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Statistic of the decade: The massive deforestation of the Amazon

Posted on 30 December 2019 by Guest Author

Liberty Vittert, Professor of the Practice of Data Science, Washington University in St Louis

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

This year, I was on the judging panel for the Royal Statistical Society’s International Statistic of the Decade.

Much like Oxford English Dictionary’s “Word of the Year” competition, the international statistic is meant to capture the zeitgeist of this decade. The judging panel accepted nominations from the statistical community and the public at large for a statistic that shines a light on the decade’s most pressing issues.

On Dec. 23, we announced the winner: the 8.4 million soccer fields of land deforested in the Amazon over the past decade. That’s 24,000 square miles, or about 10.3 million American football fields.

This statistic, while giving only a snapshot of the issue, provides insight into the dramatic change to this landscape over the last 10 years. Since 2010, mile upon mile of rainforest has been replaced with a wide range of commercial developments, including cattle ranching, logging and the palm oil industry.

This calculation by the committee is based on deforestation monitoring results from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, as well as FIFA’s regulations on soccer pitch dimensions.

Calculating the cost

There are a number of reasons why this deforestation matters – financial, environmental and social.

First of all, 20 million to 30 million people live in the Amazon rainforest and depend on it for survival. It’s also the home to thousands of species of plants and animals, many at risk of extinction.

Second, one-fifth of the world’s fresh water is in the Amazon Basin, supplying water to the world by releasing water vapor into the atmosphere that can travel thousands of miles. But unprecedented droughts have plagued Brazil this decade, attributed to the deforestation of the Amazon.

During the droughts, in Sao Paulo state, some farmers say they lost over one-third of their crops due to the water shortage. The government promised the coffee industry almost US$300 million to help with their losses.

Finally, the Amazon rainforest is responsible for storing over 180 billion tons of carbon alone. When trees are cleared or burned, that carbon is released back into the atmosphere. Studies show that the social cost of carbon emissions is about $417 per ton.

Finally, as a November 2018 study shows, the Amazon could generate over $8 billion each year if just left alone, from sustainable industries including nut farming and rubber, as well as the environmental effects.

Financial gain?

Some might argue that there has been a financial gain from deforestation and that it really isn’t a bad thing. Brazil’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, went so far as to say that saving the Amazon is an impediment to economic growth and that “where there is indigenous land, there is wealth underneath it.”

In an effort to be just as thoughtful in that sense, let’s take a look. Assume each acre of rainforest converted into farmland is worth about $1,000, which is about what U.S. farmers have paid to buy productive farmland in Brazil. Then, over the past decade, that farmland amounts to about $1 billion.

The deforested land mainly contributes to cattle raising for slaughter and sale. There are a little over 200 million cattle in Brazil. Assuming the two cows per acre, the extra land means a gain of about $20 billion for Brazil.

Chump change compared to the economic loss from deforestation. The farmers, commercial interest groups and others looking for cheap land all have a clear vested interest in deforestation going ahead, but any possible short-term gain is clearly outweighed by long-term loss.


Right now, every minute, over three football fields of Amazon rainforest are being lost.

What if someone wanted to replant the lost rainforest? Many charity organizations are raising money to do just that.

At the cost of over $2,000 per acre – and that is the cheapest I could find – it isn’t cheap, totaling over $30 billion to replace what the Amazon lost this decade.

Still, the studies that I’ve seen and my calculations suggest that trillions have been lost due to deforestation over the past decade alone.

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Comments 1 to 17:

  1. This is the article to read on the Amazon: Can Fire Destroy the Amazon?

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  2. Well if the land is only worth $1000 an acre then why not organize a movement to buy it all and leave it as jungle rather than just shout about how much you disapprove of these people trying to improve their economic situation? 

    Brazil is not a rich country and for wealthy 1st world people to tell the poor they must stay poor by not developing their main economic asset is not only ridiculous it is immoral. 

    Put your OWN money where your mouth is! 

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  3. Its all very well to think you can just go to a country and buy up the land, just because every rag tag and bobtail can buy land in your country does not work the other way, even if it did there are governments who would hapily confiscate the land if they felt like it, and then do whatever they pleased with it.

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  4. Steve W, do you realise Brazils rainforest is one billion acres, so an organisation would have to raise one thousand billion dollars? Not very realstic.

    And do you think someone like President Bolsanaro would let foreigners buy even parts of the rainforest only to put them completely off limits for development?

    And there are many other pathways to wealth other than cutting down rainforests. Singapore is wealthy and it has almost no natural resources.

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  5. We're in a closed system. At some point we'll need to confront facts such as Brazil's bad luck to be freighted with a significant component that is necessary for continued successful operation of the system. It's a legitimate, open question as to whether Brazil has the right to degrade the entire planet, unfair as that may be.

    Thinking of the ISS, if the American portion of the station were to see the American astronauts running that part decide to sell off the water reclamation system because "they needed the money" there's a real argument as to whether they'd have the intrinisic right to do so. Loss of the WRC would mean a knock-on deficiency in oxygen, this in turn affecting the health of ISS owner/occupants from other countries. The situation down here on Earth is more stringent— we can't receive replenishment from down below. 

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  6. Brazil is the 9th largest economy in the World with a nominal GDP of $1.87 trillion. Its GDP per capita is close to $9,000, which is rather plush for a so-called emerging nation. It is likely feasible to have a fairly sustainable society with this kind of per capita GDP, but that would require a re-organization of a size impossible to impose to the actors who benefit the most from the current model. 

    Of course, the reality behind that number consists of vast masses of people in poverty and a few obscenely rich ones. It would probaly be possible to organize the economy in ways that rely less on resource exploitation but resource exploitation is a readily available, easy way to make money, so it will be used until it's no longer available; that's how humans function. Brazil's main problem is corruption. There are signs that Bolsonaro is probably worse than its predecessors concerning corruption.

    Brazil will continue to be corrupt and to destroy the forest and its people will continue to be poor because resource extraction does not translate into real economic betterment of the ones doing the extraction; it does, however, enrich the select few who control it. 

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  7. Doug is right on many aspects. We are in a closed system but our basic primate make-up does not equip us, as a group, to deal with that idea.

    I have talked to people who have been in business at fairly high levels, and have solid economic backgrounds; the dominant idea is that one does not have to worry about the fact that commodities are finite. I don't know if anyone has ever raised the objection that it is the equivalent of saying that economics is not constrained by thermodynamics.

    At any rate, contrarily to what some suggest, commodities are in fact the root of all and every aspect of the economy. Just like the most advanced thought processes in philosophers or scientists heads can not happen without the physical support of that organ called the brain, and the oxygen and energy to make it function, economies can not run without food and water for people, energy for their machines, and materials for their activity.

    As removed as some parts of the economy may be from resources and commodities, they are still entirely dependent on them for their very existence because they are the physical support of it, nothing can happen without them. Economies like that of Singapore rely on resources exploited elsewhere. Economies that rely too heavily on resource extraction have their problems too.

    All resources and commodities indeed exist in limited supply in our closed system. This places constraints on the total possible number of people at a given standard of living. That is a physical, inescapable fact. No amount of handwaving from macroeconomics can change it. We are just starting to grapple with that fact, as globalization is a phenomenon less than 100 years old. Some very powerful actors with enormous vested interests in the status-quo do not want this reality to be acknowledged and dealt with in accordance with its importance. We are continuing to act like the standard issue primates while we are confronted with a situation demanding we get to the next level: a true cooperative global economy. 

    Going to the next level means that we must integrate all factors in products' costs, consider full life cycle, generalize the circular models, and quantify the full extent of ecosystem services that we take for granted. It implies, among other things, being cogniscent of the fact that burning coal spreads mercury, other toxic substances and adds CO2 to the atmosphere, which itself has radiative effects. The total cost of doing it should be reflected in the commodity's price. It means that exploiting ocean floor metallic nodules should require operators to return the sludge at the depth it came from. It means that all the costs associated with the complete life cycles of single use plastic products should be reflected in the products' price. It means that we must reconsider our agricltural models, destructive of their own support systems, made possible at the cost of ever increasing energy inputs, and spreading by-products causing serious adverse effects. It means that we have to re-examine the dogma of ever increasing efficiency, which take the human eventually out of every activity. It means that profits, in any line of activity, will be constrained and that no activity will yield very large ones. It means that reducing humans to their exclusive dimension of consumers must be dealt with like the dead end that it is.

    There is no sign that we are going to head this way on a scale large enough any time soon. Things will run their course.

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  8. SteveW seems to think that buying the land will prevent deforestation. I don't know about Brazil specifically, but in Canada (and I think the US) public land is often not for sale - only the rights to harvest trees are up for sale.

    And if you buy the rights to cut trees, it is for a limited time - and you'll probably lose those rights if you don't harvest. (The same goes for mineral rights - use it, or lose it. And owning the land doesn't mean you own the mineral rights - a land owner often can't prevent mining when someone else has bought the mineral rights.)

    Now, if governments were willing to create laws that allowed people to buy land and permanently remove it from logging or mining, I'm sure people would step up. Current laws usualy create a huge bias in favour of development, though. Changing that requires governments that are wlling.

    One measure that is possible is a Conservation Easement. The Wikipedia article talks about the US, but they exist in Canada, too.

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  9. The core problem is capitalism is based on the profit motive, which doesn't leave much over for environmental concerns. I doubt things will change until companies adopt a wider range of motives, either in a voluntary way or forced by government legislation. Likewise a lot of the onus is on individuals to widen their motives. Its going to be a tortuous path.

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  10. The best way to state the required solution that I am aware of is 'Sustainable Development'. And the first step is already established - achieving all of the Sustainable Development Goals, the sooner the better. And there is a MOOC for that. “The Age of Sustainable Development” MOOC, (Development of MOOC led by Jeffrey D. Sachs, initially offered in 2014). And there is a book that was developed as part of the development of the MOOC: “The Age of Sustainable Development”, by Jeffrey D. Sachs, 2015 Columbia University Press.

    A significant problem to be overcome to achieve Sustainable Development has already been mentioned by many others in the comments, over-coming the powerful resistance to being corrected that can be expected from many of the Status-Quo winners. And a powerful weapon of the correction resistant current day Winners is their ability to use the Science of Marketing to get away with misleading marketing, making-up appealing passion-triggering claims that delay the increased awareness and understanding of how unjustified many developed impressions of status actually are.

    There is a MOOC to address the misleading marketing problem. The learning from the Denial101x MOOC can be extended to other misleading marketing efforts that attempt to delay the corrections of the many other unsustainable harmful developments that need to be corrected to achieve Sustainable Development.

    And the solution is not replacing Freer Capitalism with Socialism or Communism. Any socioeconomic-political system can be compromised by successful misleading marketing that makes unsustainable and harmful actions appear to be desirable and defensible. And a diversity of socioeconomic-political systems is probably a good idea. Competition between systems that are fully governed by the shared pursuit (common objective) of Sustainable Development improvements would be very helpful.

    The solution is developing ways of ensuring that everything is governed by the norms (ethics) of the pursuit of expanded awareness and improved understanding and the application of that learning to help develop a robust diversity of ways of being human that sustainably fit into the robust diversity of life on this amazing planet without using up finite resources (reusing them endlessly).

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  11. So it is obvious the majority of humanity will never change,  we have half the world burning with forest fires, then big cities like Sydney and Delli complaining about the smoke and pollution from the fires but then themselves creating even more pollution by having new year firework shows. Hav'nt they noticed anything. I find it disrespectfull to the people who suffered and died from the disasters.

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  12. SteveW. It"s a tough world. The behinders, those poor that you speak of in your post, are just out of luck. You may think it immoral to tell them they cannot pursue First World goodies, but the game changed in the second half if the twentieth century as a result of the Industrial Revolution's egregious exploitation of the planet and the uncontrolled population explosion after about 1901. You can, however, rest in the comfort that the rich and the poor will be marched off to oblivion together and their graves will be erased by an Earth on the mend in about 10,000 then, there is unlikely to be a need for a moral judgement on anything since it is very likely the repositories of morality will be extinct.

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  13. swampfoxh @12, yours is a  very gloomy prognosis, however with rates of population growth and economic growth slowing, we might escape the worst of the apocalypse, and the Mathusian trap. Of course its absurd to think all the worlds poor  will all have lifestyles equivalent to what people like us enjoy, but that does not mean theres no room for at least some improvement. Call be hopeful and naieve if you want.

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  14. This is a colonialism. USA hang a huge debt on Brazil, just buy polititians. Now USA have woods and goods from Brazil for free - less even than % on debt. Brazil have to cut forests because it is a colony of USA. Debt too big. Brazil have to pay USA aprox 100 billions of dollars every year. EVER. So forest will die.

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  15. There is a simple way to solve a forests problem - declare default. But. This is impossible, because Brazil - is a USA colony

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  16. The cost of jungle land is much less than that (yeah, I'm Brazilian). Some of it comes free formland grabbers. Most of the land where cattle is has first been grabbed, the. harvested for timber, then burnt, then used for cattle. 

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  17. Additionally, you'd need roughly 2 acres per head. 

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