The amount of pristine tropical rainforest lost across the globe increased last year, as the equivalent of a football pitch disappeared every six seconds, a satellite-based analysis has found.
Nearly 12m hectares of tree cover was lost across the tropics, including nearly 4m hectares of dense, old rainforest that held significant stores of carbon and had been home to a vast array of wildlife, according to data from the University of Maryland.
Beyond the tropics, Australia’s devastating bushfires led to a sixfold increase in tree cover loss across the continent in 2019 compared with the previous year. Rod Taylor, from the World Resources Institute, part of the Global Forest Watch network that released the analysis, said as the unprecedented fires continued into 2020, this was only a partial picture of the area affected in the southern fire season.
While Australia’s eucalyptus trees are generally well adapted to respond to fire, Taylor said this year’s blazes burned more intensely, having followed a severe drought, and spread rapidly due to high winds. The fires killed 33 people directly, an estimated 445 more through smoke inhalation, and hundreds of millions of animals.
“Whereas a normal fire might char the bark of a tree, this year’s fires turned many trees into charcoal sticks,” Taylor said. “Australia can expect more extreme fire seasons as fire risk increases due to climate change.”
The loss of trees in the tropics was the third worst recorded since data was first collected in 2002, trailing behind only 2016 and 2017. The heaviest reduction continues to be in Brazil, which accounted for more than a third of all humid tropical forest loss. Government data shows that deforestation for agriculture and other new land uses increased rapidly in the Brazilian Amazon over the past year.
The biggest surge in forest loss was in Bolivia, where fires led to an 80% greater reduction in tree cover than in any previous year on record. The institute said many of the fires were probably deliberately lit to clear farming land for planting and spread into forests due to strong winds and drought exacerbated by the climate crisis. It follows the Bolivian government making regulatory changes to encourage the expansion of agriculture.
There was a slight decrease in forest loss in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, but it was still the third highest year on record, largely due to cyclical agricultural operations, though the institute said there was emerging evidence that commercial logging, mining and clearing for plantations was having an impact.
Primary forest loss was down about 50% in both Ghana and Cote d’Ivoire, and reduced for a third straight year in Indonesia, where it fell back to a level not seen for more than 15 years. This follows Jakarta introducing a permanent moratorium on clearing for oil palm plantations and increased efforts to ensure that laws were enforced.
Frances Seymour, a senior fellow with the institute, said the level of global forest loss was unacceptable and that it was clear what was needed to reverse the trend. “If governments put into place good policies and enforce the law, forest loss goes down,” she said. “But if governments relax restrictions on burning, or signal an intent to open up indigenous territories for commercial exploitation, forest loss goes up.”
Seymour said the international community could help address the problem by introducing economic or market incentives for protecting forests. She called for governments to embrace four steps: preventing forest burning; increasing monitoring and enforcement to stop breaches; providing the poor and hungry with alternatives to forest exploitation; and not reducing protections to aid the economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic.