In 2019, an area of primary or virgin forest equivalent to a soccer field was lost every six seconds in the tropics. Ten courts in just one minute.
The data is from the new report released by Global Forest Watch, a real-time forest monitoring platform owned by the World Resources Institute, based in Washington.
Last year, 11.9 million hectares of forest were lost in the tropics in general, says the report, prepared on the basis of satellite data analyzed by the University of Maryland.
About a third of that loss, 3.8 million hectares, corresponded to primary forests. And Latin America played a fundamental role in this history of destruction.
A third of all the loss of tropical primary forest globally in 2019 took place in Brazil. And another case highlighted by the report is the "massive" loss of forest in Bolivia.
At a global level, the report indicates that the loss of primary forest in 2019 represents a global increase of 2.8% compared to the previous year. And while it was lower than in the record years of 2016 and 2017, it is the third worst loss rate in the last 20 years.
What exactly is a primary forest?
The primary forest has unique characteristics that explain why its loss causes irreversible damage.
“When we speak of primary forest we mean a mature forest, which has been there for many decades and in which there has been no human intervention in the recent past.”Explained Mikaela Weisse, analyst at Global Forest Watch.
These native forests are not only important for the oxygen they provide and for their rich biodiversity. They are also natural carbon sinks with a great capacity to absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and mitigate climate change.
“We know that primary forests store twice as much carbon as non-primary forests. And the flora and fauna that are adapted to primary forests, such as jaguars or orangutans, cannot live in other types of ecosystems.“.
When trees are burned or decomposed, they release carbon into the atmosphere.
Weisse noted that the 2019 loss of primary forest is associated with an increase in carbon dioxide equivalent to the emissions of 400 million cars in the same period.
The five worst in Latin America
The report highlights among the 10 nations with the highest losses of tropical primary forest in 2019 to the following Latin American countries.
You can find the data for each country included in the report here
“What worries me most in the case of Brazil is that it accounts for a third of all primary forest loss in the tropics. Is awesome”Weisse said.
Apart from 2016 and 2017, when there were unprecedented losses from fires, 2019 was Brazil's worst year for primary forests in 13 years.
The August 2019 fires in the Amazon were not the main cause of primary forest loss in Brazil, as many of those fires occurred in areas already affected by deforestation.
But one form of primary forest loss that did increase rapidly in the Brazilian Amazon in the last year is logging for agriculture and other land uses.
The report's authors also noted something new in 2019: the destruction of primary forest in indigenous territories, especially in the state of Pará.
According to Weisse, these outbreaks are linked to mining and illegal land grabbing.
For Frances Seymour, a forest specialist at the World Resources Institute, forest loss in indigenous territories in Brazil shows the importance of the signals that governments give.
President Jair Bolsonaro presented a bill to Congress in February that would allow mining and hydroelectric dams in indigenous territories.
“Something that we see more and more clearly in our data is how the presence of indigenous peoples tends to have a protective function of forest cover, even more so when indigenous territories are recognized.”Seymour stated.
“But if a government gives the signal that it intends to fulfill the electoral promise to open indigenous territories to mining, the people receive that signal and incursions are recorded.”.
The total forest loss in this country was 80% higher than the previous record (in 2016) since Global Forest Watch began monitoring forests in 2002.
“One of the biggest stories in the report this year is the massive loss of forest in Bolivia due to the catastrophic fires of 2019Seymour pointed out.
The fires were mainly registered in the Santa Cruz region. Many fires were started by burning forest for agriculture, but spread uncontrollably due to strong winds and droughts.
The Bolivian government introduced measures in recent years to promote the expansion of agriculture, including a relaxation of restrictions on controlled burning months before the 2019 fires.
“I don't think it's a coincidence that the fires occurred after the government relaxed restrictions on burning forest for agriculture.”Seymour stated.
The report's authors highlight the loss due to fires in 2019 of about 12% of the Chiquitano dry forest, the largest tropical dry forest in the world, which is almost entirely in Bolivia, mainly in the department of Santa Cruz.
From 2002 to 2019, Colombia lost 1.5 million hectares of humid primary forest, 36% of the total forest loss in that period, according to the report.
The loss of primary forest in 2019 was less than the high rates recorded in the previous two years.
The destruction of virgin forest in Colombia increased rapidly after the 2016 peace agreement, which according to Weisse "left a power vacuum on previously occupied lands in the Amazon."
In April 2019, the government launched Operation Artemis to control deforestation in national parks with the participation of the military.
But this initiative has also generated controversy and accusations of burning houses and violation of the rights of peasant communities settled in protected areas.
Despite the reduction in forest loss compared to the previous year, Weisse notes that “there are reports from organizations in Colombia that say that in 2020 the deforestation rate rose again”.
From 2002 to 2019, Peru lost 1.9 million hectares of humid primary forest, 65% of the total forest loss in that period.
“In 2019 we saw a 15% increase in Peru in primary forest loss compared to last year "Weisse noted.
The departments with the greatest loss of forest cover were Loreto, San Martín and Ucayali.
“In Ucayali we see mostly small-scale agriculture and also new ways to extract wood”Added the Global Forest Watch analyst.
“2019 saw the highest rate of primary forest loss in the country since we started our monitoring in 2002”Weisse said.
“We saw quite a few fires in Campeche and Chiapas, for example”.
From 2002 to 2019, Mexico lost 594,000 hectares of humid primary forest, 15% of the total loss of forest cover. The total area of humid primary forest decreased by 5.7% in this period.
Campeche was the state with the greatest loss of forest cover in general, followed by Chiapas, Quintana Roo and Yucatán.
The positive lesson of Indonesia
Outside of Latin America, the report highlights the devastating impact of the Australia fires of late last year and early 2020.
Forest loss increased sixfold in that country in 2019 compared to the previous year.
But there was also good news for Indonesia, where forest loss fell for the third year in a row.
The Indonesian government introduced new measures after the devastating fires of 2015 that took place mainly in areas of peat, a type of moist soil that stores a lot of carbon and burns easily, releasing large amounts of smoke.
The 2015 fires would have caused more than 100,000 premature deaths from respiratory problems due to the smoke cloud that covered vast regions of Southeast Asia, according to 2016 estimates from Harvard and Columbia Universities.
“We must not minimize the importance of government efforts after the trauma of the 2015 fires, which led to the extension of a moratorium on the burning of peat areas and the destruction of primary forest for oil palm plantations.”Seymour stated.
The positive example of the changes in Indonesia shows why “the level of forest loss globally in 2019 is not acceptable”, He added. "We know how to combat this problem”.
“The example of Indonesia shows that if a government gives a clear signal and enforces the law, it is reflected on the ground.”.
“But if a government relaxes restrictions on forest burning and signals its intentions to open indigenous territories to commercial exploitation, then forest destruction increases.”.
The impact of the pandemic
The authors of the report warn of a new threat to the planet's forests: covid-19.
In the short term, the lack of patrol operations on the ground may result in an increase in illegal slash and burn, Weisse said.
In the medium term, the risk is that countries will try to stimulate their economies by promoting extractive industries, as Indonesia did after the Asian financial crisis in the 1990s.
But the pandemic can also be an opportunity to “rebuild something better than there was before”.
Instead of sacrificing forests for economic recovery, governments should invest in forest restoration to create more sustainable economies and ecosystems, Weisse said.
Source: BBC News