Tropical forest the size of England destroyed last year

Pace of loss is similar to 30 football fields disappearing every minute in 2018

PARIS • Last year, humanity destroyed an expanse of tropical forest nearly the size of England, the fourth-largest decline since global satellite data became available in 2001, researchers reported.

The pace of the loss is staggering - the equivalent of 30 football fields disappearing every minute of every day last year, or a total of 120,000 sq km.

Almost a third of that area, some 36,000 sq km, was pristine primary rainforest, according to the annual assessment from scientists at Global Forest Watch, based at the University of Maryland.

"For the first time, we can distinguish tree-cover loss within undisturbed natural rainforests, which contain trees that can be hundreds, even thousands, of years old," team manager Mikaela Weisse told Agence France-Presse.

Rainforests are the planet's richest repository of wildlife and a critical sponge for soaking up planet-heating carbon dioxide (CO2).

Despite a slew of countermeasures at both the national and international levels, deforestation has continued largely unabated since the beginning of the century.

Global forest loss peaked in 2016, fuelled in part by El Nino weather conditions and uncontrolled fires in Brazil and Indonesia.

The main drivers are the livestock industry and large-scale commodity agriculture - palm oil in Asia and Africa, soya beans and biofuel crops in South America.

Small-scale commercial farming - of cocoa, for example - can also lead to the clearing of forests.

A quarter of tropical tree-cover loss last year occurred in Brazil, with the Democratic Republic of Congo and Indonesia each accounting for about 10 per cent.

Malaysia and Madagascar also saw high levels of deforestation last year. Nearly a third of primary forest destruction took place in Brazil (13,500 sq km), with the Democratic Republic of Congo (4,800 sq km), Indonesia (3,400 sq km), Colombia (1,800 sq km) and Bolivia (1,500 sq km) rounding out the top five.

Madagascar lost 2 per cent of its entire rainforest last year.

Globally, forests absorb about 30 per cent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, just over 11 billion tonnes of CO2 a year. Oceans are also a major "sink", soaking up another 23 per cent.

Burning or clear-cutting vast tracts of tropical forest not only releases carbon into the atmosphere, but it also reduces the size of the sponge that can absorb CO2.

One bright spot in the report was Indonesia, which recorded a 63 per cent drop in primary-forest loss compared with 2016. In 2015, massive forest fires on Sumatra, Borneo and other Indonesian islands levelled 20,000 sq km and generated deadly pollution over a large swathe of South-east Asia.

In Brazil, however, trend lines are moving in the wrong direction. "Our data shows a big spike in forest loss in 2016 and 2017 related to man-made fires," Ms Weisse said of Brazil.

"Shockingly, we are also seeing invasions into indigenous lands that have been immune to deforestation for years."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 27, 2019, with the headline Tropical forest the size of England destroyed last year. Subscribe