01 / 05
The Amazon Forest Is Not About to Disappear

Blog Post | Environment & Pollution

The Amazon Forest Is Not About to Disappear

The Amazon is not nearly gone, a dead zone, or otherwise vanishing anytime soon.

Summary: 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: 

Space … is big. Really big. You just won’t believe how vastly hugely mindbogglingly big it is. I mean you may think it’s a long way down the road to the chemist, but that’s just peanuts to space.

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.”

Let’s reassess. 

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.

Amazon deforestation rate 1988-2021

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 officeAs 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.

Mongabay | Forests

Uzbekistan Plants a Forest Where a Sea Once Lay

“Since the Aral Sea, technically a lake, began shrinking in the 1960s, governments on both sides of the border led initiatives to revive tiny fractions of it. But Soviet-era dams, diverting waters feeding the sea to cotton monocultures, squelched the dream. As the Aral Sea dried out, a desert, the Aralkum, emerged and continues to expand on what used to be the lakebed. Today, the bed is caked with a thick layer of salt and of pesticide runoff that crystallized, creating a toxic cocktail of sediment on the ground. When the wind blows, this salt and dust can coat entire communities.

Now, instead of trying to restore the lake, officials from the Uzbekistan Forestry Agency and locals are trying to plant a new forest where it once rested. The main purpose of the afforestation project it to curb the harmful sandstorms and improve the ecosystem by planting desert-tolerant plants like saxaul (Haloxylon ammodendron) on the lakebed.”

From Mongabay.

The Weather Channel | Forests

India’s Forest Cover Has Increased Consistently over Last 15 Years

“India’s forest cover saw a consistent increase over the last 15 years, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEFCC) said at the recently concluded United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF) in the US.

An Indian delegation, led by Jitendra Kumar, Director General of Forests and Special Secretary, MoEFCC, participated in the 19th Session of the UNFF, held at the UN Headquarters in New York from May 6 to May 10.

The delegation apprised the UNFF that the consistent increase in forest cover was due to the ‘country’s significant advancements in forest conservation and sustainable forest management,’ MoEFCC said on Sunday.

‘Globally, India ranks third in the net gain, in average annual forest area, between 2010 and 2020,’ it added.”

From The Weather Channel.

The Guardian | Forests

Trees Stalling Effects of Global Heating in Eastern US

“Scientists have long been puzzled by a so-called ‘warming hole’ over parts of the US south-east where temperatures have flatlined, or even cooled, despite the unmistakable broader warming trend.

A major reason for this anomaly, the new study finds, is the vast reforestation of much of the eastern US.”

From The Guardian.