Last year, 39 million acres of forest cover was lost from the world’s tropics.
The good news is that this figure is a little lower than the record amounts of canopy destroyed in 2016. But that’s pretty much the only silver lining here. A less generous interpretation of the data suggests there’s no sign of the trend reversing.
Data gathered by the University of Maryland as part of the US-based World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch was used in a snapshot describing the amount of tropical forest that lost significant amounts of cover in 2017.
To be precise, lost tree cover isn’t quite the same thing as deforestation, which actually – thankfully – seems to be declining.
The reduction in a forest’s cover describes the removal of 30 percent of canopy in both managed and wild wooded ecosystems, most commonly as a result of natural disasters or fires set by humans.
If 39 million acres is hard to wrap your head around, it’s close to 160,000 square kilometres (about 60,000 square miles).
Still can’t picture it? Nepal covers 147,181 square kilometres. So this is bigger than Nepal.
To lose that amount of cover you could strip leaves from an area of 40 standard American football fields. Every minute. For a year.
When we picture tropical forest, it’s hard to not think of the Amazon first. And in 2016, Brazil lost 9.1 million acres of its portion of Amazonian tree cover – three times more than the previous year.
This jump was caused by widespread fires rather than deforestation, which still manage to do a thorough job of reducing biodiversity and biomass storage.
Considering the Amazon region had more fires in 2017 than in any other year since recording began in 1999, any ground gained in locking up carbon through past deforestation laws was well and truly set back.
Climate change is a significant contributing factor not just towards large scale fires, but various tree-stripping weather events. On the island of Dominica, an extreme hurricane season stripped bare a third of its tree cover in 2017. Similarly, Puerto Rico lost 10 percent of its island’s canopy.
The biggest loser in the report was Colombia, which saw close to a 50 percent spike in tree cover loss. Yet the cause of this decline was more political than climate-related, and just as challenging to resolve.
The recent disarming of the major guerilla movement known as Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) has seen them lose control over large sections of remote forest.
Where once the rebel faction kept commercial interests out of the wilderness, their removal has opened the way for illegal land clearance for coca plantations, logging, and pastures.
It’s important to note that while this year’s report technically shows an improvement, an average taken over the past three years still shows the problem is worsening. And if we want to see a trend, that’s the more accurate number to go for.
Not that it’s doom and gloom everywhere. Indonesia saw such a big reduction in 2017’s tree cover loss, its three year average has improved as well.
A 2016 moratorium on converting peatland for agriculture is thought to have played a role in the drop, which combined with ongoing extensions to a halt on licenses for using primary forest that dates back to 2011 is worth cheering.
Indonesia’s efforts show the rest of the world what can be done, which is a step in the right direction.
Measures to limit deforestation are to be applauded, and seem to be working. But curbing the impact of global warming on our climate and reigning in the poverty that encourages people to clear forest cover for crops and pastures remain important challenges.
Ironically, we need healthy forests to play a role in managing both of these issues. It’s a vicious cycle, and one that we quickly need to put the brakes on.