Accessibility, electrification, government incentives, and attractive exchange rates led to an expansion of soy and cattle farming in the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado in the 1990s and early 2000s. Despite some improvement in the following decade, deforestation rates have spiked again in recent years as agribusiness expands. Between 2005 and 2018, Brazil lost 43.2 million hectares of primary forest.

Why it matters

  • 244M National cattle count
  • 24-25M Total area of soy plantations in hectares

Hectares of tree loss

Deforestation by region, 2005 - 2018
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Forest loss in context

Tree cover loss is typically measured in hectares. One hectare is equivalent to about 3/4 of a football pitch. In these terms, roughly 308,331 football pitches of Brazilian tropical forest have been lost between 2005 and 2018. This is equivalent to 431,836 square kilometers, 268,330 square miles, or six times the size of Ireland.

Aerial view of cattle in confinement in Brazil.

Risk factors

Agribusiness expansion elevated Brazil to the top exporter of soy and beef globally, even though 80 percent of beef and 23 percent of Brazilian soy is consumed domestically. In 2019, beef exports brought in USD 7.4 billion and soy exports totalled USD 26.1 billion. Accessibility, electrification, technological advances, and government rhetoric have all played a role in increasing the attractiveness of the highly biodiverse Amazon and Cerrado biomes to the soy and beef industries. 

Cattle grazing in Belo Horizonte, Brazil

Government efforts

After seeing success in curbing deforestation in the late 2000s and early 2010s, Brazil is seeing high levels of forest loss in both the Amazon and Cerrado. The weakening of Brazil’s Forest Code in 2012 and rapid growth in agricultural commodities have underpinned conditions that have led to high levels of deforestation. These circumstances are occurring despite Brazil’s pledge under the Paris Agreement to both end illegal deforestation in the Amazon and restore 12 million hectares of forest by 2030.

Commodity Drivers: Cattle Farming 

A main driver of deforestation in Brazil is agricultural commodity production, particularly as the markets have become more lucrative in recent years. Illegal land speculation, logging, and mining are also important factors behind deforestation. Cattle ranching, which makes up about 7 percent of Brazil’s economy, is responsible for approximately 80 percent of deforestation. Shortcomings with traceability and transparency have exacerbated the problem, limiting accountability. Despite high domestic beef consumption, the country remains the largest exporter in the world and exports are expected to grow, especially to China. The implication is a likely increase in land use in Brazil, which could portend devastating impacts on the Amazon.

Commodity Drivers: Soy Farming 

Beside cattle, soy production poses a number of risks to the country’s forests, mostly in the Cerrado biome. Brazil is now the world’s top soy producer, with output estimated at around 125 million metric tons for 2019/20. Production is up by 66 percent in the past decade. Like the cattle market, exports of soy have exploded in recent years, supported by the country’s currency depreciation and the U.S.-China trade dispute. Brazilian exporters now have greater access to buyers in China, where demand is rising as the country needs to feed its large population and growing middle class. The area of most concern in the Cerrado is the Matopiba region, a major hotspot for deforestation. Commodity traders, such as Bunge, Cargill, COFCO, Glencore Agriculture, LDC, and ADM, are seen as the actors with the most leverage in transforming the soy market as they are the link between producers and downstream companies/retailers. There is currently a moratorium on clearing land for soy production in the Amazon, but it has not been extended to the Cerrado.

Fires in Brazil, July 2020: Each yellow dot is a fire observed by NASA’s Fire Information for Resource Management System.

Forest hot spots

While some fires occur naturally, the majority of fires in the Brazilian Amazon result from agribusiness expansion. Both soy and cattle farmers set fires to quickly and cheaply clear forests during the dry season between July and October. The difference between natural and agricultural fires is evident from the Santinel-2 satellite imagery below. Natural fires, in the left photograph, do not form a pattern like the rows seen in the right photograph.

Source: Chain Reaction Research

What is the cause?

In Brazil, the value of land increases when it is cleared of vegetation and transformed into farmland. Investors, real estate companies, and agribusinesses all benefit from clearing and burning Amazon rainforest either for cultivation or resale. Although fires temporarily fertilize the land, long-term soil erosion and disruption of water cycles leads to more deforestation, fires, and agricultural expansion.

What is the impact?

During the fire season in 2019, 3.7 percent of Brazil’s landmass, or 31,838,900 hectares, were lost to forest fires. In total, there were 981,282 fire alerts in Brazil during this time. At a global scale, the climate change implications of burning an ecosystem that stores 20 percent of the world’s carbon are significant. The soil and biomass of the Amazon stores an estimated 257 tons of carbon per hectare, which are released during forest fires and contribute to climate change. Regionally, the disruption of water cycles has implications for the drinking water of major Brazilian cities and access to energy produced by hydroelectric dams. Locally, the increase in pesticides needed as land loses valuable nutrients pollutes drinking water and disrupts ecosystems.

Where are the fires?

Mato Grasso, the largest grain and livestock producing region, registered the highest number of fire alerts during the 2019 fire season, followed by Para.


Homepage numbers: Tree cover loss (since 2005), Global Forest Watch; Deforestation* as a percentage of GHG emissions, 2005-2016, Climate Watch; National goal for decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, Climate Action Tracker.

Deforestation map: Tree cover loss by region (since 2005), Global Forest Watch; National cattle count, Beef2Live “World Cattle Inventory”; Total area of soy plantations, Yale Global forest atlas.


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