Brazil Deforests the Amazon by Areas Equivalent to the Size of 230 Manhattans Annually

The Amazon is important not just for Brazil, but also for the whole world. Here are four of the many reasons:

1) Precipitation

Through transpiration, the Amazon rainforest is responsible for creating 50–75 percent of its own precipitation. Its impact extends well beyond the Amazon Basin, with Amazon rainfall and rivers feeding regions that generate 70 percent of South America’s gross domestic product (GDP). Models indicate that moisture from the Amazon influences rainfall as far away as the Western United States and Central America.

2) Carbon storage

The 390 billion trees across the Amazon rainforest lock up massive amounts of carbon in their leaves, branches, and trunks. Amazon forests store over 150 billion metric tons of carbon — more than a third of all the carbon stored in tropical forests worldwide — and they absorb two billion tons of CO2 each year, representing five percent of global annual emissions, which is good because extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases the greenhouse effect. More thermal energy is trapped by the atmosphere, causing the planet to become warmer than it would be naturally. This increase in the Earth’s temperature is called global warming.

3) Biodiversity

The Amazon is home to more species of plants and animals than any other terrestrial ecosystem on the planet — perhaps 30 percent of the world’s species are found there. Besides their intrinsic value as living organisms, these species have potential value to humans in the form of medicine, food, and other products.

4) Local benefits

Within the Amazon Basin, tens of millions of people depend on services afforded by the forest. Rivers are the main vectors for transportation, while logging and collection of non-timber forest products are major industries in many cities, towns, and villages. The rainforest helps suppress — but not eliminate — the risk of fire, in addition to reducing air pollution. Fish in Amazon tributaries are a huge source of protein in the region. Annual floods replenish nutrients in floodplain areas used for agriculture.

Despite its invaluable global importance, humans are deforesting the Amazon at alarming rates. I wanted to better understand the trends over the last two decades so I utilized the PRODES website and Power BI (PBI) to explore the data. This simple analysis was designed to be exploratory with a small set of data to provide an idea of what’s happening with our Amazon rainforest.

Analyzing Trends

Let’s take a closer look using the timeline chart below.

Annual incremental deforestation from 2000–2018. Image from the author.

Despite the overall downward trend, the last few years were worrying, so I broke the visualization into two-time lapses, one from 2001 to 2010 and the other from 2011 to 2019.

Annual incremental deforestation from 2001–2010. Image from the author.

The first split above shows good results in the first decade, especially in the years 2002 and 2006. Between these years, deforestation dropped by 50 percent compared with the previous four years. Another interesting point is the PBI forecast (indicated with gray shading), pretty accurately forecasted a decreasing trend.

Now, consider the second timeframe below.

Annual incremental deforestation from 2011–2019 (2019 data is not complete yet). Image from the author.

In this decade we’re losing the battle. You can see the problem: in 2019 we backslid to 2006 values and the data from this year isn’t even complete yet. This time the PBI forecasted a stability trend that was tracking until 2019. One explanation for this 2019 divergence could be the political scenario in Brazil, with some cuts in the investments to preserve the forests, which was aggravated by the COVID outbreak.

To further dissect this issue, I changed my analysis to focus in on how states contributed to deforestation in the chart below.

Full deforestation numbers from 2001–2019 (2019 data is not complete yet). Image from the author.

Consider the infamous winner, Para. The state cleared a devastating 100.295 km² of the forest:

Image from the author.

You read it right! Para has cleared an area of the Amazon equivalent to the country of Portugal in 20 years. 10 percent of the Amazon is in located this state.

To summarize, between 2000–2019, we burnt almost the equivalent area of nearly three Portugals, 4,577 Manhattan Islands, and 38 million soccer fields. My analysis suggests that Brazil was making significant progress to save the rainforest, but has returned to alarming behavior in the last few years. Clearly, we need to work to decrease this devastation and recover what we have already lost!

Image from the author.

Analysis reveals that Brazil has actually reduced deforestation when you compare today’s rates to the beginning of the ’00s. In 2001, we lost close to 55,000 km² of the forest, and in 2018 (the last full year of data available), the loss was 7,000 km². While a seven times reduction may seem laudable, 7,000 km² is equivalent to 1,034,040 soccer fields. In other words, we burnt the equivalent of 125 Manhattan Islands in 2018!

With these concerning trends in mind, what are we doing to save this critical human resource? There are many non-governmental organizations at work, but I want to highlight the Amazon Fund. This organization, founded in 2009, receives funds from European countries and distributes them across projects to save Amazon. They have invested almost $230 million US in those projects to date. We need to reverse the destructive trend in order to ensure our children still can still benefit from this invaluable natural resource.