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Environment

Most forest loss occurs in 11 global hotspots

Deforestation is concentrated in less than a dozen zones, including Sumatra and the Amazon, a WWF report says. Environmental experts agree: forest loss will harm biodiversity and communities - and affects climate change.

A new report indicates that most deforestation is concentrated in just 11 world regions. Of these locations, 10 are in the tropics, while one - perhaps surprisingly - is in Australia.

According to the briefing Saving Forests at Risk, by conservation organization WWF, deforestation in 11 world regions will account for 80 percent of forest loss by 2030. In the two decades until then, if current trends continue, up to 170 million hectares of forest could be lost, the report estimates.

Regions cited are the Amazon, the Atlantic Forest and Gran Chaco, Borneo, the Cerrado, Choco-Darien, the Congo Basin, East Africa, Eastern Australia, Greater Mekong, New Guinea and Sumatra.

Such deforestation could have drastic consequences for biodiversity - including endangered wildlife - as well as for indigenous communities who make their homes in the forests, and other human populations that depend on them.

And since forests also store carbon, deforestation and the consequent release of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere also has major implications for climate change.

Agriculture, logging root causes

Forests are being lost for various reasons across the different zones, said Will Ashley-Cantello, chief forests adviser for WWF in the United Kingdom. "But the cause that is consistent across all the fronts - and the most significant problem - is the expansion of commercial agriculture," Ashley-Cantello told DW.

Elaboration of monoculture oil palm plantations is affecting vast tracts of tropical forest in Asia, Latin America and West Africa. On the Indonesian island of Sumatra, more than half of forests have been felled for palm oil cultivation.

In the Amazon region, forests are cleared to grow soy, or to create pasture for cattle grazing.

Logging - both illegal and government-sanctioned - is also a main reason for forest loss, Ashley-Cantello said. But deforestation is not confined to developing countries, he pointed out.

"Eastern Australia is projected to have between 3 and 6 million hectares of forest lost if the policy proposals that are currently in the pipeline go through the parliament there."

Australien Buschbrände

Wildfires in New South Wales burned more than 100,000 hectares of eastern Australia's forests in 2013

Amazon projection in question

The WWF report cited an "alarming rate" of deforestation across the Amazon region, and estimates that 23 million hectares of forest will be lost by 2030.

Yet this seems to contradict other research, which indicated a slowing of deforestation rates in the Amazon region across Brazil.

Agricultural scientist Jan Börner, who was lead author on the article, thinks the WWF figures represent a high estimate. The study looked at how in 2004, Amazon deforestation peaked at 2.7 million hectares per year, while 2009/2010 saw forest losses in the range of 500,000 hectares per year.

The WWF report perhaps "has not considered the development of environmental politics," Börner said.

Land conflicts in the Amazon over past decades contributed to rising environmental awareness, which spurred the Brazilian government to develop measures to combat illegal forest clearing, Börner explained.

Amazon Indian from Brazil demonstrates for indigenous land rights in London (EPA/FACUNDO ARRIZABALAGA)

Indigenous Brazilians have for decades fought for demarcation of their territories

Such measures include clarifying land titles, and installing a satellite monitoring system to predict where forests would be targeted, and deploy preventative law enforcement to these locations.

However, like WWF, Börner thinks that "demand for beef and soy will increase in the future," and this "could make the Brazilian government's measurements inadequate."

Consequences for wildlife, communities

Indeed, Börner and Ashley-Cantello agree that weak governance and lack of political will to address deforestation continues to be a problem.

Loss of forest habitat - along with associated poaching, as new forest areas become accessible - will likely push already threatened species closer to the brink of extinction.

Great apes are especially in the crosshairs, Ashley-Cantello said. He described deforestation as particularly threatening the orangutan in Indonesia and Malaysia; and bonobos, chimpanzees and gorillas in the Congo Basin.

Oranutang with baby in Dehiwala zoo, Sri Lanka (Photo: EPA/M.A.PUSHPA KUMARA)

Our endangered cousins: Orangutans are being killed as forests are cleared for palm oil plantations

And since many communities - particularly indigenous communities - depend directly or indirectly on rainforests, deforestation also affects a significant number of people.

"While some of those developments might benefit a few, the likelihood is that the many will not receive the benefit from the kinds of developments that are currently going on in forest areas," Ashley-Cantello said.

Climate change also at issue

Christoph Thies, a global forest policy expert with Greenpeace International, also pointed out the implications of deforestation for climate change: "Particularly in those hotspot regions of deforestation, greenhouse gas emissions will be massive - unless there is political intervention."

Thies said that when comparing gross emissions of greenhouse gases from the energy sector with forest sources, deforestation could add up to 20 percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions.

"The only truly sustainable way of carbon capture and storage is restoration of ecosystems, particularly forests," he added.

In addition to forests storing carbon dioxide, they also play an important role in regulating climatic systems.

River running through Amazon forest (Photo: Nádia Pontes)

Rainforests have been described as "the sweat glands of the Earth"

Börner pointed out how for example problems with extreme weather in southern Brazil "could relate to services the forest provides, like directing humidity from the Atlantic into the south."

Various players

Like Ashley-Cantello and Börner, Thies agreed that a multitude of measures are necessary to combat deforestation - including a new climate deal among governments, like that planned for negotiation in Paris this fall. Such a new greenhouse gas emissions treaty "would provide incentive to keep forests standing."

Companies, too, play a "very important role - through purchasing and investment," he added. Thies lauded recent developments where many companies are indicating that they want to move away from products linked with forest destruction.

To some degree, changing consumer preferences are driving this, as people become more concerned about the consequences of unsustainable forest use.

"In the EU, we need to be aware of how our consumption is driving illegal logging," Ashley-Cantello concluded.

Charlotta Lomas and Hannah Fuchs also conducted interviews for this story.

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