The Deforestation of the Amazon Was Named the ‘Statistic of the Decade’

Liberty Vittert December 27, 2019

This 2014 photo shows four stages in deforestation on a cattle farm in the Brazilian Amazon: In the foreground, naked clear land where the forest has recently been burned and grass will be grown; on the right, a pasture waiting for the cattle; in the background, the forest being burned to make pasture; and, on the left, native forest, which will soon enough meet the same fate.

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 $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.

Rebound­ing

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.

Edi­tor’s Note: This arti­cle is repub­lished from The Con­ver­sa­tion under a Cre­ative Com­mons license. Read the orig­i­nal arti­cle.

Lib­er­ty Vit­tert is Pro­fes­sor of the Prac­tice of Data Sci­ence at Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in St. Louis, Mo.
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