Fires to clear land lead to near-record loss of tree cover in 2017, study shows

Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest at the Kuikuro territory in the Xingu National Park, Mato Grosso, Brazil, on Oct 4, 2015.
Smoke billows during a fire in an area of the Amazon rainforest at the Kuikuro territory in the Xingu National Park, Mato Grosso, Brazil, on Oct 4, 2015.PHOTO: REUTERS

OSLO (REUTERS) - Burning of forests to make way for farms from the Amazon to the Congo basin caused a loss of global tree cover amounting to an area almost the size of Italy in 2017, an independent forest monitoring network said on Wednesday.

Tree cover loss, mostly in the tropics, totalled 294,000 square kilometres last year, just short of a record 297,000 sq kms in 2016, according to Global Forest Watch, run by the US-based World Resources Institute (WRI).

"Tropical forests were lost at a rate equivalent to 40 football fields per minute" in 2017, Frances Seymour, of the WRI, told a news conference before a June 27-28 meeting of 500 experts in Oslo on slowing deforestation.

Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo, Indonesia, Madagascar and Malaysia suffered the biggest losses in 2017, it said, based on satellite data. The study omits, however, how far tree plantings or new growth offset the losses.

"Vast areas continue to be cleared for soy, beef, palm oil and other globally traded commodities. Much of this clearing is illegal," Seymour said. "We are trying to put out a housefire with a teaspoon," she said of global efforts to protect forests.

Brazil alone lost 45,000 sq km of tree cover, down 16 per cent from a record in 2016. Fires raged in the southern Amazon region of Brazil, many of them set to clear land for agriculture, the study said.

Unlike most of the world's tropical forests, Indonesia saw a drop in tree cover loss in 2017, including a 60 per cent decline in primary forest loss, the report said. Primary forest loss in protected peat areas went down by 88 per cent between 2016 and 2017, reaching the lowest level ever recorded. 

It said the decrease was likely due to the government's efforts such as its blanket ban on the cultivation of carbon-rich peatlands across the country in 2016 and that last year (2017). In addition, last year was not an El Nino year, resulting in wetter conditions and fewer fires compared to past years.


Many countries around the world are trying to plant more forests to achieve goals under the 200-nation Paris climate agreement in 2015 to limit a rise in temperatures. Trees soak up carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as they grow.

Tree cover, however, is just one measure of the state of the world's forests.

The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization says the loss of forests worldwide slowed to just a net 33,000 square kms a year from 2010-15, with annual losses of 76,000 sq km offset by annual gains of 43,000.

Among differences, the FAO says that a forest where trees are deliberately felled to make way for new plantings is still a forest. Global Forest Watch registers the felling as tree cover loss.

Anssi Pekkarinen, a senior forestry officer of the FAO, said that the FAO method of identifying the underlying land use"gives a much more comprehensive picture on the world's forests."