The destruction of tropical forests worldwide increased last year, again led by Brazil, which was responsible for more than one-third of the total, and where deforestation of the Amazon by purification seems to increase under the pro-development policy of the country’s president.
The global total loss of old growth or primary tropical forest – 9.3 million acres, an area nearly the size of Switzerland – was about 3 percent higher than 2018 and the third largest since 2002. Only 2016 and 2017 were worse, when the heat and drought led to record fires and deforestation, especially in Brazil.
“There has been so much international effort and rhetoric around reducing deforestation, and companies and governments are making all these commitments that they will cut half of their tropical forest loss by 2020,” said Mikaela Weisse, responsible for the Global Forest Watch program. “The fact that it has been so stubbornly persistent is what worries us.”
Global Forest Watch researchers estimated that the loss of primary tropical forest in 2019 resulted in the release of more than 2 billion tons of carbon dioxide, or more than the emissions from all vehicle vehicles in the US in a typical year.
Seymour said the outlook for 2020 is not good as the coronavirus pandemic continues.
Restrictions on mobility and blunt budget cuts as a result of the economic downturn from the global crisis could hamper efforts to enforce deforestation laws, she said. “Bad actors will try to take advantage of more illegal logging, mining, clearing and poaching.”
Global Forest Watch uses data from researchers at the University of Maryland who have developed machine learning software to analyze satellite images for loss of tree protection. Overall in the tropics, this loss amounted to almost 30 million acres last year. Since 2000, the world has lost about 10 percent of its tropical wooden deck.
Other analyzes of deforestation have different numbers. Two UN agencies, in their latest report on the subject, published last month, said that deforestation worldwide averaged about 25 million acres per year since 2015. Their analysis is based on reporting from each country.
Much of the tree coverage loss that Maryland researchers’ data reveals occurs in tree plants or other non-forest areas. The researchers then do further analysis to determine the loss from the old growth forests, which are important for storing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and for maintaining biodiversity, and it can take decades to recover when destroyed.
This destruction can occur in several ways: mowing for agriculture, farms, mining or other uses and for associated roads and other infrastructure; selective logging; or through fires that are set as part of the ground clearance efforts but which can spread without control.
Brazil and many other tropical countries experience this type of fire every year. Brazil had one high in 2019, especially in August. The magazines, widely reported on social media, drew widespread condemnation from environmental groups and world leaders who have been critical of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
Mr. Bolsonaro, who took office in early 2019, has aggressively pursued developments in the Amazon, including mining and large-scale agriculture, and has begun dismantling programs that protect domestic countries.
Weisse said the fires actually contributed relatively little to Brazil’s total primary forest loss of about 3.4 million acres in 2019, an amount just slightly higher than 2018’s total.
Many of the fires occurred on land that had previously been deforested and burned to prepare or plant, she said. Only about a fifth of the fires burned in primary forests.
Instead, data from the Brazilian government’s forest monitoring program and other projects showed an increase in the purification of primary forests for agriculture, says Weisse. “Although the overall primary forest trend is only a small increase, we believe deforestation will be worse,” she said.
In neighboring Bolivia, fires were a major cause of what was a significant increase in deforestation last year. The country’s primary forest loss of 720,000 acres was almost twice that of 2018. Bolivia now ranks fourth in deforestation globally behind Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia.
However, there were encouraging signs that efforts to reduce deforestation had some results in 2019. Indonesia gave a rare little good news, with the primary forest loss decreasing for the third year in a row. The decrease, by 5 percent from 2018, to around 800,000 acres, came despite extensive fires in the country last fall.
Widespread fires earlier in the decade had caused extensive deforestation and dangerous air pollution that reached neighboring countries. Since then, under international pressure, the Indonesian government has adopted a policy that includes a moratorium on land clearing for certain activities, expedited enforcement of illegal forest cutting and concerted efforts to limit the spread of fires.
The data shows that there were a significant number of fires last year in Indonesia, but most were on land that had already been destroyed previously, which was also the case in Brazil.
Elsewhere, Colombia also showed improvements, with a decrease in deforestation similar to the level of 2016. A peace agreement that same year between the government and a left-wing guerrilla movement that had strictly implemented the harvesting limits in areas under its control had led to a power vacuum in those areas, which allows illegal logging to be spread. Deforestation 2017 and 2018 rose sharply.
In Central Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo showed little sign of progress. Annual loss of primary forest has more than doubled since 2012, and although the sum of 2019 was slightly lower than the year before, it was higher than 2017. “We see lasting losses,” said Elizabeth Goldman, a research manager for Global Forest Watch. While most deforestation seems to be linked to food rearing, There are indications that some may be related to large-scale commercial farming or mining.
But in West Africa, both Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire showed significant reductions in primary forest loss, the data showed. Ghana’s total of about 14,000 acres was the lowest since 2014; Ivory Coast had the lowest number since 2005 of 29,000 acres.
Deforestation in both countries has largely been spurred by increasing cocoa production for the world markets. The governments of both countries, and major cocoa and chocolate producers, had agreed on initiatives to reduce or stop deforestation. The downturn is a sign that these efforts might work, Weisse said, though “it’s a little early to say too much yet, because it’s only a year.”