Nature and Biodiversity

2017 was the second-worst year on record for tropical tree loss

This article is published in collaboration with the World Resource Institute.
A man carries a chainsaw as he walks in a forest near the municipality of Itaituba, Brazil August 7, 2017. Picture taken August 7, 2017. REUTERS/Nacho Doce - RC157DCD0980

Increasing awareness and anti-deforestation initiatives are not paying off globally. Image: REUTERS/Nacho Doce

Mikaela Weisse
Director, Global Forest Watch, World Resources Institute
Elizabeth Dow-Goldman
GIS Research Associate, Global Forest Watch
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Last year was the second-worst on record for tropical tree cover loss, according to new data from the University of Maryland, released today on Global Forest Watch. In total, the tropics experienced 15.8 million hectares (39.0 million acres) of tree cover loss in 2017, an area the size of Bangladesh. That’s the equivalent of losing 40 football fields of trees every minute for an entire year.

What is tree cover loss?

Tree cover loss is not the same as deforestation. “Tree cover” can refer to trees in plantations as well as natural forests, and “tree cover loss” is the removal of tree canopy due to human or natural causes, including fire. Methodology changes starting in 2011 may lead to inconsistencies between the 2001-2010 data and the 2011-2017 data. Read more here.

Despite concerted efforts to reduce tropical deforestation, tree cover loss has been rising steadily in the tropics over the past 17 years. Natural disasters like fires and tropical storms are playing an increasing role, especially as climate change makes them more frequent and severe. But clearing of forests for agriculture and other uses continues to drive large-scale deforestation.

Here’s a snapshot of tree cover loss in key tropical countries last year:

Image: World Resources Institute

Colombia Sees Tree Cover Loss Spike in Post-Conflict Era

Colombia faced one of the most dramatic increases in tree cover loss of any country, with a 46 percent rise compared to 2016, and more than double the rate of loss from 2001-2015. Almost half of the increase happened in just three regions on the border of the Amazon biome (Meta, Guaviare and Caquetá), with new hotspots of loss advancing into previously untouched areas.

The rapid increase in tree cover loss happened as peace came to the country. Last year, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest rebel group, was pushed out of large amounts of remote forest they previously controlled. The FARC kept tight control over land use and allowed little commercial use of resources – with the demobilization, a power vacuum has emerged, leading to illegal clearing for pasture and coca, mining and logging by other armed groups. Land speculation is rampant, as people occupy and deforest new areas in the hopes of getting a land title under the forthcoming rural reform law, a key component of the Peace Agreement. Abandoned FARC trails are also providing access to previously remote forest areas, with some regional governments officially expanding these roads to promote development.

The Colombian government is actively working to slow forest destruction and, in fact, was recently ordered by the Supreme Court to get deforestation in the Amazon under control. The government has already cancelled a major highway project connecting Venezuela and Ecuador, destroyed several illegal roads, expanded Chiribiquete National Park by 1.5 million hectares, and launched the “Green Belt” initiative to protect and restore a 9.2-million-hectare forest corridor. It’s too early to tell if these actions and others will be enough to slow the country’s rampant forest loss.

Brazil’s Tree Cover Loss Remains High Despite Previous Declines

Brazil experienced its second-highest rate of tree cover loss in 2017, after a prominent spike in 2016.

The rise comes despite declining deforestation rates, and is mainly due to fires in the Amazon. The Amazon region had more fires in 2017 than any year since recording began in 1999, causing 31 percent of the region’s tree cover loss according to University of Maryland data, which for the first time attributed specific instances of tree cover loss to fires. Though forests are likely to recover since fires mainly cause degradation rather than deforestation (read more here), the blazes have counteracted Brazil’s decline in deforestation-related carbon emissions since the early 2000s.

While the southern Amazon did face a drought in 2017, almost all fires in the region were set by people to clear land for pasture or agriculture. Lack of enforcement on prohibitions of fires and deforestation, political and economic uncertainty, and the current administration’s roll-back of environmental protections are likely contributors to the high amount of fires and related tree cover loss.

Experts are also concerned that high levels of fires and forest degradation are becoming the new normal in the Amazon. Climate change combined with human-caused deforestation is increasing the prevalence of drought, making the landscape more vulnerable to fires.

Forest clearing for other uses is also apparent throughout the country, with evidence of agriculture, ranching and intensive logging incursion into previously intact forests in the states of Amazonas, Mato Grosso, Pará, Rondônia and Roraima.

Indonesia Sees Encouraging Drop in Primary Forest Loss

Unlike most tropical forests, Indonesia experienced a drop in tree cover loss in 2017, including a 60 percent decline in primary forest loss. While some provinces in Sumatra still saw increased primary forest loss—including 7,500 hectares (18,500 acres) in the Kerinci Seblat National Park— provinces in Kalimantan and Papua experienced a reduction.

The decrease is likely due in part to the national peat drainage moratorium, in effect since 2016. Primary forest loss in protected peat areas went down by 88 percent between 2016 and 2017, reaching the lowest level ever recorded. Additionally, 2017 was a non-El Niño year, which brought wetter conditions and fewer fires compared to past years. Educational campaigns and increased enforcement of forest laws from local police have also helped prevent land-clearing by fire.

This new development is reason to be cautiously optimistic, but only time and another El Niño year will reveal how effective these policies really are.

Tree Cover Loss in the Democratic Republic of Congo Reaches Record High

Tree cover loss in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) reached a record high in 2017, increasing 6 percent from 2016. Agriculture, artisanal logging and charcoal production drove the tree cover loss, with nearly 70 percent of it occurring in agricultural areas known as the rural complex. While shifting cultivation does not necessarily indicate expansion into primary forest, growing populations can intensify agricultural practices, thus reducing fallow periods where trees regrow naturally. Our analysis also showed that in 2017, 3 percent of overall tree cover loss occurred in protected areas and 10 percent within logging concessions.

For the past 16 years, DRC has had a moratorium on new industrial logging concessions, but the government reinstated concessions to two companies in 2018. Environmentalists worry that opening the forest to additional logging could exacerbate the country’s growing deforestation problem. But there is more to DRC’s tree cover loss than industrial logging concessions. While the moratorium applied only to industrial logging, artisanal logging, often illegal, also soared. Given the increasing trends observed in 2016 and 2017, it is critical that DRC move ahead with improved land use planning and forest law enforcement while enforcing better management practices.

Hurricanes Disrupt Forests in the Caribbean

The extreme hurricane season of 2017 that killed thousands and caused billions of dollars of destruction in the Caribbean also had adverse impacts on the region’s forests. The island of Dominica lost 32 percent of its tree cover in 2017, while Puerto Rico lost 10 percent, including significant losses in El Yunque National Forest. While tropical forests in cyclone zones are naturally resilient to storms, scientists worry about their ability to recover in the face of more powerful storms due to climate change.

Seeing Forests for More than Just the Trees

The steady increase in tropical tree cover loss is alarming, and the new data further demonstrates that current efforts to reduce deforestation are insufficient.

Beyond sheltering biodiversity and providing human livelihoods, forests also play a critical role in storing carbon. But while forest conservation could provide nearly 30 percent of the solution for limiting global temperature rise to 2 degrees C, the limit scientists say is necessary for preventing the worst impacts of climate change, only 2 percent of climate finance goes to the forest sector. If the world is serious about curbing climate change, all countries need to step up efforts to reduce deforestation.

Leaders are meeting today at the Oslo Tropical Forest Forum to reflect on progress to date and discuss plans for the future. Given the dire news from 2017, it’s clear that anti-deforestation efforts are more important than ever.

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