Despite ongoing legal and illegal deforestation, the Amazon basin rainforest remains the biggest tropical forest on Earth. In Brazil, which is the largest Amazon country, around 350 million hectares remain there. Of that area, 25 million hectares have been designated as sustainable development reserves, 110 million hectares are indigenous reserves and 70 million hectares have been designated as protected areas.
Land permitted for agriculture in this area comprises of 3.5 million hectares, with the likes of coffee, cocoa, tea, soybeans, rubber and palm oil cultivated here.
International groups, prominent individuals, governments and businesses are increasingly becoming aware of the growing deforestation, however, with a certain “forest transition” currently in process whereby economic growth draws people to urban areas, with a focus on decreasing pressure on existing forests in rural areas and recovering forest land.
In the Amazon, large-scale conversion of forest has occurred since the 1970s and 80s, coinciding with the growth of the Brazilian economy. The Amazon basin, before the arrival of Europeans, was occupied and cultivated by indigenous peoples for thousands of years, practicing small-scale agricultural cultivation and farming, with fruit, palm oil, rubber and much more grown here.
Soil in the Amazon is weathered, old and difficult to cultivate, with large parts considered infertile. After just a few growing seasons, it almost impossible to grow, with the land then turned over for cattle or, in most cases, returned to secondary forest designation.
The Amazon region is divided up into diverse soil-condition areas. The majority of the forest has moist soil, however there are areas of the basin comprised of flooded swamps, savannah land and seasonal forest land. Due to these varied conditions of soil in the region, there is a wide range of biodiversity, home to many species of plants and trees.
Amazon Forest Ecology
The Amazon rainforest is also teeming with life, a variety of different animals and insects, indicative of the huge biodiversity present there. There are thousands of different species of trees there, some 50,000 different species of plants, and, staggeringly, hundreds of thousands of different insects inhabit the region.
In the Amazon basin, moist forests are stratified with three to four layers of vegetation – the emergent layer, canopies, sub-canopies and the under-story layer – with trees reaching up to between 50 and 60 meters high, penetrating the upper areas of the forest. At the canopy level, the layer reaches an average of 20 to 30 meters and provides continual tree coverage.
Palm trees dominate the sub-canopy layer, with the trees waiting for openings and access to light to rise up into the canopy. The under-story contains shrubbery and small plants which have adapted to low-light conditions.
Most soil in tropical conditions, such as the Amazon forest, is weathered and old, offering poor nutrients, with the little nutrients available, often from leaf litter, frequently washed away by the heavy rains. The density of vegetation in these environments also produces acidity, which can be toxic to many plants. Due to these conditions, rainforests are often considered inconsistent with the conditions required to develop permanent agricultural activities in these areas.
Cattle Ranching in the Amazon
The biggest driver of deforestation in the Amazon region is cattle ranching, with the activity accounting for some 80 percent of current rates of deforestation in Amazon countries. Brazil itself is home to around 200 million head of cattle, with the country the biggest exporter in the world. Ease of transport through functional road networks in rural areas and the low-cost input makes this an attractive industry. Around 450 square kilometers of Brazil’s deforested Amazon region are currently in use in the cattle industry.
Soy Agriculture in the Amazon Basin
The cultivation of soy is a significant driver of deforestation in the Amazon basin. Soybean seeds from the plant produce high-protein feed for livestock, with around 80 percent of soy in the Amazon destined to become animal feed, with a smaller percentage being directly eaten or used for oils. Currently in Brazil, some 25 million hectares of land is being used to cultivate soy, with the South American country today the second-largest producer of the crop in the world. Soy has been being cultivated in the region since the beginning of the century, substantially in Argentina and Brazil.