The Amazon Basin Forest

The Amazon basin is the largest tropical rainforest in the world, covering a size approximately equal to the lower 48 United States. 6-8 million square kilometers of forest house approximately 10% of the world’s biodiversity and 15% of its freshwater. These “lungs of the world” provide ecological services for the planet, but also a source of livelihood for hundred of indigenous groups and forest dependent peoples. Brazil is home to approximately 65% of the Amazon basin (see side graphic).

The forests of the Amazon basin have been used for food and resources for thousands of years by native peoples; products such as rubber, palm fruits, and Brazil nuts, as well as countless medicines have been derived from the forest. In the last centuries, rubber harvest and timber extraction of valuable woods such as mahogany and Spanish cedar penetrated remote areas of the Amazon forest, often via waterways such as the Amazon and Xingu. Beginning in the 1907’s and 80’s, deforestation exploded as highways such as the Trans-Amazonas in Para and the soy highway (BR-163) in Mato Grosso opened up new land to permanent settlement. Since 1970 an estimated 700,000 square kilometers, or 20% of Brazil’s Amazon forest has been cleared. Deforestation levels reached 20,000 square kilometers per year for much of 1980-2005, an area almost the size of Belgium. Cattle ranching and soy plantations are the dominant drivers of deforestation in the Amazon, much of it concentrated in massive landholdings of thousands of acres. Expansion of the road network through the Amazon basin, especially in the southwest Brazil – Peru – Bolivia region continue to threaten Amazon forests. New threats emerge from palm oil plantations, mining, and hydropower development. Moreover, scientists estimate that a similar extent of forest is threatened by degradation from climate change, drought, and unsustainable selective logging practices.   

Despite the numerous deforestation threats facing the forest, deforestation in the Amazon basin has declined since 2005, and the region as a whole still boasts some of the most intact and healthy tropical forests in the world. Brazil has been commended for great advances in environmental policy, forest monitoring, and protected area management. Conservationists seek to continue these advances with REDD+ and other environmental incentive programs, deforestation free supply chains of major commodities, and land tenure reform. At the same time, indigenous reserves, forest restoration, timber legality and forest certification, and marketing of non-timber forest products remain important conservation tools. Explore these pages to learn more about the Amazon basin forests: ecology and habitat types, forest management, land use, governance, and conservation programs.