Even in economic downturn, tropical forest losses climb

During the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, as economic activity ground to a virtual standstill, Mother Nature flirted with recovery. With so many factories closed and far fewer vehicles on the road, Greenhouse gas emissions plummeted. Air and water quality temporarily improved. Overall, the global economy shrank by roughly 4 percent in 2020, and yet one disturbing trend continued apace: forest destruction worldwide, largely as a result of agriculture.

According to data recently compiled by the University of Maryland and released via Global Forest Watch, an online monitoring platform, the tropics lost 4.2 million hectares (about 10.4 million acres) of humid primary forest last year. That was up 12 percent over 2019 and amounted to roughly the size of the Netherlands. In the process, these forest losses released 2.64 gigatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, equivalent to the annual emissions of 570 million cars.

“Let’s be clear: the forest losses you’ve just heard about from my colleagues are a climate emergency. They’re a biodiversity crisis, a humanitarian disaster, and a loss of economic opportunity,” said Frances Seymour, distinguished senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, during a press conference last week. “And there’s every reason to believe that we haven’t yet seen the most significant impacts of the pandemic on forests, which will probably come into play as economies start to recover.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests the pandemic itself may have played a small role in tree cover loss via reverse migrations to rural areas or relaxed patrolling of protected areas, the WRI reported. But agriculture remains the primary culprit, be it commodity production or subsistence ag, and climate change continues to amplify the impact. Topping the list of worst offenders again in 2020 was Brazil, which surrendered another 1.7 million hectares of primary forest, a 25-percent increase over 2019 and three times more than the Democratic Republic of Congo, the runner-up. Most of Brazil’s losses occurred in the Amazon and the Pantanal, the world’s largest tropical wetland. Though Brazil sustained headlines throughout 2019 for its unprecedented forest fires, 2020 was even worse.

“In 2019, most of the fires occurred on already deforested areas as farmers prepared land for agriculture and pastures,” said Mikaela Weisse, WRI’s Global Forest Watch project manager. “But in 2020, a significant share of the fires actually burned within primary forests. Large fires rarely occur naturally in human tropical forests like the Amazon, so most of the fires were likely human-lit and escaped beyond their intended bounds due to dry weather conditions.”

Though the DRC lost more than 490,000 hectares of primary forest last year, slightly more than the year before, it was nearby Cameroon that stood out in central Africa in 2020. At more than 100,000 hectares, Cameroon doubled its total primary forest loss from 2019, due largely to cyclical agriculture in the southern part of the country.

“It’s difficult to pinpoint what exactly is driving this agricultural expansion,” said Elizabeth Goldman, WRI’s Global Forest Watch GIS research manager, “but it could be related to urban-rural migration, pandemic job losses, as well as increases in commodity prices, especially cocoa and palm oil.”

And Bolivia this year rose to third place on the list with a loss of roughly 277,000 hectares, some of it within the country’s protected areas, though it actually reduced its primary forest loss by roughly 13,000 hectares from the year before. Like that of Brazil, most of the destruction in Bolivia was the result of agricultural clearing and fires that burned out of control due to dry and hot conditions.

Beyond the tropics, several other countries experienced devastating tree cover loss last year. In Australia, the infamous Black Summer bushfires that began in late 2019 as a result of climate-change induced drought conditions continued to blaze through 2020. All told, the bushfires destroyed more than 2.3 million hectares of tree cover last year, a nine-fold increase over 2018. And Russia lost roughly 5.4 million hectares thanks to abnormally high spring and summer temperatures in Siberia that stoked prime conditions for forest fires.

“These fires also burned within carbon-rich peatlands that are usually frozen,” Goldman reported, “resulting in record carbon emissions that will further exacerbate climate change, which is a dangerous cycle.”

Despite the generally bleak statistics, several countries managed to buck the trend in 2020. Both Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, continued to reduce their primary forest loss for the fourth year in a row; and Indonesia, in particular, dropped below the top three for the first time since record keeping began, reducing its primary forest loss by 17-percent over 2019, or nearly 54,000 hectares.

According to Arief Wijaya, WRI Indonesia’s climate and forests senior manager, Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry enhanced its fire monitoring and prevention systems following a series of devastating forest and peat fires in 2015. It also issued both a temporary ban on new licenses for palm oil plantations and a permanent ban on primary forest and peatland conversion. A subsequent surge in “no-deforestation” commitments among private sector businesses, in addition to the global economic crisis and an unusually wet 2020 in Indonesia contributed to the country’s continued success.

“But for Indonesia to maintain its success, and for other countries to follow, it’s clear that we have to do much more, both in terms of amplifying the voices of domestic constituencies for forest protection, as well as ramping up … international incentives,” Seymour added. “Because we’ve seen this movie before. Brazil, having achieved a huge reduction in deforestation in the Amazon, is now seeing an unraveling of that success, and it’s heartbreaking.”

Seymour suggested that multilateral development institutions like the World Bank are best suited to assist poor and developing countries in battling chronic tree cover loss. Seymour also emphasized President Biden’s 2020 campaign promise to mobilize $20 billion to halt further destruction of the Amazon.

“Every year we ring the alarm bell, but we’re still losing forests at a rapid clip,” she said. “So let’s let 2021 be the year that we finally muster the political will and financial resources to turn it around once and for all.”

You can read more about the findings here.