Agriculture & Ranching | Deforestation | Logging | Mining | Pollution



Project Amazonia: Threats - Logging


Logging for commercial purposes by large corporations and individuals account for 4% of the GNP of Brazil1, and is quite a lucrative business.  Brazil exported 30,968 tones (31,600 tons) of mahogany in 2000. The US alone imported 22,442 tones (22,900 tons) or 72.4 percent of the total at US$28.2 million2.  But at the same time, Brazil is an important consumer of its own products, using them to make other goods like paper and furniture which is then exported.  In fact, Pará state, the biggest log producer in the Amazon exported only 19% of its 12 million cubic meters of logs produced in 19972.

There are two types of logging: the monocyclic silvicultural system, in which all trees in a given area are felled, and the polycyclic system, in which only a few specified trees in a given area are cut. Low-intensity selective logging in a polycyclic system allows the forest to regrow. However, the process presently in use is a monocyclic silvicultural system meaning many stems are felled per hectare.  The negative impacts of this process include the following:

1.  Shifted species composition- Bare areas left in the forest result in competition within the ecosystem which gives rise to increasingly light-demanding, faster species of smaller plants. This, in turn, develops a secondary forest of pioneers while exterminating the original inhabitants (i.e. the primary-growth forest).

2.  Compacted soil- The soil of the Amazonian rainforest is a mixture of loam, sand, and clay. This composition, while not particularly soluble in water, is quite prone to being carried away by water since it is basically minute particles.  Therefore, when trees are felled, the soil is no longer anchored by the tree roots and washes off with the rain water. Furthermore, the remaining eroded and barren land leads to domination of the forest floor by creeping plants and ferns1.

3.  Dammed streams- High-intensity logging can result in damming of streams by the felled timber. Without the presence of culverts, the water distribution changes, thereby killing nearby forest and paving the way for the development of swamps1.

4.  Vulnerability to fires- The loss of canopy cover caused by felling of large trees leaves the remaining forest much more vulnerable to forest fires3.

5.  Encouragement other activities- Building roads on cleared land provides easy access for such activities as large-scale hunting and poaching, fuel-wood gathering, and further clearing of land for agriculture4.


In the year 2000, Greenpeace set up an office in the Brazilian Amazon to track and monitor illegal logging, map logging areas, and take action in Brazil and in the international marketplace against the offenders.  They developed a technique to track illegal logging back to the exporting companies using ultraviolet paint.   They found that, working in remote forest areas, the loggers often use false permits, ignore limitations of legal permits, cut species protected by law, and steal from protected areas and indigenous lands. These are often small or medium scale operations that are able to avoid detection because of the remoteness of the logging locations, the inadequate presence of the federal environmental agency IBAMA, and a complex chain-of-custody in the cutting, hauling, and transporting of the logs.  And in many cases, legally approved forest operations in the Brazilian Amazon commonly provide cover for illegal logging. Logs are frequently cut illegally upriver from approved operations and clandestinely floated downstream. Once past an approved operation, they are “legalized” with forged documents claiming that the logs were cut on the property of the legal forestry operation2.  This fact makes it almost impossible to collect actual evidence against the offenders.

According to scientists, Amazon logging companies extract or damage 10 to 40 percent of the live biomass of a forest area, and open up the canopy by 14 to 50 percent. An area of 589,000 km2, larger than France, has disappeared in the last 30 years. Satellite data has shown that deforestation of the Brazilian Amazon last year (19,532 km2) was greater than at any time since 1995.  According to Brazil's National Institute for Space Research, which monitors deforestation via satellite, the total annual deforested area equaled 19,836 square kilometers between August 1999 and August 2000. This is equivalent to four million soccer fields and represents a 15 percent increase in deforestation compared to 17,259 square kilometers from August 1998 to August 19992.

While these statistics are incredible enough, it is even more incredible when we learn of all the wasteful activities of the Amazonian logging industry. Seventy percent of all logged timber ends up as unusable fragments or sawdust.  At the same time, countless valuable species are being destroyed for petty reasons, such as the Samauma tree, known in the Amazon as the "Queen of the Forest" because of its great height which can reach well over 50 meters. Some Indian groups consider the tree sacred. The softwood timber of the Samauma is pink-white and is used by locals to make rafts, while the roots are often used to make huts by forest dwellers. The Samauma tree is currently being felled to make cheap plywood for export. Another good example is the Brazilian (Big Leaf) mahogany tree, one of the most well known hardwood species around the world. It is a symbol of the environmental and human degradation inflicted upon the Amazon rainforest and its indigenous populations by the logging industry. Since the 18th century, the tropical forests of South America have been plundered for mahogany for ship building and later for furniture making. Today, furniture manufacture is the principle end use of Brazilian mahogany, mainly in the US and the UK. These two countries export finished mahogany all around the world.

An important reason behind the rampant logging activities is the lack of law enforcement in land ownership, which is certainly conceivable in a huge area such as Brazil.  According to the Brazilian government, approximately 100 million hectares of land, or 20 percent of the entire Amazon region, is held illegally2. In Brazil’s Amazonas State, all plywood and veneer exporting companies were either directly or indirectly involved in illegal logging between 1997 and 1999, including WTK that regularly exports plywood to the UK. In Pará state, the largest exporters are known to have purchased from illegal sources, including the Japanese logging company Eidai do Brazil which exports wood products to Japan, the Netherlands, US and UK2.

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1: First National Report for the Convention on Biological Diversity – Brazil


3: Whitmore, T.C. (1998). An Introduction to Tropical Rainforests

4: World Rainforest Movement (1990). Rainforest Destruction: Causes, Effects and False Solutions