According to a new study from RAISG, in just five years, the Amazon could lose almost half of what it lost in the past two decades.

To understand the reasons for such a bleak future, they analyzed the deforestation rates of recent years, identifying the main threats in the present and pointing to measures needed to reverse this process.

Photo: Vinícius Mendonça/Ibama

In a span of five years, the Amazon may have lost up to 23.7 million hectares of forest, an area almost as large as the entire United Kingdom. These are the findings of a study published by the Amazon Network of Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information (RAISG), pointing to three possible scenarios of deforestation from 2021 to 2025 – optimistic, moderate and pessimistic. According to the pessimistic scenario, in just five years, the largest tropical forest on earth will lose half of what it lost in the last 20 years (54.2 million hectares). 

“Deforestation mainly impacts climatic stability, as well as the quality and quantity of water,” says Tina Oliveira-Miranda, one of the authors of the study and coordinator of Territorial Information Systems of Wataniba, a civil society organization based in Venezuela. “It is strongly connected to such processes as forest fires. This implies an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and, obviously, ramps up the repercussions in terms of the climate.”

The study «Deforestación en la Amazonía al 202 [“Deforestation in the Amazon by 2025”] covers the area denominated by RAISG as the “Amazon Region”, which spans nine countries and approximately 850 million hectares (8.5 million km2), including the entire Amazon River Basin and sections of transition into other biomes, such as the Andes, the Cerrado, the Chaco and the Pantanal. 

The results show that factors of change in use of the land such as livestock farming, mining and the expansion of the road infrastructure continue to put tremendous strain on the forest and its peoples. Activities like gold mining, coca farming and drug and weapons trafficking are aggravating the situation, putting those who protect the forest at risk. 

With specialized methodologies and algorithms processed on the Google Earth Engine platform, the study detected a total of 55 million hectares of forest with accessibility and territorial conditions that make it especially vulnerable to destruction, in other words, where the probability of deforestation is higher than zero. This surface area is equal to the sum of all the deforestation that took place in the Amazon from 2001 to 2020, the two-decade period analyzed by 20 specialists from six Amazonian countries who contributed to the study.

54.2 million hectares lost in 20 years

The Amazon is home to 30% of the planet’s biodiversity, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN). New plant and animal species are being discovered all the time. 

However, the accelerated destruction of the biome can lead to the extinction of species that have yet to be discovered or studied by science. Considering the data collected for the RAISG study, it is quite likely that this has already happened. Between 2001 and 2020, the Amazon lost over 54.2 million hectares, or almost 9% of its forests, an area the size of France. The Brazilian Amazon,  – home to 62% of the Amazon’s territory – was most affected, followed by Bolivia, Peru and Colombia. 

he year with the highest percentage was 2003, reaching almost 5 million hectares of cleared forest. Policies to combat the devastation in Brazil caused regional rates to fall in subsequent years, but, from 2019 on, there is a new upward curve in the deforestation rates, driven in large part by the Brazilian government and policies meant to weaken the agencies responsible for environmental oversight. 

In 2020, the last year included in the study, the total deforested area once again nears the annual average of the previous two decades: 2.7 million hectares.

Drivers of Deforestation

According to the atlas Amazonia Under Pressure”, published by RAISG in 2020, 66% of the Amazon is subjected to some sort of pressure that generates deforestation or degradation. The most important activity is livestock farming, which accounted for 84% of the devastation in the two first decades of this century.

RAISG highlights the crucial role played by infrastructure in driving deforestation: It is no coincidence that the loss of vegetation is directly related to the various means of access that cut into the forest, whether they be roads, rivers or landing strips

“Infrastructure, especially road infrastructure, will continue to be one of the great drivers of deforestation,” says Pablo Moutinho, a researcher at the Institute of Environmental Research of the Amazon (IPAM, by the original Portuguese acronym). “If you take the history of deforestation, over 70% of the forests cleared were located within a stretch of 50 kilometers on each side of the roads, mainly paved roadways.” RAISG estimates that over half of the Amazon is impacted in one way or another by the region's road infrastructure. In addition to stimulating the disorderly occupation of the territory, putting even more pressure on Indigenous Territories (ITs) and Protected Natural Areas (PNAs), the roads favor the outflow of illegal merchandise such as lumber and minerals.