How do we define Amazonia?


Amazonia means many things to different people. Below is an overview of what Amazonia is, who lives here and why such large areas of it are being slashed and burned.

Bild des Regenwaldes im Amazonas-Gebiet
Teaser Image Caption
Amazonia today - a diverse natural and habitat.

Everybody has heard of the Amazon – and we all have our own ideas of what it is. Some might think of the Manaus Opera House, piranhas, indigenous peoples with blowpipes or the films of Werner Herzog... but almost everyone pictures it as a vast forest.

“Amazonia was born of myth”, according to a publication from 1992. But in the mire of myths and images, preconceptions and stereotypes, it is difficult to see the wood for the trees. It is therefore a relief to find there is at least one widely recognised definition of Amazonia: the Amazon basin covers an area of around 7.5 million km², around 5.5 million km² of which is covered by tropical rain forest. These figures are almost impossible to grasp. Germany and France put together do not even come to 1 million km² and would therefore fit into the Amazon basin eight times over. Seven States and French Guyana are part of this area, which is also known as the Pan-Amazon.

It is no easy task to define Amazonia. Obviously, different criteria can be applied and this has indeed long been the case. To address this, the European Commission and the Amazonian Cooperation Treaty Organisation (OTCA) in 2005 set up a committee of experts (all of whom were men) to define the boundaries of Amazonia. The committee’s work is still used as the basis of the generally recognised definition of Amazonia.

A more recent analysis of the data, however, arrived at a different figure from that of the committee, i.e. a size of 7.8 million km². As RAISG represents the most up-to-date compilation of reliable data in Amazonia, we will use these figures in this work. One thing, however, is clear: when we speak of “Amazonia”, we could be talking about entirely different things.

Amazonia as a natural environment

Amazonia as a geographical area usually refers to the Amazon basin or the Amazon lowlands, the largest contiguous landscape in the world. The lowlands are structured by a mighty river system. The Amazon itself is the longest river in the world. For a long time, it was thought that the Nile was the longest, but new measurements in 2008 put the Amazon into the top spot. What was never in dispute, however, was that the Amazon holds more water than any other river in the world, by some distance. With a flow of 206,000 m³ per second, it is a long way ahead of the rest of the pack: the second-placed river in this category, the Congo, has a flow of just 41,800 m³ and the Rhine comes in at a mere 2,900 m³.

Many of the Amazon’s tributaries are themselves some of the longest rivers in the world, such as the Rio Tapajós and the Rio Xingu. This makes the Amazon basin the world’s largest freshwater reservoir, with around 25% of the world’s freshwater estimated to flow through it.

Most of Amazonia is actually covered with forest – in 2000, this accounted for 5,357 million km², or 68.8% of the region. Between 2000 and 2010, however, the Amazon region lost some 4.5% (240,000 km²) of its forest, but after 2010 the pace of deforestation slowed, before accelerating again under President Bolsonaro. 

Amazonia is therefore unequivocally the world’s largest tropical rainforest, with half of all the planet’s tropical rainforest. It is home to a considerable proportion of the world’s biodiversity. According to estimates, around 10% of global diversity is located within Amazonia.

However, any numerical calculation of biodiversity should be taken with a pinch of salt, simply because the total number of species is by no means universally accepted and is simply based on estimates. For a useful overview and more information, click here.

Amazonia as a home

The region defined as Amazonia is home to around 33 million people, at least two thirds of whom live in cities. Amazonia has two cities of more than 1 million inhabitants, Belem and Manaus, with Iquitos and its 400,000 inhabitants taking third place. With some justification, the Brazilian photographer Berta Becker described Amazonia as an “urbanised jungle”. The cities mentioned above in particular are not recent, but were the bridgeheads for the colonisation of the region. In more recent times, a string of medium-sized cities has sprung up around development clusters, such as Marabá in Brazil.

The cities of Amazonia are, however, rarely in the global spotlight, as it is obviously other parts of the region that attract the most attention: the region is home to 385 registered indigenous peoples. Some 27% of the region are indigenous areas. Indigenous territories (TI) and protected areas, which are often lived in and managed by traditional communities, make up around 45% of the area of Amazonia. Indigenous peoples and traditional communities are therefore a major territorial power in the region. Protected areas and indigenous territories cover an area approximately four times the size of France and Germany put together – this enormous concentration of protected areas and indigenous territories is a feature of most of the Amazon basin countries and is unique anywhere in the world. The high number of indigenous peoples is also an indicator of great socio-cultural diversity: there is no single indigenous Amazonian, but a plethora of different ethnicities and communities.

Amazonia as a myth

Myths are tales with a meaning. In the case of Amazonia, myths serve one main purpose: they give this huge region a shared identity. They define by uniting and come back time and again to the insistence that “Amazonia is…”

A television series in 2017 asked the question “Green Hell or Paradise?”, highlighting the contrasting mythology of the region. For a long time, Amazonia was seen as a green Hell, an impenetrable primaeval forest full of insidious diseases and ferocious natives with poisonous blowpipes. Joseph Conrad’s paradigmatic novella “Heart of Darkness” ends with the words “the horror, the horror”, underlining a certain colonial view of the tropics. Obviously, there has always been the other side of the story, often promoting the idea of the “noble savage”.

A prototype of the modern myth is the idea of Amazonia as the green lung of the Earth, but in more recent history, the template for Amazonia as a myth has focused more on “development”. Amazonia, the untapped primaeval forest, a land without people, has been seen as a region ripe for development at least since the Vargas dictatorship of the 1940s, and probably before. 100 years ago, the Brazilian poet Euclides da Cunha described Amazonia as the last page still to be written in the book of Genesis. The “framing” of Amazonia as an area crying out for development is based on the assumption that what currently exists must be swept away or at least overcome. Development first and foremost means clearance, the destruction of what there is now. Forests must be logged and indigenous peoples get in the way of this.

In recent decades, however, the notion of “preservation” has joined that of “development”. Suddenly, the status quo looks positive, worth preserving. The forests and rivers of Amazonia are a hotspot of biodiversity and preserving them is a goal worth fighting for. Logging is no longer seen as a heroic feat of civilisation, but as an act of sacrilege. Indigenous peoples have become legal subjects with their own history, present and future and are no longer seen as an unfortunate relic of the Stone Age.

If Amazonia is in turmoil today, it is because both concepts exist and both have had, and will continue to have, an influence on regional and global developments. The notion of preservation has arguably won the day, at least in Western Europe, but not in the urban centres of South America. The machinery of destruction continues, albeit at a slightly lesser pace, but still with enormous force. There is no shortage of lip service about reconciling preservation with development, but at the end of the day, it does not sound quite as good in the reality of the conflict on the ground in Amazonia. We will have more to say about this later.

Amazonia today: a diverse natural environment and habitat

Two trends have changed and reshaped our perception of Amazonia in recent decades. Firstly, the image of a single ecosystem has given way to a more fragmented view. Facts have shown that talking about Amazonia as a single entity is meaningless: the enormous forest, which appears to be uniform at least when viewed from an aeroplane, turns out to be far more varied than originally believed. The Brazilian statistics institute IBGE identified no fewer than 104 distinct landscapes and 204 sub-systems in 1995. Soil composition and vegetation are more diverse than it was first thought. We also know more about the socio-cultural diversity of the various groups in Amazonia: the region is by no means populated exclusively by indigenous tribes, it is more like a huge mosaic of traditional users within local communities. The images showing a vast single forest have given way to a pattern of genuine complexity.

Secondly, it is now clearer than ever that the Amazonian rainforest is not just a largely untouched natural environment, but the product of centuries of interaction between people and nature. Large tracts of the rainforest have been influenced and shaped by the actions of indigenous peoples, for instance changing the distribution and abundance of plants. William Baille coined the term “Cultural Forest” for this phenomenon. The concept of “unspoiled nature” is therefore banished to the realms of myth, even though there may be parts of Amazonia with little or no evidence of human activity. However, the interaction of indigenous peoples with the rainforest is also something mankind can learn from. It shows how people can live with and off the forest without destroying it. In comparison, an economic model that cannot even begin until the forest has been destroyed starts to look primitive.

Amazonia – a central point of reference for global environmental politics

Amazonia is critically important for the preservation of biodiversity and fighting climate change. The destruction of the tropical rainforest, believed to be the most biologically diverse ecosystem in the world, means a cataclysmic destruction of species. Although many scientists believe that the destruction of species is just as big a problem for the future of life on this planet as climate change, the latter is far more of a focus in global debates.

“The Amazon rainforest is one of the tipping points in the planet’s ecosystem”, according to Delphine Zemp of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. A vicious circle of drought caused by deforestation, which in turn encourages further deforestation, would significantly damage the Amazon’s influence on the climate. It is now widely recognised that the Amazon basin rainforest is crucial to rainfall in much of the continent. The “river in the sky”, as cloud formations in Amazonia are known, keeps regions as far away as Argentina supplied with water. Further loss of Amazonia’s forests would have a direct effect on rainfall in South America and also on the global climate.

Carlos Nobre, one of the foremost Brazilian climate researchers, believes that the danger of such a tipping point can be avoided only if no more than 20% of the rainforest is destroyed. Currently, around 17% of the area has been deforested, with other parts of the rainforest damaged by logging. 

We are therefore very close to the feared tipping point. However, Amazonia and the destruction of the rainforest are already important to global climate policy, as deforestation is responsible for around 11% of global CO2 emissions. If deforestation in Amazonia continues at its current pace or even accelerates, the Paris climate objectives will not be met. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, also known as the World Climate Council) is already discussing how “negative emissions” could be achieved, for instance through extensive reforestation.

There is, however, still time to reverse this trend. The destruction of the rainforest and the devastation of land which is home to indigenous peoples and traditional communities is a result of social and economic processes that are embedded in the country’s power structures.

Amazonia in Brazil – A term is operationalised

The term Amazonia (Amazônia) is used in a range of different contexts. In the Brazilian context, Amazônia Legal is defined as an administrative division. It covers more than 5,000,000 km² and therefore 61% of Brazil’s surface area. 21 million people, or 12.4% of the Brazilian population, live in Amazônia Legal. Around 72% of Amazonia’s population live in cities (2010 census). With 2.1 million and 1.4 million inhabitants respectively, Manaus and Belém are the region’s largest cities. Around 250,000 people are considered indigenous: 21% of the area of Amazônia Legal is made up of indigenous territories. Amazônia Legal is, however, not the same thing as the Amazonian rainforest. Amazônia Legal incorporates three biomes, or major ecological systems: Amazônia (rainforest), Cerrado (humid Savannah) and the Pantanal (wetland). The Amazônia, i.e. the rainforest area, covers around 4 million km². The Amazônia biome thus refers only to the rainforest area of Amazônia Legal. This is an important distinction, but one that is not always made. For instance, deforestation figures refer mostly to Amazônia Legal, meaning that all deforestation does not relate to the rainforest. In particular, the expansion of soy farming has primarily affected the Cerrado areas. There are also different legal provisions in place for the different biomes. For instance, the key provision that only 20% of the area of private land can be deforested applies only to the Amazônia biome. In the Cerrado area of Amazônia Legal, 65% of the area can be cleared.

Deforestation without end? A look at the causes

The rainforest is going up in smoke – images of this are rife in the media. Amazonia, and Brazil in particular, are never out of the headlines: deforestation appears unstoppable, even though there is now enormous consensus that large-scale deforestation is damaging and must therefore be opposed. This consensus prevails not only in the industrial countries of the northern hemisphere, but has also reached the environmentally aware urban population of Brazil. The following facts are proven beyond doubt:

  • deforestation contributes to climate change. In Brazil, deforestation is the largest source of CO2 emissions.
  • The climate goal agreed by the global community, i.e. to restrict global warming to 1.5° C, cannot be met if the logging of tropical rainforests is not drastically reduced. 
  • The rainforest is a biodiversity hotspot. There are flames burning the very foundation of the evolution of life on our planet.
  • Deforestation destroys the homes of indigenous peoples and traditional communities. The rainforest is their home!

This is all common knowledge and has led to countries with a large stock of tropical rainforest setting objectives to reduce deforestation. The main reference point here is the international climate process. In the Paris Agreement, Brazil has also committed to reducing the rate of deforestation. So why is it so hard to stop deforestation?

The causes of deforestation – a current overview

The dynamics of deforestation have long been the subject of research and the main trends are well documented. Worldwide, there are four major factors for deforestation: cattle, soy, palm oil and wood.

Clearing forests for grazing and arable land is responsible for most deforestation. Global findings also apply to Amazonia, but cattle and soy are the main drivers here. Palm oil in Brazil is a factor only in one region of Pará state, but its significance is growing in other countries of Latin America. Logging is not so much responsible for wholesale deforestation as for the degradation of forests – a phenomenon that has been less in the spotlight.

Deforestation rates in Amazonia and the states of Acre and Mato Grosso


Amazonia Legal (km2)

Acre (km2)

Mato Grosso (km2)





























































 All deforestation figures are based on official Brazilian data from INPE/PRODES. For up-to-date overviews with more background information, please click here and here.

Satellite pictures show clearly what is happening on the deforested areas. Cattle is grazed on more than 60% of them. The expansion of cattle ranching is by far the greatest driver of deforestation – a conclusion that was reached many years ago and which has been confirmed by countless studies since.

What is happening on the deforested land?

Satellite images show: 60% cattle grazing, 23% secondary vegetation (mostly former grazing land) and 6% agricultural activity. The remaining (approximately) 10% is divided between a range of uses, urban settlements and undefined areas; at just 0.1%, mining plays an insignificant role.

The expansion of cattle ranching in Amazonia associated with deforestation has been spread over decades and is typical of the “development” of Amazonia. Between 1985 and 2005, the number of cattle in Amazonia (“Amazonia Legal“) rose from 15 to 74 million. Almost all of the growth in numbers of beef cattle in Brazil has taken place in Amazonia, which is now home to a third of all the country’s cattle. In 1975, this figure was less than 7%, rising to just over 10% in 1985. Within this relatively short period of 20 years (1985-2005), the expansion of cattle ranching in Amazonia saw a huge jump and is the dominant growth factor in many parts of the region. The explosion in cattle numbers between 1985 and 2005 was seen in three states in particular: Mato Grosso (from 6.5 to 26.7 million.), Pará (from 3.4 to 18.0 million) and Rondonia (from 0.7 to 11.3 million). This huge expansion is often termed as “cattleisation”, but even though the phenomenon is an important driver of deforestation, this is by no means true of all regions of Amazonia. Cattle ranching plays a relatively small role in the region’s largest state of Amazonas, which has 1.2 million cattle, even though there are a several regional hotspots in the south of the state. For more information, click here.

From 2005 onwards, the number of cattle in Amazonia dipped slightly (from 74 to 70 million in 2007). Since then, numbers have settled at a relatively high level (around 80 million cattle in 2016), in both Amazonia and Brazil as a whole, where the number of cattle has hovered around the 210 million mark.

Who is clearing the forest – small farmers or big corporates?

It is debatable who is primarily responsible for deforestation. The question has returned to prominence in recent years, since claims that large-scale deforestation was at an end have proven to be premature. There is, however, no doubt that both major landowners and small farmers contribute to deforestation, although research data on the latter’s share of the blame differ greatly. One comprehensive study reached the following inclusions:

  • the majority of deforestation (47%) in the years 2004 and 2011 was concentrated in holdings of more than 500 ha.
  • Smallholdings accounted for 12%.
  • A few thousand landowners (over 2500 ha) alone were responsible for 28% of deforestation.
  • However, the contribution of smallholdings to deforestation has risen from 8% in 2004 to 13% in 2011

Source: Researchgate

The role of soy cultivation

Soy also plays an important role in deforestation dynamics, but an entirely different one from cattle ranching. Much of the expansion in soy farming takes place on land already cleared for grazing and is therefore not usually the principal cause of the deforestation. Even so, the sheer scale of the expansion of soy in Amazonia is staggering. In 2012, 8.16 million ha were planted with soy, an increase of 159% compared to 2000. This expansion of soy cultivation is concentrated mainly in the state of Mato Grosso, with planted areas rising from 1.2 million ha in 1991 to 6.2 million ha in 2010 and 9.5 million ha in 2018. Most soy cultivation takes place in the Cerrado biome, where the expansion of soy made a significant contribution to the increase in deforestation rates between the years 2001 and 2006. Soy cultivation in Amazonia increased by 1 million ha in this period, with 30% of this expansion taking place on forested land and not grazing land.

Logging and forest degradation

The damage caused by selective logging is insufficiently reflected in statistics on deforestation: satellite images show only the cleared areas and provide insufficient detail on the degradation of the due to (mostly illegal) logging. It is therefore difficult to establish the damage to the forest with any great accuracy, as “forest degradation” is not a clearly defined concept. A study by Imazon in the state of Pará over the period from August 2015 to July 2016 provides an indication of the scale of forest degradation. The study identified a degraded area of 12,800 km², four times more than the area deforested over the same period in the same state (3025 km²). The lion’s share of forest degradation can, however, be attributed to fires and just 427 km² to logging. This is precisely the problem faced in discussions of degradation, as it is extremely difficult to pinpoint the causal chains. To what extent are fires a consequence of forest degradation? There is no doubt that damaged forests are more susceptible to fires, but it is virtually impossible to quantify this. This also applies to the question of how much blame climate change bears for the dry periods that create the perfect conditions for forest fires.                                            

Drivers versus causes

Cattle are the most serious environmental problem facing Amazonia and the world”, says Paul Adario of Greenpeace. Such statements are common and may be useful campaign slogans, but they oversimplify the problem of deforestation, because as much as the expansion of cattle ranching and agriculture clearly contribute to deforestation, this should not be confused with determining the causes of deforestation.

In international debates, therefore, a distinction is drawn between “drivers of deforestation” and the “underlying causes of deforestation”. Why are there cattle pastures and soy plantations where once was forest? Is meat consumption in “developed” nations to blame, or the international free trade which made the soya boom possible in the first place? Or national development policy focusing on agricultural exports? It is clear that the root causes are harder to identify than the drivers and actors of deforestation.

Direct drivers are defined as human activity or direct actions with a direct impact on the forest canopy, leading to a loss of carbon (e.g. to the expansion of agriculture, infrastructure measures and logging). Consequences are complex interactions between social, economic, political, cultural and technological processes that are often a long way downstream of their sources (e.g. rising global market prices, national policies of incentives to expand agriculture and public resettlement programmes). The causes of deforestation and the destruction of the forests are individuals, households or companies connected both to the direct drivers and the underlying causes (e.g. landowners, mining companies, governments and consumers).

One possible lead in the quest for causes is as banal as it is consequential: because transforming the forest makes economic sense. This statement is not quite as trivial as it appears at first glance. Ecological critics have long represented agriculture in Amazonia as impossible or, at the very least, unprofitable. Such a view has clearly underestimated or ignored the potential for agriculture in Amazonia. With government assistance, soy cultivation in the state of Mato Grosso has developed into a highly mechanised and high-tech form of modern agriculture, achieving similar yields per hectare as its counterpart in the US. This has allowed a new powerful elite to grow up within agribusiness. The former Governor of Mato Grosso and biggest soy producer in the country, Blairo Maggi, became an influential supporter of the Lula government, Minister for Agriculture under President Temer and one of the most prominent and internationally connected representatives of Brazilian agribusiness.

Brazilian meat producers have also modernised with breathtaking speed over the last decades. The slaughterhouse business JBS Friboi grew to become the world’s largest meat processor, was one of the key funders of the election campaign in Brazil and, since 2017, has been at the centre of the financial scandals shaking the country to its core. Yet modernisation in the agriculture sector went only so far. Cattle rearing is bound up in the logic of pushing the boundaries of agriculture. To make deforestation financially viable, cattle ranching clearly does not need to be especially productive; placing cattle on previously forested areas continues to mean that land ownership increases its own value. The profitability of cattle rearing depends therefore not solely on the economic activity itself, but can also be achieved by increasing the value of the land.

In addition to profitability, the availability of land for the expansion of agriculture is the second crucial factor. Amazonia remains one of the largest agricultural zones in the world. New arable and grazing land is created by destroying the original vegetation (rainforest and Cerrado). The appropriation of land is largely illegal – either because it is not based on legal land titles, or because landowners flout the strict environmental regulations. In the Amazonas biome, for instance, landowners may remove only 20% of their forest, yet in the Cerrado biome, 65% of original vegetation may be cleared. Lack of enforcement of legal standards and environmental regulations on land-use is therefore also a leading cause of the onward march of deforestation. In a nutshell, the lack of control (“command and control”), a barely functioning rule of law and (false) economic incentives are all key causes of deforestation and are therefore starting points for political strategies to reduce the phenomenon.  

Satellite images fail to show one very important element: the extent to which the dynamic of “land-use change” is part of an overall development dynamic. Roads, the odd mine and even dams take up little space, but are still the basis of the expansion of infrastructure, which is what makes the “conquest” of the forest by agriculture possible in the first place.  

Deforestation, then, can be seen only as the effect of a complex social, economic and political process. Transforming the forest into pastures and agricultural land is merely the tip of the iceberg of this process.

Who does Amazonia belong to?

There is unfortunately no simple answer to this simple question – and therein lies the key problem of the situation in Amazonia. Ownership rights are well-defined in almost half of Amazonia corresponding to protected areas and indigenous territories.  

On the other hand, there is an enormous area of some 70 million ha that has no defined ownership structure. This area is known as the “terras nao designadas”. At around 700,000 km², this area is inconceivably large, twice the size of Germany (357,000 km²). In reality, the scale of the “caos fundiaria”, or landownership chaos, in Amazonia is even larger, as there are many poorly defined land titles outside of this unowned land.

Deforestation is the most common way of acquiring land and laying claim to it. Land grabs are therefore a cause of deforestation. “He who clears the forest controls the land” is the title of a book by Mauricio Torres about the “grilagem” in Amazonia, one of the most important contributions to the Amazonia debate in recent years. The title is a quotation by a “grileiro”.  Torres describes the causal relationships as follows: “deforestation is not caused by soy or cattle ranching… The people who are clearing the forest rarely own a cow, have never reared a calf, or planted soy… Deforestation is a direct consequence of land prices”.

Deforestation is therefore not so much an expression of a direct economic strategy to transform the forest into cattle pastures as the consequence of a complex situation that can be broken down into the following elements:

  • the availability of huge tracts of land
  • a lack of legal clarity
  • illegal practices: bribery, violence, threats of violence
  • cover-ups of illegal practices (acquisition of dubious ownership titles)
  • inadequate land registry system
  • land grab specialists (“grileiros”) with specific knowledge and good networks
  • political links to the agriculture lobby, which wields political influence and legalises illegal deforestation through legislation (e.g. amnesties).

It is this combination that makes deforestation so difficult to control and causes certain political approaches (e.g. improving the land registry) to run into the sand, despite good intentions.

Expectations are a very important aspect of this dynamic. These expectations are based on past experience, particularly amnesties. The expectation that the political framework conditions will facilitate deforestation, or at least look the other way, has been bolstered greatly by the Bolsonaro’s election victory.