Which products do the most harm to the Amazon rainforest?

Logs are seen in Bom Retiro deforestation area on the right side of the BR 319 highway near Humaita, Amazonas state, Brazil September 20, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

Logs are seen in Bom Retiro deforestation area on the right side of the BR 319 highway near Humaita, Amazonas state, Brazil September 20, 2019. REUTERS/Bruno Kelly

What’s the context?

Amazon summit in Brazil will highlight protections for the forest, which is threatened by commodities linked to deforestation

RIO DE JANEIRO - The Brazilian city of Belém will host a summit of Amazon Basin countries on Aug 8-9, where leaders will discuss how to better preserve the rainforest and promote its sustainable use, stem biodiversity loss and attract funding for conservation.

Analysts view regional action within and among the nine Amazon nations as vital to safeguarding the forest's natural functions, including curbing climate change, as local markets are a key destination for commodities linked to deforestation.

When forests are cut down, the planet-heating carbon stored in their trees is released into the atmosphere if they rot or are burned, contributing to global warming.

Here's where the key commodities that have led to the clearing of Brazil's Amazon, which comprises the biggest share of the vast forest, are sold - and what has been done so far to stop their supply chains causing deforestation:

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How bad is Brazilian beef for the Amazon forest?

Analysis from environmental NGO Imazon, based on data from nonprofit mapping consortium MapBiomas, indicates that 86% of the areas deforested in Brazil's Amazon between 1985 and 2020 became pasture, mostly used to rear cattle when not abandoned.

That makes beef the commodity most directly connected to destruction of the rainforest ecosystem.

In the same period, Amazon states were home to most of the increase in Brazil's cattle herds, which now number over 220 million animals - more than Brazil's human population of 203 million.

According to official data compiled by the Brazilian Beef Exporters' Association (Abiec), Brazil produced more than 10,500 tonnes of beef in 2022. Of that, 72% was sold in the country's own market, followed by China which bought 15%.

Analysis from Trase - a platform run by the Stockholm Environment Institute and NGO Global Canopy, which crosses data on commodity exports with deforestation in their place of origin - indicates that as of 2017, China was the country whose beef imports from Brazil had the largest exposure to deforestation.

Since 2009, meat-packers accounting for most of Brazil's beef-processing capacity have been signing commitments with the authorities not to buy cattle that lack traceability documents or come from areas that are illegally occupied or deforested.

But cases in which cattle are purchased from irregular farms or "laundered" through legal properties before being sold in the formal market are still being uncovered by prosecutors.

Environmentalists have been calling for a system that traces each head of cattle since birth instead of tracking herds, which are often comprised of animals with different origins.

Although China is a key export destination for Brazilian beef and has also pledged to reduce carbon emissions, it has not taken significant action to rid its supply chain of cattle-linked deforestation in Brazil, said Patricia Pinho, deputy science director at IPAM Amazonia, a research institute.

Where does timber logged in the Amazon end up?

Another activity often connected to deforestation in Brazil's Amazon is logging - but most of that wood stays in the country.

According to government estimates, timber exports accounted for only about 9% of the wood extracted from Brazil's Amazon between 2012 and 2017, with the rest sold domestically.

A 2022 report co-authored by Imaflora, which works to green supply chains, analyzed satellite images of more than 377,000 hectares logged between August 2020 and July 2021 in Brazil's Amazon, equal to 0.56% of its total area, and concluded that 38% had been exploited without government authorization.

Leonardo Sobral, forest supply chain manager for Imaflora, said most timber in Brazil is used for construction, usually as a basic material with little added value.

A separate 2022 report jointly produced by Imaflora analyzed the one federal and two state logging traceability platforms deployed in Brazil's Amazon, concluding that these systems were "still not completely protected against document fraud and contamination of their supply chains with illegal timber".

Imaflora is working on an initiative with Google, The Nature Conservancy and other organizations to create a database that would allow buyers of Brazilian timber to verify the origin of native timber products, based on their chemical characteristics.

Has a moratorium on Amazon soy helped curb deforestation?

Soy is another key commodity that has long been linked to Amazon deforestation, as large tracts were cleared for plantations.

In response, traders voluntarily agreed on a "soybean moratorium" in 2006, which was later extended and now prohibits the purchase of soy from Amazon areas deforested since 2008.

Research published in 2015 found that, before the moratorium, 30% of soy cultivation expansion in the Amazon occurred through deforestation - but that dropped to about 1% after the pact was implemented.

Data from the Trase platform indicates that exports of soy are today more connected to deforestation of the Pampa, a prairie ecosystem, and the Cerrado, a savannah that is Brazil's biggest natural ecosystem after the Amazon.

According to the Brazilian Association of Vegetable Oil Industries (Abiove), 80% of the country's 2022 soybean production was purchased by buyers in Brazil and China, while only 6% went to the European Union.

For soybean meal, mostly used as animal feed, the EU absorbed 23% of production, with 73% going to Brazil and Asia.

In a May comment piece for Context, Brazilian researchers argued the EU's new anti-deforestation bill risks putting more pressure on the Cerrado and other ecosystems, as they could become the new focus of projects first planned for the Amazon.

That threat has led researchers and environmentalists to call for a new moratorium to protect the Cerrado from deforestation.

(Reporting by Andre Cabette Fabio; Editing by Megan Rowling and Kieran Guilbert)

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Silvana Nihua, president of the Waorani Organization of Pastaza (OWAP), travels along the Curaray River where indigenous communities reside in riverside villages in the Amazon province of Pastaza, Ecuador, on April 26, 2022

Part of:

The Amazon rainforest and climate change

The Amazon rainforest is crucial to maintaining a stable climate on the planet - what is being done to try to stem deforestation?

Updated: August 11, 2023


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