Tropical Forest Loss Slowed in 2017—To the Second Worst Total Ever

Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo lost the most; things improved in Indonesia. Here are five takeaways from a new report.

Imagine looking down on a huge swath of lush forest—but before you can pull out your phone and take a picture, it’s gone.

In tropical regions around the world, tree cover is disappearing that quickly: Every minute of every day over the last two years, a tract the size of 40 football fields was clear-cut or burned to increase production of soy, cattle, palm oil, and wood products.

Despite efforts to reduce tropical deforestation, tree cover loss has nearly doubled over the past 15 years. In 2017, 39 million acres (15.8 million hectares) disappeared — an area close to the size of Washington State — according to new data released Wednesday by the research group World Resources Institute (WRI) at the Oslo Tropical Forest Forum, where 500 forest experts and policymakers are meeting about the issue. The latest total was second only to 2016, the worst-ever year of tropical forest loss with 41.7 million acres (16.9 million hectares).

Fires, droughts, and tropical storms are also playing an increasing role in forest loss, especially as climate change makes them more frequent and severe, according to the report. The regions that lost the most forest in 2017 were in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Central Africa.

Deforestation is itself a major driver of climate change. Emissions from tropical forest loss, including below-ground biomass and drainage of peat forests, added about 7.5 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere in 2017, according to WRI—nearly 50 percent more than the energy-related carbon emissions from the entire U.S.

While destroying forests releases huge volumes of carbon dioxide, growing forests capture it from the atmosphere, making forest protection one of the keys to limiting climate change. And since tropical forests grow year-round, they are especially important. Proper conservation and restoration of tropical forests, mangroves, and peatlands could provide a cost-effective way to achieve up to 23 percent of the carbon dioxide reductions needed by 2030, according a WRI working paper on climate and tropical forests released at the Oslo forum.

Despite this, countries and the private sector spend about $100 billion a year subsidizing and investing in forest-destroying agricultural expansion and land development, said Frances Seymour, distinguished senior fellow at WRI. Meanwhile, she adds, only a billion dollars a year goes toward forest conservation.

“It’s like trying to put out a house fire with a teaspoon while more gas is being poured on the flame,” she said.

Ranching Is the Biggest Cause

A lot of that $100 billion a year in subsidies and investments goes toward exports of food and wood products to other countries. China and India are among the world’s biggest importers of soy, pulp and paper, and palm oil. China alone is a huge importer of beef, and cattle ranching is the largest single cause of deforestation, according to a WRI working paper on deforestation-free supply chains.

These subsidies and investments should be redirected to increasing sustainable agriculture on non-forest lands, said Andreas Dahl-Jørgensen, deputy director of Norway's International Climate and Forest Initiative during a press conference about the new data.

The rate of tree cover loss is less than half in community and indigenous lands compared to elsewhere. However, that comes at a high price. The human rights group Global Witness documented 197 murders of people defending land and environmental rights in 2017. Many of them were indigenous people, noted Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, a UN expert and indigenous leader.

Recognizing and supporting legal rights of the world’s indigenous people—who occupy more than 50 percent of the world’s land—is a powerful tool for protecting forests and the climate, she said.

Five Takeaways from the New Report

* Brazil is still by far the deforestation leader with 11.1 million acres (4.5 million hectares) lost in 2017, followed by the Democratic Republic of Congo with 3.7 million acres (1.5 million hectares).

* Indonesia dramatically reduced its forest loss by 60 percent in 2017, although Sumatra, home of the extremely endangered Sumatran tiger, saw increased primary forest loss—including 7,500 hectares (18,500 acres) in the Kerinci Seblat National Park.

* Colombia’s deforestation was three times higher in 2017 than 2015 — the end of the civil war has resulted in a land rush for cattle ranching, mining, soy, timber, and land speculation.

* The Congo halted industrial logging 16 years ago, but forest loss increased in 2016-17. This year, Chinese companies were granted new logging concessions in the world’s largest remaining peatland forest.

* The island of Dominica lost 32 percent of its remaining forest due to hurricanes in 2017, while Puerto Rico lost 10 per cent.