The Incredible Shrinking Amazon Rainforest

Tim Hirsch

The news coming out of the Amazon basin never seems to be good. Stories on rainforest losses generally use comparisons with U.S. states or countries of the world: since 1970, an area of rainforest the size of Texas has been lost; in the worst year of deforestation, 1995, an area equivalent to Belgium went under the chainsaw and the match.

Apart from emphasizing the sheer scale of the mightiest rainforest in the world—even the loss of a Texas-sized patch leaves more than 80 percent of it intact—these comparisons are not very useful for helping the concerned citizen judge what is really going on in the Amazon. What matters to most people is whether deforestation is coming under control, or whether this magnificent ecosystem is doomed to relentless decline, with all the implications for the millions of unique species it harbors, for the survival of precarious indigenous cultures, and for the global climate.

A better way of getting a handle on this question is to look at trends over time. And here the news of recent years has offered a glimmer of hope (see figure, right). Estimated annual deforestation figures for the Brazilian Amazon reveal a marked drop in the rate of forest loss over the past three years. After reaching a peak of more than 27,000 square kilometers in 2004, it fell to “only” 11,000 square kilometers lost between August 1, 2006 and August 1, 2007, the period used for these purposes in the release of satellite-derived data for year-to-year comparisons.