Vittertv: Amazon rainforest being stripped at record rate

This year, I served 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, the International Statistic of the Decade is meant to capture the zeitgeist of the period. The judging panel accepted nominations from the public at large as well as the statistical community for a statistic shining 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 ranches, logging operations and palm oil plantations.

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

There are a number of reasons why deforestation matters. They are financial, environmental and social in nature.

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, the Amazon Basin accounts for one-fifth of the world’s fresh water, and supplies the rest of us by releasing water vapor into the atmosphere. And deforestation has already triggered unprecedented droughts.

In the State of Sao Paulo, some farmers have lost more than one-third of their crops due to shortage of water. The government promised the coffee industry almost $300 million to help with its losses alone.

Third, the Amazon rain forest is responsible for storing more than 180 billion tons of carbon. When trees are cleared or burned, that carbon is released back into the atmosphere, and studies show the social cost of carbon emissions is about $417 per ton.

Finally, as a November 2018 study shows, the Amazon could generate more than $8 billion a year from the sustainable nut and rubber industries if just left alone.

Some might argue that there has been a financial gain from deforestation and that 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, arguing, “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 rain forest 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 the raising of cattle for slaughter and sale.

There are a little more than 200 million cattle in Brazil. Assuming the two cows per acre, the extra land means a gain of about $20 billion.

That’s 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, more than three football fields of Amazon rainforest are being lost every hour. My calculations, based on studies I’ve seen, suggest trillions have been lost due to this decade’s deforestation.

What if someone wanted to replant the lost rainforest?

Many charity organizations are raising money to do just that. But at the cost of more than $2,000 per acre — and that’s the cheapest I could find — it would run more than $30 billion.

From The Conversation, an online repository of lay versions of academic research findings found at https://theconversation.com/us. Used with permission.


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