Increased global demand for beef, soy products are major factors driving deforestation in the Amazon

An illegal fire illuminates the night sky in the Brazilian Amazon. Text reads Amazon on the brink: Drivers of destruction.
Photo: Agência Amazônia Real/iStock

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In the mid-1800s, the onset of the Industrial Revolution led to systematic, mass deforestation across much of the United States. By 1920, more than two-thirds of all forests in the country had been leveled, according to researchers at American Forests, a conservation group.

A similar, systematic deforestation is now consuming large swaths of the Amazon forest in South America, but the impact there could be far worse. It could transform large areas of lush forest into dry savannah, which would have profound ecological impacts in the region and diminish the Amazon’s ability to limit global climate change.

A combination of factors has driven a surge in deforestation over the past two decades: growing international demand for beef and soy products; construction of large infrastructure projects, especially new roads and large hydropower dams; and lax enforcement of forest protection measures in recent years, particularly in Brazil. Today, the world’s largest tropical forest is at an ecological tipping point, according to recent study by the Science Panel for the Amazon.

The panel of 200 scientists conducted the most comprehensive assessment ever of the Amazon — its natural resources, cultural and economic assets, and communities that live in the forest. Their report, Amazon Assessment Report 2021, was alarming. But it also offered a vision for sustainable development that could save the forest, support Indigenous and local communities, and maintain the Amazon’s role as a natural buffer against climate change.

The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation is supporting dissemination of the report and dialogues with policymakers, the public and financial institutions that fund development in the Amazon. Members of the Science Panel presented their findings today at gatherings set to run alongside the United Nations General Assembly meeting in New York. The fate of the Amazon also will be discussed at Climate Week 2022, which takes place Sept. 19-25 in New York.

The Science Panel has said that ending deforestation immediately in the most damaged areas of the Amazon, and halting it across the entire region by 2030, are key to saving the forest. The Panel concluded that preserving intact forests and healthy rivers in the Amazon is preferable to restoring those ecosystems after they have been damaged.

“The high cost and complexity of many restoration options means they should be a last resort,” the Panel said in its report. “For vast areas of the Amazon, the primary aim should be to avoid the need for future restoration by conserving mature forests and water bodies.”

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