A football field every six seconds…
That is how fast the world lost mature tropical forests in 2019.
The information comes Global Forest Watch, a project of the World Resources Institute, a nonprofit research organization.
Satellite imagery shows nearly four million hectares of tree cover disappeared. That is an increase from last year and the third-largest loss of tree cover this century.
Some experts find hopefulness within the bad news, however.
While Brazil's forest loss has grown under President Jair Bolsonaro, policies to fight deforestation seem to be working in other areas, such as Indonesia, Colombia and West Africa.
The destruction of mature tropical forests is a massive hit to biodiversity. It also is responsible for about eight percent of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions. That information comes from the World Resources Institute (WRI).
Since forests take in huge amounts of carbon dioxide, stopping their loss is critical to fighting climate change.
The United Nations set a goal of ending deforestation by 2020, but Frances Seymour says, “We seem to be going in the wrong direction.”
Seymour is with WRI.
Based on satellite images studied by WRI and the University of Maryland, Brazil alone lost 1.4 million hectares of mature forest in 2019. That is more than one-third of the world total and nearly three times more than the Democratic Republic of Congo, the country with the next-largest loss.
Not counting record-breaking forest fires in 2016 and 2017, the losses in Brazil are the largest since 2006.
Until recently, Brazil had offered a reason to be hopeful. Environmental policies slowed deforestation rates from 2004 to 2015 under former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
Robert Heilmayr calls those slowing rates “one of the greatest conservation successes” in hundreds of years. Heilmayr is with the University of California, Santa Barbara, and was not involved with the WRI research. He is an environmental economics assistant professor at the university.
Heilmayr said that Brazil’s former conservation effort gave rise to hope that policies which worked in one area could work in others, and “we are going to see an end to deforestation.”
But the latest findings show "we still have a long ways to go," he said.
Bolsonaro called for development in the Amazon rainforest and has pulled back enforcement of environmental laws. His administration supports a law that would expand mining operations to the protected lands of native communities. It supports laws that environmental groups say would legalize land seizures.
But in Indonesia, the loss of mature forests decreased in 2019 for the third straight year.
"I'm continuing to be pleasantly surprised that there's a decrease" in Indonesia, said Greg Asner, who also was not involved in the WRI research. Asner is director of the Center for Global Discovery and Conservation Science at Arizona State University.
While Indonesia lost the third-largest area of mature forest after Brazil and the Democratic Republic of Congo, that represented the country’s smallest loss since the early 2000s.
Indonesia has made permanent a 2011 temporary ban to logging and land-clearing for palm oil plantations. These farms had been a major cause of deforestation. The government has increased fire prevention and enforcement of existing forest laws.
Colombia also had a sharp drop in the loss of primary forest in 2019, after two years of increases. Deforestation had risen sharply after a peace agreement ended years of civil war and freed up land formerly occupied by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.
The country has set both deforestation and reforestation goals. And it has sent the police and military to fight deforestation in its national parks.
It is not clear if such changes will continue. Global Forest Watch's early-warning system has found an increase in warnings this year.
Chocolate cuts its losses
More possible good news comes from West Africa. Ivory Coast and Ghana were the two countries with the largest increase in mature forest loss in 2018. Both lessened those losses by 50 percent last year.
Chocolate manufacturers have promised to reduce deforestation for cocoa, a major crop in West Africa. And West African governments have signed forest carbon deals with the World Bank.
These programs may be responsible, but WRI says it is too soon to tell if the effects will last.
The cooperation of palm oil companies has been a big part of Indonesia's decrease in deforestation, noted the University of California’s Robert Heilmayr. He added that when we see government and international markets working together to prevent further deforestation, “that's where we generally see the biggest success.”
WRI’s Frances Seymour added that the 2019 records support what they already know: ”If governments put into place good policies and enforce the law, forest loss goes down.” But if governments ease restrictions, forest loss goes up, Seymour added.
She is concerned that the coronavirus health crisis could push world forest losses up this year. She said poverty and lack of enforcement drove up deforestation after the financial crisis in the late 1990s.
And with attention turned to other things, Heilmayr worries that governments may enable more land seizures and agricultural expansion and “may turn away from enforcing laws that already exist."
I’m Alice Bryant.
Steve Baragona reported this story for VOA News. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. George Grow was the editor.
Words in This Story
mature tropical forest - n. a tropical forest that is neither young nor old-growth, has a closed canopy and grows close to the equator
biodiversity - n. the existence of many different kinds of plants and animals in an environment
emission - n. the production and discharge of something, especially gas (such as carbon dioxide) or radiation
conservation - n. the protection of animals, plants, and natural resources
straight - adj. in a row (as it relates to years)
logging - n. the activity or business of felling trees and cutting and preparing the timber
primary forest - n. a mature natural humid tropical forest that has not been completely cleared and regrown in recent history
chocolate - n. a food that is made from cacao beans and that is eaten as candy or used as a flavoring ingredient in other sweet foods