The Amazon rainforest is often portrayed as a fragile ecosystem on the verge of collapse due to deforestation. This article challenges this narrative by showing how the Amazon is more resilient than commonly assumed. It also examines the relationship between deforestation and economic development.
The entry for “space” in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy from Douglas Adams’ classic story goes:
That’s how we should think about the breathtakingly vast expanses of our world: the Sahara, the Mongolian steppes, the Australian outback, the Patagonian plains. Or the truly great ones: the Arctic ice sheets, Antarctica, or the Amazon.
Yet, to the chattering classes, our natural spaces always seem to be running out. The ice is melting; the forests are chopped down; the deserts are expanding. Apocalypse perpetuated.
The Amazonian Forest is a great example. While few people in the West have seen the Amazon, many of us appreciate its unrivaled biodiversity and importance as a carbon sink. So, we are understandably worried when we read about football fields of forest destroyed per minute or deforested areas the size of some country or U.S. state. However, such metrics rarely include how many football fields the Amazon could hold or how many Belgiums or Louisianas could fit within its vast lands, leaving us clueless about the scale of the damage.
Cue Time magazine’s article by Matt Sandy from 2019, ”The Amazon Rain Forest Is Nearly Gone: We Went to the Front Lines to See if it Could Be Saved,” which offers a lesson in how to irresponsibly title journalistic articles. At the time of the article’s writing, Jair Bolsonaro had just become Brazil’s president, and the Great Amazonian Scare had everyone worrying about the fires there. Sandy wrote that 27 percent of the Amazon “will be without trees in 2030,” that an “area larger than Texas has been cut,” and most provocatively, “if things continue as they are now, the Amazon might not exist at all within a few generations.”
These are extraordinary statements and, if true, should really have us worried.
Merging this apocalyptic rhetoric with its preference for big government and politics, the New York Times upped the ante before Brazil’s October 30th election: because of the Amazon’s crucial climatic role, “Brazil’s Presidential Election Will Determine the Planet’s Future.” As we’re shown endless trees wrapped in smoke and flames, we’re told ominously that “the whole thing is on track to becoming a dead zone.” This election, said the article, would therefore “determine the conditions for future life on Earth.”
Fires, while making for stark imagery, are minuscule contributors to deforestation; Brazilian forest loss is almost entirely due to agriculture, mining, and forestry.
And the Amazon is not nearly gone, a dead zone, or otherwise disappearing. The Brazilian Amazon alone (remember that some 40 percent of this gigantic forest is scattered across eight other countries) could fit about seven-and-a-half Texases.
The “area larger than Texas” sum that Sandy used conveniently left out a timeline. Publicly available data from the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (INPE), the Brazilian space institute that tracks deforestation in the Amazon, only goes back to 1988, and the deforested area for that time period adds up to an area the size of California, which is about two-thirds the size of Texas. There are around 12 to 13 more Californias of Amazonian forest left. So, on a very rough schedule, we have hundreds of years before “nearly gone” or “does not exist” are appropriate descriptions of the Amazon—not a single presidential term.
Reports from the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) show a similar trend: a slow decline in deforestation, trending ever closer to zero. Deforestation is not spiraling out of control but is instead gradually coming to a halt.
For the Amazon region as a whole, the FAO reports that the high deforestation rates of the 1990s (5.3 percent) and 2000s (5.6 percent) slowed remarkably in the 2010s (2.8 percent). In terms of forest stock, which measures cubic meters of forest instead of area with forested land, the decline is even sharper: from 4.1 percent in the 1990s to 4.3 percent in the 2000s to 1.9 percent in the 2010s.
Globally, tropical deforestation peaked, not under recent iconic “villains” such as Bolsonaro, but in the 1980s. In Brazil, forest loss was highest during the early 2000s, when President Lula first held office. As is the usual story of human progress, things have been getting better (or at least less bad) year by year. In my lifetime, Brazil’s forest cover has fallen from around 70 percent of its land area to just under 60 percent today. Scary, but hardly apocalyptic—and Brazilian deforestation doesn’t remotely rival what countries such as the U.K., the U.S., or France did to their forests when they first grew rich.
If drawing on forest resources is, in some part, associated with a country’s enrichment, if there’s a curve or a gradual transition through which countries pass, why shouldn’t Brazil follow the path of its much-richer partners in the West? In the meantime, rest assured that the Brazilian Amazon has lots of trees left.