swaths of forest are slashed and burned for subsistence plots as well as industrial plantations. The vast majority of deforestation in the Amazon and in other tropical forests results from cattle ranching and soybean production 2. Furthermore, government programs and policies, such as those for increased transportation infrastructure, can lead to unintentional deforestation as roads are built through the forest.

Approximately 25,000 square kilometers of Amazonian forest was cleared each year on average during the 1990’s, roughly the size of Massachusetts. Brazil suffered the worst deforestation in the world between 1990 and 2005, with a loss of 42,330,000 hectares (163,436 square miles), roughly the same area as California [2]. While Brazil succeeded in drastically reducing forest loss in the early 2000’s, deforestation has spiked in the last few years, with a loss of almost 10,000 square km in 2019, the largest loss in a decade 3.

Overall, approximately 17% of the Amazon has been deforested over the last half-century 4. This may not seem like much, but scientists say that in order to maintain the minimum amount of rainfall needed for the forest to survive, a minimum of 70% of the Amazon must stay intact. At the current rate of deforestation, we may pass this threshold within the next 50 years. What’s more, eighteen of the Amazon’s 32 major forested ecoregions are projected to lose more than 40% of forest cover by 2050 and 12 more than 70%.

Why stop deforestation in the Amazon? For one thing, it’s economical: harvesting an acre of timber from the rainforest nets $400/year. Cattle ranching provides $60/year/acre. Sustainably harvesting resources from an acre of rainforest has been shown to net $2400/year. Furthermore, there are countless ecological benefits to preserving the Amazon. The scientific community agrees that deforestation causes massive spikes in wildfires across the Amazon. It is estimated that 11 years’ worth of carbon emissions are stored in the trees of the Amazon, and roughly a third of all carbon emissions come from burning the rainforest. Therefore, deforestation contributes to global climate change in two facets: by removing an important carbon sink and by releasing greenhouse gases.

Trees in the Amazon play a crucial role in regulating global weather patterns. Through transpiration (or releasing water from the leaves of the trees) and other mechanisms, they create clouds that cause precipitation around the world. Scientists report that deforestation of the Amazon would lead to significant drying not only of that region, but also areas as far away from South America as the Midwest United States and West Africa 5.

Moreover, the Amazon rainforest is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, with a new species being discovered every three days for the past decade. It provides much of the food we eat, and numerous compounds found in modern medicine. Such treasures are irreplaceable.

  1. Laurance, William F. “Roads to Ruin.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 12 Apr. 2015. Web. 3 May 2015.
  2. NASA. “Tropical Deforestation : Feature Articles.” Tropical Deforestation. NASA: Earth Observatory, n.d. Web. 02 May 2015.
  3. Amigo, Ignacio (February 12, 2020). “When will the Amazon Hit a Tipping Point?” Nature. https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-020-00508-4.
  4. World Wildlife Fund. “Threats: Deforestation.” WorldWildlife.org. World Wildlife Fund, n.d. Web.
  5. Lawrence, D., and Vandecar, K. (2014) Effects of tropical deforestation on climate and agriculture. Nature Climate Change, published online: 18 December 2014. doi: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2430

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