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World keeps losing forests

Katharina Wecker
June 27, 2018

The years 2016 and 2017 saw the highest global tree cover loss ever recorded. Tropical forests in South America and Central Africa are disappearing at an alarming rate. Here's why that's bad news for everyone.

Tree in a deforested area in the middle of the Amazon jungle
Image: Getty Images/AFP/R. Alves

Forests provide us with shelter, food, fuel and water. Around 80 percent of the world's land-based animal and plant species are found in forests.

Trees also play a critical role in cleaning the air we breathe, and function as the largest land-based storehouses of CO2. Only oceans absorb more of the greenhouse gases that are changing our climate.

They are also a respite for the soul, allowing us to escape the grime and noise of the city and renew ourselves in nature.

When forests disappear, so do entire ecosystems. And this has dire consequences for all of us.

Yet, despite all this, we keep chopping down more trees than grow back, experts warn.

In 2017, the world lost 29.4 million hectares (72.6 million acres) of tree cover — that's around 80 percent the size of Germany. This was only slightly down from the 2016 record of 29.7 million hectares (73.4 million acres), according to new data by Global Forest Watch.

"The numbers are not looking good," says Frances Seymour, forest expert at the United States think thank World Resources Institute (WRI), which oversees Global Forest Watch.

Forests are being cleared for soy, beef, palm oil, and other globally traded commodities.

"Much of this clearing is illegal and linked to corruption," says Seymour.

Baby Sumatran orangutans playing in trees at a rehabilitation center
Sumatran orangutans like this one lose their habitat when forests are chopped downImage: Getty Images/U. Ifansasti

Natural disasters such as wildfires and tropical storms fueled by climate change are also playing an increasing role in the loss of forests, she adds. 

The record numbers of 2016 were driven by wildfires — both set by humans to clear land, and caused by hot temperatures and drought, as well as through the weather phenomenon el Niño.

Forests vital to combatting climate change

Forests play a crucial role in the fight against global warming. Trees absorb carbon dioxide, making forests a natural CO2 sink.

Deforestation destroys that natural CO2 removal. When fire is used to clear land, that amounts to a double whammy, as this blasts extra CO2 into the air.

Our forests are disappearing

For this reason, the international community needs to pay more attention to forests, says Andreas Dahl-Jorgensen, deputy director of Norway's International Climate and Forest Initiative.

"We simply won't meet the climate targets we agreed to in Paris without drastic reduction in tropical deforestation and forests around the world," he said.

This week, government officials, environmental organizations, indigenous leaders and representatives of the industry are meeting at the Oslo Tropical Forest Forum to discuss regulations and incentives to reduce deforestation.

The goal of the conference is to identify remaining challenges of the United Nations program "Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation" (REDD), which was founded in 2008.

Infografik weltweite Baumbedeckung Waldbedeckung Verlust Tree Cover loss  EN

The REDD framework allows developing countries to receive compensation if they lower emissions by protecting their forests.

Critics say that the current financial support through REDD is not enough to compete with strong market incentives to cut down forests.

Seymour called climate finance for forest conservation has averaging about $1 billion a year over the last decade "trivial" in comparison to "a hundred times that money that is being made available for agriculture and other investments that put forests at risk." 

Environmental and development groups are seeking a committment from stakeholders at the Oslo Tropical Forest Forum for more money for the program, and to convince companies to stop buying products grown on recently deforested land.

Tropical forests disappearing

Global Forest Watch detected that especially tropical forests continue to be chopped down. In 2017, 40 football fields of tropical tree cover were destroyed — every minute.

The Democratic Republic of Congo, where part of the world's second-largest rainforest is located, saw a record tree cover loss in 2017.

The Central African country lost 1.47 million hectares of tree cover in 2017 due to agriculture, charcoal production and mining.

In Brazil, 4.5 million hectares of forests were destroyed, down 16 percent from a record high in 2016, but still higher than any other year, the report said.

Illegal loggers burn down the rainforest in the state of Amazonas
Rainforest in the Brazilian state of Amazonas is illegally clearedImage: Reuters/B. Kelly

Almost one-third of Brazil's tree cover lost in 2017 was in the Amazon, the world's largest rainforest.

In Brazil's neighboring country Colombia, the Amazon also saw a sharp increase in deforestation.

More than 0.4 million hectares of forests were destroyed last year in Colombia, up 46 percent from 2016, and double the average loss from 2001 to 2015.

The ongoing peace process in Colombia could be having a negative effect in forests, believes Mikaela Weisse, a research analyst at WRI.

"The demobilization of the FARC left behind a power vacuum, which has led to illegal clearing for pasture and coca, and mining and logging by other armed groups, as well as rampant land speculation," said Weisse.

Forest stream in Chocó, Colombia
Colombia may be losing more forest as a result of the peace processImage: Diego Vasquez

Good news from Indonesia

Despite negative trends in most tropical forests around the world, there is one positive story: Indonesia.

The Southeast Asian country managed to reduce its tree cover loss by 60 percent in primary forests in 2017, compared to 2016 when wildfires caused the highest tree cover loss on record.

The sharp decrease is due to the fact that by 2017, el Niño had passed, but also due to improved government efforts to protect forests, said Putera Parthama, representative of Indonesia's Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

In 2016, the Indonesian government passed a peatland moratorium, banning all activities that could damage the nation's peat-filled wetlands. Last year, it also extended a forest moratorium for another two years and has invested in monitoring and prosecuting illegal deforestation activities.

"Indonesia is now the only country in the tropics with decreasing rates of deforestation," Parthama said.

"One year is not a trend, but we are committed to starting one."