As agriculture expands, tropical forest losses soar

In September 2015, UN member states set a goal of halting deforestation by 2020 as part of its “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.” But according to Frances Seymour, distinguished senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, “we seem to be going in the wrong direction.” Satellite data gathered by the University of Maryland and recently released via Global Forest Watch, an online forest monitoring platform directed by the WRI, indicate that 2019 was the third highest year for tropical primary forest loss since the turn of the century.

“The level of forest loss that we saw in 2019 is unacceptable,” Seymour said during a press call last week.

Among the hotspots for forest loss: Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and Bolivia, with agriculture largely to blame in all three. But Indonesia, long a focus of environmentalists because of its destructive palm oil industry, made progress in halting the expansion of tropical forest losses.

Tree cover loss worldwide due to both human and natural causes topped 24.1 million hectares, and roughly 16-percent, or 3.75 million hectares, was humid tropical primary forest, a paramount ecosystem for carbon storage and biodiversity. Put another way: the tropics lost a soccer field-sized primary forest every six seconds.

“One of the reasons that it’s unacceptable is that we actually already know how to turn it around,” she continued. “If governments put into place good policies and enforce the law, forest loss goes down. But if governments relax restrictions on burning, or signal an intent to open up indigenous territories for commercial exploitation, forest loss goes up.”

Brazil alone accounts for more than a third of all primary forest loss, much of it due to clearcutting for agriculture and other new land uses in the Amazon. According to Brazil’s own National Institute for Space Research (INPE), deforestation rose nearly 85-percent in 2019 compared to the previous year. Spatial analyses by GFW also revealed new hotspots linked to land grabbing and mining in the Brazilian state of Para, particularly in its indigenous territories.

“These incursions are particularly worrisome given that indigenous peoples have been some of the best conservators of forest in Brazil and around the world,” said GFW project manager Mikaela Weisse. “At the same time, the administration unveiled a new bill in February that would allow commercial mining in indigenous territories in the future.”

The Democratic Republic of Congo was a distant second to Brazil at 475,000 hectares lost, and while it actually decreased its primary forest loss by 1 percent last year, 2019 was still its third highest year on record. According to Elizabeth Goldman, GIS research manager for GFW, much of this loss can be tied to shifting cultivation for subsistence agriculture by local populations, though “emerging evidence” suggests some loss may also be tied to mining and commercial agriculture. The data further suggest a slight increase in primary forest loss within DRC’s protected areas, especially nature reserves and hunting areas with fewer financial resources than the country’s national parks, and also in the East, where conflict has led to more displaced persons and population pressure.

Australia and Bolivia, both experiencing drought conditions, saw historic tree cover loss due to fire in 2019. But whereas those in Australia were driven primarily by natural conditions, most of those in Bolivia were initially sparked by farmers and ranchers for large-scale agricultural clearing. Australia suffered a 560-percent increase in tree cover loss over 2018, and Bolivia shot 80-percent ahead of its previous record high in 2016. Nearly 12-percent of eastern Bolivia’s highly biodiverse Chiquitano Dry Forest was burned in the process.

But while “the fight to curb tropical primary forest loss is far from over,” said Rod Taylor, global director of WRI’s Forests Program, there are small signs of hope. At 324,000 hectares, Indonesia saw the third highest loss of primary forest in 2019, but unlike other countries experiencing heavy loss, Indonesia continued to ride historic lows in its own trajectory, with a 5-percent reduction from 2018 even despite a high fire season. Goldman credits a number of government policies that have “contributed to this positive story,” from increased law enforcement to a now-permanent moratorium on new land clearing for oil palm plantations and logging activities. In addition, the parliament of West Papua on the island of New Guinea passed legislation in 2019 declaring itself the first “conservation province,” with a pledge to conserve 70-percent of its land.

And after a spike in primary forest loss in 2017 and 2018, Columbia saw a 35-percent decrease last year, and both Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire reduced their primary forest loss by 50-percent, signifying that several new federal programs aimed at curbing deforestation may be working.

“We need to recall that all of the tree cover loss we are discussing today happened before any of us had ever heard of Covid-19,” Seymour cautioned. “The numbers we’ll see next year and in years to come will depend on how we respond to the pandemic.”

While hedging against any concrete predictions for 2020, the GFW noted several historic precedents that may provide a model for what’s to come. For example, following the Asian Financial Crisis in the late 1990s, impoverished rural populations turned to forest resources “as a safety net,” Seymour said, “and increased hunting and gathering activities or small scale clearing just for basic subsistence.” The political turmoil also distracted from “a frenzy of illegal activity,” including forest exploitation. And to revive the economy, the governments of east Asia bailed out a number of “unsustainable companies” that quickly resumed their destructive practices.

“I think that we need to be alert to all of those possibilities and proactively act now,” Seymour said, “so that they don’t show up in next year’s data.”