Keeping the Amazon Standing, 2008-2009

Developments in the Amazon are alarming. Our image of the Amazon as an endless green carpet, pierced only by glistening rivers, is now only partly true. Historically, the most important cause of deforestation and forest degradation has been the expansion of cattle ranching, but additional threats have emerged recently. The expansion of soy cultivation in a number of Brazilian states is driving the ranchers deeper into the forest, making it a significant indirect cause of indirect deforestation.

Immense infrastructure projects are planned (roads, dams, making rivers navigable) that will give access to large areas of the Amazon, leading to economically viable soy cultivation there, too. The western part of the Amazon, which is extremely humid, has not previously been very accessible. This region houses many different native communities and contains areas of the greatest biodiversity. It is precisely there that large areas of land have been allocated as oil and gas exploration concessions. The development of palm oil plantations also forms a significant potential threat for the future.

These developments mean that humankind has involved the Amazon in a huge experiment, with an unpredictable outcome. The widespread changes in land use are releasing vast quantities of carbon to the atmosphere. These emissions are contributing significantly to global climate change. In the near future we expect an increase of drought in the Amazon, as cattle ranching and soy cultivation disrupt the hydrological balance. New damage will be done by more forest fires, caused by forest degradation: a vicious circle, amplified by climate change. In the south of the continent, too, agriculture will be harmed as the Amazon generates less precipitation.

Amazone foto 1

We need a new economic approach to maintaining the ecosystem services in this forest as best we can. This report shows the potential offered by marketing the ecosystem services supplied by the Amazon. Healthy forests offer a treasure trove of biodiversity, they supply clean water, mitigate erosion, allow crops to be pollinated and produce raw materials and foodstuffs such as timber, honey, rubber and fruits. Local communities depend significantly on these services and products. The Amazon forest plays an important part in the water circulation, both regionally and on the continental scale. The CO2 stocks held in intact forest ecosystems also play a vital part in managing the climate problem. Deforestation of the Amazon leads to effects that can scarcely be expressed in monetary terms. Or can they?

The table below presents a number of significant ecosystem services provided by the Amazon forest and the related economic values, as far as they are known. The studies and the assumptions on which these figures are based are explained in the report. These values cannot simply be added together. It is also important to note that the markets for these ecosystem services are either not available, or are still in their infancy. This does not imply that society does not benefit from these ecosystem services.

Table 1. Values of ecosystem services of the Amazon derived from the literature

Amazone table

A new, sustainable approach offers great opportunities to improve the standard of living among the local communities, thus increasing support for forest conservation. Therefore timber should be produced as sustainably as possible by selective harvesting and long recovery periods, preferably under an FSC certification scheme. The sustainable exploitation of non-timber forest products and the development of ecotourism can also help generate income, while leaving the forest substantially intact. These strategies, though, are inadequate as a counter to the economic forces currently at work, so it is important to instantiate other values offered by the forest.

If one ascribes a value to the immense quantity of carbon stored in the Amazon forest, this could tip the balance from unsustainable to sustainable forest management. Under the post-2012 climate policy, industrialised nations will start to pay for forest conservation in tropical countries under the REDD mechanise (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation). The carbon that remains stored in the forest by avoiding deforestation and forest degradation is allocated a cash value.

Local communities would be able to profit from these payments if they demonstrably contribute to the preservation of the carbon stored in the forest ecosystem. Even now, in fact, a voluntary market is developing in which parties can partly compensate for their greenhouse gas emissions by investing in tropical forest conservation. On balance it is expected that REDD will generate new, substantial cash flows for forest conservation.

Amazone foto 2

The Amazon forest supplies yet another, important global ecosystem service: preservation of biodiversity. That is why industrialized countries should contribute to the maintenance of biodiversity in the tropical forest, in analogy to the carbon market. There is as yet no global market for the maintenance of biodiversity.

The unsustainable exploitation of the Amazon’s natural resources must also be cut dramatically. In this regard the Netherlands bears a great deal of responsibility as one of Brazil’s largest trading partners and Europe’s largest soy importer. The Dutch consumer, financial and business institutions, as well as the Dutch government all bear their share of the responsibility. The total area under soy cultivation Brazil needed to supply the Dutch market was 25.3 million ha in 2005: This corresponds to more than one-half of the Netherlands. It is larger than the area of the Netherlands under agriculture. The cattle industry in the Netherlands will have to drastically reduce its dependence on soy. Dutch consumers could also eat far less meat. Dutch financial institutions could invest far more in sustainable products and markets in the Amazon, with government facilitation and subsidy where needed. All major investments in industrial agriculture and infrastructure have hitherto had often adverse effects. They should be critically assessed.

Time is of the essence. The increasing demand for soy, meat, biofuels and other vegetable raw materials will amplify the call for more infrastructure, leading to deforestation at an ever increasing pace. If 30 to 40% of the forest cover were to disappear, it is expected that the major, large-scale disruptions that would ensue would become irreversible. We have already come half-way to this critical level. We need to take urgent action to avoid reaching the ecological tip-over point. The values offered by the forest must be utilised as much as possible to maintain the Amazon ecosystem and the services it offers humanity.


Contact person: Pieter van Beukering (

Main report: download here