Last year was the second-worst on record for tropical tree cover loss, according to new data from the University of Maryland, released today on Global Forest Watch. In total, the tropics experienced 15.8 million hectares (39.0 million acres) of tree cover loss in 2017, an area the size of Bangladesh. That’s the equivalent of losing 40 football fields of trees every minute for an entire year.
The World Resources Institute warns: despite concerted efforts to reduce tropical deforestation, tree cover loss has been rising steadily in the tropics over the past 17 years. Natural disasters like fires and tropical storms are playing an increasing role, especially as climate change makes them more frequent and severe. But clearing of forests for agriculture and other uses continues to drive large-scale deforestation.
Colombia faced one of the most dramatic increases in tree cover loss of any country, with a 46 percent rise compared to 2016, and more than double the rate of loss from 2001-2015. Almost half of the increase happened in just three regions on the border of the Amazon biome (Meta, Guaviare and Caquetá), with new hotspots of loss advancing into previously untouched areas.
The rapid increase in tree cover loss happened as peace came to the country. Last year, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), the country’s largest rebel group, was pushed out of large amounts of remote forest they previously controlled.
Brazil experienced its second-highest rate of tree cover loss in 2017, after a prominent spike in 2016.
The rise comes despite declining deforestation rates, and is mainly due to fires in the Amazon. The Amazon region had more fires in 2017 than any year since recording began in 1999, causing 31 percent of the region’s tree cover loss according to University of Maryland data, which for the first time attributed specific instances of tree cover loss to fires. Almost all fires in the region were set by people to clear land for pasture or agriculture. Lack of enforcement on prohibitions of fires and deforestation, political and economic uncertainty, and the current administration’s roll-back of environmental protections are likely contributors to the high amount of fires and related tree cover loss.
Unlike most tropical forests, Indonesia experienced a drop in tree cover loss in 2017, including a 60 percent decline in primary forest loss. While some provinces in Sumatra still saw increased primary forest loss—including 7,500 hectares (18,500 acres) in the Kerinci Seblat National Park— provinces in Kalimantan and Papua experienced a reduction. The decrease is likely due in part to the national peat drainage moratorium, in effect since 2016. Primary forest loss in protected peat areas went down by 88 percent between 2016 and 2017, reaching the lowest level ever recorded.
Tree cover loss in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) reached a record high in 2017, increasing 6 percent from 2016. Agriculture, artisanal logging and charcoal production drove the tree cover loss, with nearly 70 percent of it occurring in agricultural areas known as the rural complex. While shifting cultivation does not necessarily indicate expansion into primary forest, growing populations can intensify agricultural practices, thus reducing fallow periods where trees regrow naturally. Our analysis also showed that in 2017, 3 percent of overall tree cover loss occurred in protected areas and 10 percent within logging concessions.