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Chapter 43. Tropical South America

Figure 43-1. Tropical South America: forest cover map

The tropical South America subregion,[54] comprising Colombia, French Guiana, Suriname, Guyana, Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil, represents the greatest concentration of tropical rain forest in the world, with approximately 885 million hectares in the Amazon Basin and another 85 million hectares in the Orinoco and Paraná watershed complex. The total land area of tropical South America is 1 387 million hectares (Figure 43-1, Table 43-1).

The Amazonian tropical rain forest is considered to be the world's richest ecosystem in terms of biodiversity. By country, Brazil ranks first, Colombia fourth and Peru seventh. This ecozone accounts for 85 percent of the total forest cover and approximately 60 percent of the total land cover of the subregion, playing a very important role in the economic as well as the environmental context of these countries. However, climates and associated forest types vary from arid and semi-arid to pluvial. The dominant ecological zone is the tropical rain forest, representing 36 percent of the total area, followed by tropical moist deciduous forest with 24 percent, tropical mountain forest with 10 percent and tropical dry forest with 9.5 percent. In the northern part of the subregion the llanos in Venezuela and Colombia are typical open subhumid forests, as is the cerrado in the central-west part of Brazil. The certão or caatinga in the Brazilian northeast is a typical semi-arid ecosystem, as are the Paraguayan chaco and the dry forest formations along the Peruvian Pacific littoral.

The tropical rain forest of the Amazon Basin starts in the Andes chain in Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela at more than 3 000 m elevation. It borders the immense Amazonian plain, mostly inside Brazil, and has a strong ecological and socio-economic relationship with the low parts of the basin. The contribution of the forest resource to the national economies of the subregion is still very low, providing less than 2 percent of GNP, except for Brazil where it is estimated to be 5 percent. Nevertheless, in the informal economy, particularly in rural and native settlements, forests play a crucial role, furnishing the main source of the population's livelihood, including food, water, housing materials and other forest products (FAO 1989).

Table 43-1. Tropical South America: forest resources and management



Land area

Forest area 2000

Area change 1990-2000 (total forest)

Volume and above-ground biomass (total forest)

Forest under management plan

Natural forest

Forest plantation

Total forest

000 ha

000 ha

000 ha

000 ha


ha/ capita

000 ha/ year




000 ha



108 438

53 022


53 068







6 900



845 651

538 924

4 982

543 905



-2 309




4 000



103 871

49 460


49 601










27 684

10 390


10 557









French Guiana

8 815

7 925


7 926










21 498

16 867


16 879







4 200



39 730

23 345


23 372







3 000



128 000

64 575


65 215







1 573



15 600

14 100


14 113







1 568



88 206

48 643


49 506







3 970


Total Tropical South America

1 387 493

827 252

6 890

834 142



-3 456






Total South America

1 754 741

875 163

10 455

885 618



-3 711







13 063 900

3 682 722

186 733

3 869 455



-9 391






Source: Appendix 3, Tables 3, 4, 6, 7 and 9.
Forest resources have experienced serious deforestation and degradation during the last four or five decades. Deforestation started in the highest part of the Amazon Basin in Peru, Bolivia and Colombia and spread to the lower part. In Brazil, it started on the border of the Amazonian region in the northeast and southeast and rapidly progressed to the north and northwest, following the Trans-Amazon Highway and main river courses. The occupation of the tropical rain forest by immigrant populations began with rubber exploitation at the beginning of the twentieth century, then progressed to coffee, cacao and oil palm plantations, oil exploration and exploitation and large cattle ranches, especially in the Brazilian cerrado, Venezuelan llanos and Paraguayan chaco. Spontaneous or government-sponsored colonization by landless people during the 1950s and 1960s continued the deforestation process.


Tropical South America has 79 percent of the total land, 95 percent of the population, 94 percent of the natural forest and 65 percent of the plantations of South America. Vis-à-vis the world it has 10 percent of the total land, 5 percent of the population, 21.5 percent of the natural forest and 3 percent of the plantations. The smallest country in terms of forest cover is French Guiana and the largest is Brazil, accounting for 0.9 percent and 65 percent of the subregion, respectively. The largest forest area per capita belongs to French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname, with 45, 34 and 19 ha per capita, respectively. The lowest are Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela with 0.8, 1.19 and 2.0 ha per person, respectively. Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil and Peru are in between, with 6.5, 4.4, 3.2 and 2.6 ha per person, respectively (FAO 2000) (Figure 43-2, Table 43-1).

Peru has the second largest area of tropical rain forest cover in the subregion, after Brazil, but a significant percentage of this area is located in the foothills of the Andes where the Amazon Basin begins. Ecuador, Bolivia and Colombia also have a similar pattern. Most of the population is in the Andes region but there is constant and increasing migration to the low plains in search of new land for cultivation and grazing. The other forest types previously mentioned have been subject to pressure for a long time and their area has already been significantly reduced.

The average annual deforestation rate in the subregion is approximately 0.4 percent, ranging from 0.3 percent in Guyana and Bolivia to 1.2 percent in Ecuador. Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela have 0.4 percent. While this probably results in large areas of secondary forest (mostly short fallow), this is not reflected in the forest cover or vegetation cover statistics reported by the countries. General estimates show that there are more than 60 million hectares of secondary forest in the Amazon Basin (FAO 1989).

Although deforestation rates are high in the dense tropical forest, they are still higher in the tropical moist deciduous formations, such as in the Brazilian northeastern and central-eastern regions, the Venezuelan and Colombian llanos and the Bolivian and Peruvian tropical mountain systems. Logging or exhaustive exploitation of some high-value species contributes to degradation and loss of value and biodiversity when concentrated on a few high-value species. However, it cannot be blamed for the entire deforestation process, as small farmers commonly follow in the tracks of logging, establishing new agricultural and grazing settlements.

Wood volume per hectare is high compared to other forest regions, but commercial volume (high-value species) is, in general, less than 10 percent of the total volume, which averages about 120 m3 per hectare (trees larger than 30 cm DBH). Although forest inventories usually include all species, with subsamples for natural regeneration purposes (>10 cm DBH), the tables for standing volume only report volume outside bark for trees above 25 or 30 cm DBH as commercial volume. Thus, biomass estimates for the Amazon are calculated using expansion models, in the majority of the cases resulting in estimates of more than 200 tonnes per hectare (FAO 1997).

The total area of forest plantations in South America is approximately 10.6 million hectares, with about 7.0 million hectares in this subregion, of which 70 percent belongs to Brazil. The main species planted in these countries for pulp and paper, timber and fuelwood are Eucalyptus spp. and Pinus spp. Scarcity of fuelwood in the highlands has led to increased interest in reforestation but plantations are mostly located far away from the ecozones where deforestation occurs and most plantations use exotic species. For example, Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela are reforesting or afforesting the highlands or semi-dry plains and Brazil the subtropical and temperate areas of the southern regions. Brazilian industries seem to be much more interested in plantations to supply their pulp and paper, plywood and furniture plants than logging natural forest. However, medium and large sawmills are interested in high-value species coming from the natural forest. In the other countries, where large pulp and paper industries are not established, selective exploitation of the natural forest for high- and medium-value species will continue to be the main activity in the medium and long term, but with more value added through secondary manufacturing processes.

Forest fire is a very important issue in the subregion. Even though extensive forest fires do not affect large areas, they are a problem in the dry, semi-dry and open forest formations in northeastern Brazil, northern Colombia and Venezuela, the chaco formations in Bolivia and Paraguay, the dry forest in the northern part of Peru and the mountain deciduous forest formations. Unfortunately, very little is known about these fires in terms of numbers and affected areas in these countries. Slash-and-burn practices, used to clear the forest to establish agriculture and grazing, are the main problem in all of the countries. Extensive areas, equal to the area deforested annually (3.5 million hectares), are burned every year in the subregion, producing huge emissions of carbon to the atmosphere, estimated to be 80 to 100 tonnes of carbon emitted per hectare in the form of CO2 (Fernside 1997).

Brazil has implemented an early warning system for forest fires in the Amazon region, differentiating forest fires from queimadas (slash and burn). Other countries, such as Peru, Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador and Bolivia, are implementing statistical databases on forest fires. French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname are much less affected by forest fires owing to the predominance of tropical rain forest (IBAMA 2001).


Management of tropical rain forests has always been considered an extremely difficult task, owing to the complex ecological ecosystems of the tropics and the lack of control and consistent action plans implemented by the governments. However, with more and more international markets for tropical wood demanding that it should come from forests under management, the governments and the private sector are being pushed to implement sustainable forest management as extensively as possible. In the subregion, Bolivia, Paraguay and Brazil have started intensive programmes to establish management plans for timber production.

All countries in tropical South America have information on the size of the forest area subject to a formal management plan (Table 43-1). Most countries included only natural forests in their reporting to the meeting of the FAO Forestry Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean in 2000, and Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela only included production forests or areas under concession agreements. The area subject to a forest management plan varied between 0.1 and 25 percent of the total forest area in each country. For the subregion as a whole, approximately 26 million hectares, or 3 percent, of the total forest area was reportedly subject to a formal management plan. This figure may seem low. However, it should be kept in mind that many countries in this subregion have large expanses of forests which are located in remote areas with lack of access or with very limited human intervention and which may not require a management plan. It is also uncertain whether all countries included protected forest areas in their reporting on areas covered by forest management plans. A recent ITTO study (Poore and Thang 2000) thus reported that Guyana is one of only six ITTO tropical producer countries which appeared to have established all the conditions that make it likely that they can manage their forest management units sustainably.

Protected areas have significantly increased during the last decade. In 1990, less than 10 percent of the forest cover was estimated to be protected, while in 2000 this area is estimated to have increased to approximately 14 percent of the subregion. Bolivia has the greatest proportion of protected forest area, 31 percent, while Guyana has 25 percent, Colombia 24 percent, Ecuador 20 percent, Brazil 17 percent, Suriname 11 percent, Peru 10 percent and the other countries 5 percent or less (FAO 2000).

Although all countries' legislation obliges forest owners or concessionaires to implement management plans, forestry administrations do not have enough resources and efficient organizations to control the hundreds or thousands of properties and concessions, spread over immense areas, often with poor accessibility (FAO 2000).

Figure 43-2. South America: natural forest and forest plantation areas 2000 and net area changes 1990-2000

Ownership is one of the main issues related to forest management. The majority of the countries do not recognize private property rights on forest land (i.e. Bolivia, Peru, Venezuela and Colombia) and logging concessions under management plans are the normal way to accede forest resources. Brazil, on the other hand, allows the private ownership of forest land; approximately 80 percent of forest land is already in private hands, regulated by a Forestry Code that established the norms for forest management and land use change. In the latter case, the owner can be authorized to clear a maximum of 20 percent of the forest cover for conversion to agricultural land (FAO 2000).

Informal use of the forest, either for logging or resulting in a change of land use is, without doubt, the main problem that all governments in the subregion have to face. Almost open access to the forestry domain facilitates encroachment on the natural forest. These practices are extremely difficult to control or stop owing to a severe lack of resources and weak institutional capacity.

The lack of current and reliable information about forest resources makes consistent planning and efficient use of natural resources difficult. Only a few countries have adequate systems for data collection and analysis. Field forest inventories are increasingly rare or limited to small areas in which the private sector is interested. Forestry or vegetation maps are not prepared following standardized methods, classification systems, scales, etc. Only Brazil has systematically monitored deforestation in the Amazon region and provides relevant and reliable information on a yearly basis.


Forest cover in tropical South America is still very important in terms of percentage of the total land area. Suriname, French Guiana and Guyana have the highest percentage of forest cover, with 80 percent or more of their total land in forests. Brazil's forests cover 64 percent of its land area, but in the Amazon region the percentage is much higher, approximately 85 percent. Other countries are below 60 or 50 percent. However, forest change is often concentrated in some particular ecological zones, which can be subject to severe deforestation or degradation.

In all countries, deforestation is the main problem facing the forestry sector. Although deforestation rates seem to have slowed down, it is not yet possible to establish a constant or clear trend over time. Cultural and socio-economic problems in these countries will have a very strong influence in increasing or reducing deforestation rates. More stable and consistent policies and administration of natural resources can contribute to a positive trend, but lack of alternative income sources and extreme poverty will continue to provide the incentive to clear forests for agricultural purposes.

Special ecological zones such as wetlands, coastal forest formations, highland forests and dry or semi-dry forest are under much higher pressure from deforestation and are disappearing more rapidly than humid forests. National and subregional plans and strategies must take this issue into account.

Data and information systems related to forest resources are, in general, very poor. Countries need strong support in the short and medium term to improve data collection and analysis to provide information for decision-makers, stakeholders, researchers and teachers to help achieve sustainable forest management.


FAO. 1989. La deforestación en Latino América: orígenes, causas y efectos, by J. Malleux. Monitoreo de los procesos de deforestación en bosques húmedos tropicales. Proyecto manejo de recursos forestales naturales en América Latina. Lima.

FAO. 1993. Forest Resources Assessment 1990. Tropical countries. FAO Forestry Paper No. 112. Rome.

FAO. 1997. State of the World's Forests 1997. Rome.

FAO. 2000. Informes nacionales de los países. Latin American and Caribbean Forestry Commission (LACFC). Bogota.

Fernside, O.M. 1997. Greenhouse gases from deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia: net committed emissions. Climatic Change, 35: 321-360.

Instituto Brasileiro do Meio Ambiente e dos Recursos Naturais Renováveis (IBAMA). 2001. Home page.

Instituto Geográfico "Agustin Codazzi" (IGAC). 1974. La colonización de la selva pluvial en el piedemonte Amazónico de Colombia. Bogota.

Poore, D. & Thang, H.C. 2000. Review of progress towards the year 2000 objective. Report presented at the 28th Session of the International Tropical Timber Council ITTC(XXVIII)/9/Rev. 2, 24-30 May 2000, Lima. Yokohama, Japan, ITTO.

[54] For more details by country, see

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