The Amazon

Page - January 9, 2007
The largest remaining tropical forest in the world, the Amazon rainforest is as large as Western Europe or the whole of the US. It actually covers 5 percent of the world's land and extends over some 6.5 million square kilometres.

Sloth (Bradybus variegates) in forest of Peru.

While much of the Amazon rainforest falls within the borders of Brazil, it also reaches into regions of Guyana, Venezuela, Colombia, Suriname, French Guiana, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia.

It is thought to be the most diverse ecosystem on Earth. It is home to nearly 10 percent of the world's mammals and a staggering 15 percent of the world's known land-based plant species, with as many as 300 species of tree in a single hectare.

The Amazon in Brazil alone is home to more than 20 million people, including an estimated 220,000 people from 180 different indigenous groups. These people rely on this ancient forest for their way of life. It provides almost everything from food and shelter to tools and medicines as well as playing a crucial role in people's spiritual and cultural life. The Amazon forest also plays a vital role in keeping the world's climate stable.

The Amazon rainforest is not only one of the richest and most biologically diverse regions on the planet, it is also one of the most threatened.

Many solutions are needed to protect the Amazon Rainforest and its resources. Effective solutions must maintain people's quality of life and ensure long-term protection for the forest and its unique plants and animals. But these can only be achieved if sound environmental and economic alternatives replace the current destructive models.

Amazon destruction

Fifteen percent of the Amazon rainforest has already been destroyed. Since the 1970s, an area of ancient rainforest the size of France has been lost. Between August 2003 and August 2004, 26,130 square km, 2.6 million hectares of rainforest in the Brazilian Amazon were lost to illegal and destructive logging, mining, industrial agricultural plantations and other human industries such as road building.

A significant part of what remains is under direct threat - as are the forest plants, animals and people who depend upon the forest. One of the greatest dangers to the Amazon rainforest is illegal and destructive logging.

Logging is one of the principal causes of the destruction of the Amazon Rainforest. By building logging roads into pristine rainforest, the logging industry also opens the door to further devastation of the forest ecosystem through clearing for cattle ranches and soya plantations, over-hunting, fuel wood gathering and mining.

Fuelled by the demand for cheap supplies of tropical timbers for both the Brazilian domestic market and the international market, the illegal timber trade represents a major factor in forest degradation. Between 60 and 80 percent of all logging in the Brazilian Amazon is estimated to be illegal. And of all the timber that is cut, as much as 70 percent is wasted in the mills.

Greenpeace exposes illegal logging

Illegal and predatory logging plays a central role in the destruction of the Amazon.

Since Greenpeace set up an office in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon in 1998, we have seen a steady stream of illegal log rafts heading downstream. Greenpeace has worked with local communities and the federal environmental agency IBAMA, tracking illegal activity, mapping logging areas, investigating companies and taking direct action against companies within Brazil and in the international marketplace.

This work has included:

  • Using a small Cessna airplane for surveillance to locate massive illegal log rafts and reporting these to the government authorities
  • Developing a technique to track illegal logs back to the exporting companies using ultraviolet paint, and researching the origin and destinations of tens of thousands of cubic metres of timber
  • Completing a map with all the "legal" forest operations, a powerful tool to be used by local authorities for monitoring

All of this research points to an illegal logging industry out of control.

Greenpeace also discovered that one transnational logging giant, WTK, purchased 313,000 hectares of land from a private landowner, 150,000 hectares of this illegally overlapped with indigenous territory. The Deni people who live in this region began the physical demarcation of their territory in 2001 to guarantee that WTK and others will be prohibited from logging on their land. This is now completed and they are recognised under Brazilian law as the legal owners of their lands.

Despite the high rate of illegal logging, important timber importing nations such as the US, UK, Spain, France and Japan have taken few, if any, steps to ensure that products they import come from legal, let alone ecologically well-managed sources.

There are ways to save the Amazon

Certified logging operations offer an important way forward for the logging industry in the Amazon. Greenpeace believes that the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is currently the only socially and ecologically responsible certification system that independently verifies logging operations to a set of international recognised standards. Some companies in the Amazon, such as Precious Woods and Gethal Amazonas, have already received FSC certification and are now selling timber from their operations to countries around the world.

In practice, the only way to ensure that wood and wood products in the Amazon come from legal and well-managed sources is to demand that all such products have been independently certified to at least the standards adopted by the Forest Stewardship Council.

Indigenous groups are dependent on the forest for preserving traditional ways of life, and while Brazilian law provides for the complete protection of all indigenous lands by 1993, up to 2005 only half of the indigenous lands in Brazil have been demarcated. Greenpeace has been working with Indigenous groups to increase demarcation.

Rubber tapping has been a traditional way of life for many people living in the Amazon Rainforest - today as many as 63,000 families depend on rubber tapping, a livelihood that does not destroy the trees from which the latex is extracted.

Extractivist Reserves - protected areas of forest established by the Brazilian government to allow the rubber tappers to maintain their traditional way of life - cover perhaps one percent of the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest. Greenpeace has been working with the rubber tappers and other groups to demand an increase in the area under Extractivist Reserves to ten percent of the Brazilian Amazon.

With the protection of indigenous lands through demarcation and other initiatives such as the creation of more Extractivist Reserves, as much as 30 percent of the Amazon would be legally off-limits to industrial logging and large-scale industrial development.

Take action and learn more:

  • Learn about buying forest friendly timber, and the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) in the What you can do section
  • Visit the Greenpeace International website to learn more about the amazing Amazon ecosystem and for more information about the threats facing this forest habitat