Global forest loss, 2001-2017. Forest loss data in the tropics, Brazil, Colombia, DRC, and Indonesia are shown. Graphic: The Guardian

By Damian Carrington, Niko Kommenda, Pablo Gutiérrez, and Cath Levett
27 June 2018

(The Guardian) – The world lost more than one football pitch of forest every second in 2017, according to new data from a global satellite survey, adding up to an area equivalent to the whole of Italy over the year.

The scale of tree destruction, much of it done illegally, poses a grave threat to tackling both climate change and the massive global decline in wildlife. The loss in 2017 recorded by Global Forest Watch was 29.4m hectares, the second highest recorded since the monitoring began in 2001.

Global tree cover losses have doubled since 2003, while deforestation in crucial tropical rainforest has doubled since 2008. A falling trend in Brazil has been reversed amid political instability and forest destruction has soared in Colombia.

In other key nations, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s vast forests suffered record losses. However, in Indonesia, deforestation dropped 60% in 2017, helped by fewer forest fires and government action.

Forest losses are a huge contributor to the carbon emissions driving global warming, about the same as total emissions from the US, which is the world’s second biggest polluter. Deforestation destroys wildlife habitat and is a key reason for populations of wildlife having plunged by half in the last 40 years, starting a sixth mass extinction.

“The main reason tropical forests are disappearing is not a mystery – vast areas continue to be cleared for soy, beef, palm oil, timber, and other globally traded commodities,” said Frances Seymour at the World Resources Institute, which produces Global Forest Watch with its partners. “Much of this clearing is illegal and linked to corruption.”

Just 2% of the funding for climate action goes towards forest and land protection, Seymour said, despite the protection of forests having the potential to provide a third of the global emissions cuts needed by 2030. “This is truly an urgent issue that should be getting more attention,” she said. “We are trying to put out a house fire with a teaspoon.” [more]

One football pitch of forest lost every second in 2017, data reveals

By Mikaela Weisse and Elizabeth Dow Goldman
26 June 2018

(WRI) – 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.

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:

Tropical tree cover loss, 2001-2017. Global tree cover losses have doubled since 2003, while deforestation in crucial tropical rainforest has doubled since 2008. Graphic: Global Forest Watch / 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.

Tree cover loss in Colombia, 2001-2017. Graphic: Global Forest Watch / World Resources Institute

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.

Tree cover loss in Brazil biomes, 2001-2017. Graphic: Global Forest Watch / World Resources Institute

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.

2017 Was the Second-Worst Year on Record for Tropical Tree Cover Loss

Tree cover loss in South America (left) and the Democratic Republic of the Congo (right) in 2017. Graphic: The Guardian

By Frances Seymour
27 June 2018

(Global Forest Watch) – The 2017 tree cover loss numbers are in, and they’re not looking good. Despite a decade of intensifying efforts to slow tropical deforestation, last year was the second-highest on record for tree cover loss, down just slightly from 2016.  The tropics lost an area of forest the size of Vietnam in just the last two years.

In addition to harming biodiversity and infringing on the rights and livelihoods of local communities, forest destruction at this scale is a catastrophe for the global climate. New science shows that forests are even more important than we thought in curbing climate change.  In addition to capturing and storing carbon, forests affect wind speed, rainfall patterns and atmospheric chemistry. In short, deforestation is making the world a hotter, drier place.

In light of these high stakes, those of us in “Forestry World” who dedicate our professional lives and personal passions to saving the rainforest need to pause and reflect:  If the indicators are going in the wrong direction, are we doing something wrong?

Brick on the Accelerator, Feather on the Brake

There’s no mystery on the main reason why tropical forests are disappearing. Despite the commitments of hundreds of companies to get deforestation out of their supply chains by 2020, vast areas continue to be cleared for soy, beef, palm oil and other commodities. In the cases of soy and palm oil, global demand is artificially inflated by policies that incentivize using food as a feedstock for biofuels.  And irresponsible logging continues to set forests on a path that leads to conversion to other land uses by opening up road access and increasing vulnerability to fires.

A large portion of that logging and forest conversion is illegal, according to the laws and regulations of producer countries, yet illegality and corruption remain endemic in many forest-rich countries. And Indigenous Peoples—whose presence is associated with maintaining forest cover, yet whose land rights are often unrecognized—continue to be murdered when they attempt to protect their forests.

The situation reminds me of the many movies that feature a runaway train: The throttle of global demand for commodities has been engaged, and the brakes of law enforcement and indigenous stewardship have been disabled. The only way to prevent a disastrous train wreck is for the hero (or heroine) to get into the conductor’s seat, remove the brick on the accelerator, and hit the emergency brakes.

We actually know how to do this. We have a large body of evidence that shows what works. Brazil, for example, reduced large-scale deforestation in the Amazon by 80 percent from 2004-2012 by increasing law enforcement, expanding protected areas, recognizing indigenous territories, and applying a suite of carrots and sticks to reign in uncontrolled conversion to agriculture, even while increasing production of cattle and soy. The problem is that our current efforts to apply these tools amount to a feather on the brake compared to the brick on the accelerator.

Forests Are Collateral Damage in Major Economic and Political Events

To a certain extent, the bad news in the 2017 tree cover loss numbers reflects collateral damage from unrelated political and economic developments in forested countries. Colombia’s 46 percent increase in tree cover loss is likely linked to its recent conflict resolution, which opened up to development large areas of forest previously controlled by armed rebel forces. While the doubling of Brazil’s tree cover loss from 2015 to 2017 was in part due to unprecedented forest fires in the Amazon, the uptick is likely also attributable to a relaxation of law enforcement efforts in the midst of the country’s ongoing political turmoil and fiscal crisis. Indeed, it is striking how many of the world’s tropical forested countries have either experienced a recent change in government (Liberia, Peru), are currently in political crises (Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo), are in the midst of elections (Colombia), or will face elections in the near future (Indonesia).

We Know the Solutions for Stopping Deforestation

This context hammers home what we already knew: No amount of international concern about tropical forests will make a difference unless it meaningfully connects to domestic constituencies in forested countries, and changes the incentives that drive deforestation.

One of the key strategies for aligning national priorities with anti-deforestation actions started a decade ago. Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation and enhancing forest carbon stocks, or REDD+, is a framework endorsed by the Paris Agreement on climate change that encourages rich countries to pay developing countries for limiting deforestation and forest degradation. Unfortunately, the volume of REDD+ funding on offer (about a billion dollars per year) remains trivial compared to the $777 billion provided since 2010 for financing agriculture and other land sector investments that put forests at risk.  This is surely one reason why domestic coalitions for change in countries participating in REDD+ have been unable to overcome competing coalitions for deforestation-as-usual.

While the prospects for immediate increases in REDD+ finance remain bleak, other strategies to strengthen domestic constituencies for reform show promise.

Brazil pioneered a system of monitoring deforestation by satellite. The public disclosure of that data was key to generating political will and the information necessary for fighting illegal clearing. Now, remote-sensing tools are helping communities and law enforcement officials around the world to detect and respond to illegal deforestation in near-real time. For example, Peru’s Ministry of Environment distributes weekly deforestation alerts to more than 800 government agencies, companies and civil society groups, which led to several prosecutions in 2017.

International cooperation on law enforcement can also create domestic incentives for forestry sector reform. In late 2016, Indonesia became the first country to receive a license to export to the European Union timber verified as legally harvested. By ensuring that its timber was harvested legally, Indonesia secured access for its forest products in a lucrative international market.

Indonesia has also witnessed the application of a new generation of transparency tools to fight deforestation. For example, in 2017, civil society groups used publicly available databases on corporate finance and governance to uncover monopolistic practices and non-compliance with plantation regulations among 15 companies in the palm oil sector. They then shared their findings with Indonesia’s Corruption Eradication Commission and other government authorities in a position to respond with policy or legal action.

Finally, there’s increased action at the sub-national level. Dozens of governors and district heads in forest-rich jurisdictions around the world have committed to low-emissions development. For example, the Brazilian State of Mato Grosso launched a “Produce, Conserve, and Include” strategy to end illegal deforestation while promoting sustainable agriculture. Some of the companies that have made anti-deforestation commitments are considering preferential sourcing of commodities from such jurisdictions as a way of both reducing risk and encouraging continued progress toward better land-use management.

Those of Us in “Forestry World” Can’t Do It Alone

There are clearly solutions out there, but they need to be scaled up and expanded to forests throughout the world. This week, more than 500 citizens of Forestry World are gathering at the Oslo Tropical Forests Forum to reflect on the last 10 years of efforts to protect forests, and chart a way forward. But we can’t do it alone.

Preliminary analysis suggests that a significant chunk of forest loss in 2017 was due to “natural” disasters of the sort expected to become more frequent and severe with climate change. Hurricane Maria flattened forests in the Caribbean, and fires burned large areas of Brazil and Indonesia over the last few years. While degradation of forests through logging and fragmentation by roads renders them less resilient to extreme weather events, there is a limit to which forest-specific interventions can be effective in the face of a changing climate. While stabilizing the global climate is contingent on saving the world’s forests, saving the forests is also contingent on stabilizing the global climate.

In addition to doubling down on the proven strategies for reducing deforestation (and allocating a fair share of climate finance toward those efforts), all countries need to up their game on climate action.

Nature is telling us this is urgent. We know what to do. Now we just have to do it.

Deforestation Is Accelerating, Despite Mounting Efforts to Protect Tropical Forests. What Are We Doing Wrong?



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