According to data from the University of Maryland published recently in the Global Forest Watch the tropics lost nearly 12 million hectares of forest cover in 2019. Almost 4 million hectares of this loss occurred in primary tropical forests, areas of mature rainforest that are particularly important for biodiversity and carbon storage. This is the equivalent of the loss of one football pitch in forest cover every 6 seconds throughout the year.
The disappearance of primary forests was 2.8% higher in 2019 than the previous year and has remained consistently high over the past two decades, despite efforts to stop deforestation. At least 1.8 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide emissions are associated with the loss of primary forests in 2019, which is the equivalent to the annual emissions of 400 million cars. Although this rate of primary forest loss was lower in 2019 than in 2016 and 2017, it was still the third highest since the turn of the century.
The 2019 figures reveal that several countries have suffered record losses, and fires have created surprising impacts in primary forests and beyond. While the global situation remains bleak, some countries have shown signs of improvement, teaching important lessons to other countries.
Fires in Bolivia are out of control
Bolivia has recorded a massive loss of tree cover due to fires, both within the primary forests and in the surrounding forests. The total loss of tree cover in the country in 2019 was over 80% higher than the following year, the highest ever recorded.
The fires spread in 2019 were caused by a combination of climatic conditions and human activities. Many of the fires in Bolivia were probably started by humans - as they do every year to clean up agricultural land for planting - but they spread out of control in the forests due to high winds and dry weather. Large-scale agriculture is one of the main factors of deforestation in Bolivia, particularly for soybean and livestock farming. The Bolivian government has made several regulatory changes in recent years to promote the expansion of agriculture, including easing restrictions on controlling the flames.
Brazil has caused a third of the world's primary tropical forest loss
Brazil alone accounted for over a third of all wet tropical primary forest loss in the world, accounting for more primary forests lost than any other tropical country in 2019. Outside 2016 and 2017, when forest fires caused unprecedented forest loss, 2019 was the worst year in 13 years for Brazil's primary forests.
Data from the Global Forest Watch on primary forest loss reveals a wide range of issues related to these ecosystems - from deforestation for agriculture to fires to selective logging. While the increase in primary forest loss from 2018 to 2019 has been modest, government data indicate that one particular form of forest loss - deforestation for agriculture or other new land uses - has increased rapidly in the Brazilian Amazon over the past year.
Central Africa suffered substantial losses, while things improved in West Africa
Several countries in the Congo Basin suffered a loss of primary forests or a deterioration in 2019, including the Democratic Republic of Congo. Although primary forest loss was slightly lower than in 2018, 2019 was the third highest total annual loss ever recorded.
Most of the primary forest loss in the DRC still appears to be in cyclical agricultural areas that typically feed local populations, but evidence is emerging that some of it may be related to large-scale commercial logging, mining and plantations. The loss of primary forests in DRC's protected areas has increased slightly, especially in reserves and hunting grounds that have less financial resources to enforce the rules than national parks. Meanwhile in the east of the country there is increased demographic pressure from displaced people and conflict.
West Africa has seen a promising downward trend following last year's sharp increase in the loss of primary forests. Both Ghana and Côte d'Ivoire reduced the loss of primary forests by more than 50% in 2019 compared to the previous year. A number of positive initiatives could be responsible for the negative trend: the REDD+ programmes and the commitments from both countries and major cocoa and chocolate companies to end deforestation. A year's decline is encouraging, but time will tell whether these efforts will have a lasting impact.
Indonesia maintained lower losses for the third year in a row
In positive terms, the loss of primary forests in Indonesia decreased by 5% in 2019 compared to the previous year, marking it the third consecutive year of lower losses. Indonesia has not seen such low levels of primary forest loss since the turn of the century.
The decrease comes despite the intense fire season, which in previous years led to large areas of primary forest loss. While some year-end fire damage may not be detected until 2020, three consecutive years of historically low losses suggest that Indonesia may have made a breakthrough in its efforts to reduce deforestation.
Colombia has shown signs of reducing the dramatic loss of forests
Colombia also saw a significant decrease in primary forest loss in 2019, offering hope that the country could change course after the heavy forest losses from the previous two years. The loss of primary forests in Colombia increased rapidly after the 2016 peace agreement between the government and FARC, which ended the violent conflict, but also led to a power vacuum on previously occupied land in the Amazon.
The reversal of this trend suggests that the actions of the Colombian government could have an impact. The country has set itself ambitious targets both to reduce deforestation and to plant millions of trees in deforested areas. In April 2019, the President of Colombia launched "Operation Artemisa", which employs the military, police and other public bodies to stop deforestation in the country's national parks, although its activities are not without controversy.
Despite the decline, Colombia's struggle to reduce deforestation is far from over. The loss of Colombia's primary forests in 2019 was still greater than any year before the peace agreement, with large losses reported in some protected areas and the continuation of deforestation operations for land grabbing and livestock farming. The number of near real-time deforestation alerts in Colombia was unusually high in the first part of 2020, raising fears that the decline in primary forest loss may be short-term.
Australian fires have caused a disconcerting loss of tree cover
Outside the tropics, the fires have set Australia on fire in late 2019 and early 2020, causing a massive loss of tree cover. 2019 was by far the worst year in Australia, with a six-fold increase in tree cover loss compared to the previous year. And the real impact of the Australian fires on tree cover loss is probably worse, as the fires that lasted until 2020 are not reported in the data.
Now is the time to double the protection for forests
Despite the clear successes achieved by some countries in containing and curbing the loss of forests, the figures of 2019 highlight one fact: the fight to contain the loss of tropical forests is far from over.
Most countries and companies will fail to meet their 2020 forest commitments, and the loss of primary tropical forests will remain higher than ever. The Coronavirus pandemic will pose an additional threat to the world's forests in the months and years to come. In the short term, forests could be affected by a lack of law enforcement, resulting in a higher rate of illegal logging and fires. In the medium term, economic decline and stimuli may result in greater forest loss, while countries seek to stimulate their economies with extractive industries, as was the case in Indonesia during the Asian financial crisis.
Instead of sacrificing forests in the quest for economic recovery, which will only lead to future complications for the health and livelihoods of millions of people around the world, governments can rebuild better. Investing in the restoration and sound management of forests will create jobs, help make economies more sustainable and protect the forest ecosystems our world needs.