The world has lost tropical forest equivalent to the size of California over a 13-year period, environmental group World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) said on Wednesday, calling for COVID-19 recovery plans to revitalise conservation efforts.
In a new report, WWF analysed 24 deforestation hotspots across Asia, Latin America and Africa, and found that more than 43 million hectares (106 million acres) of forest were cleared in those areas between 2004 and 2017.
Fran Raymond Price,the global forest practice lead at WWF International, said the COVID-19 pandemic had made the links between deforestation and human health clearer in the past year.
“Where you have greater deforestation and land-use change, you have the risk of new diseases being more likely,” Price told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The WWF report – which used the best-quality data available over the past 20 years – found deforestation was taking place at the fastest rates in the Brazilian Amazon and in a vast swath of the country’s tropical savanna called Cerrado, the Bolivian Amazon, Paraguay, Argentina, Madagascar, and Sumatra and Borneo islands in Indonesia and Malaysia.
Commercial agriculture is the leading cause of deforestation globally, particularly large-scale farming, with forested areas cleared for livestock grazing and crop cultivation, it said.
While subsistence farming was a driver in Africa, it noted, in Asia the expansion of plantations and commercial agriculture were key factors.
“It’s the way we produce and consume food that is at the heart of the challenge we face,” said Price, singling out beef production, soy and palm oil as the main culprits.
In all the hotspots, infrastructure development – including the expansion of roads and mining – also fuelled deforestation, WWF said.
Protection of the world’s forests is seen as vital to curbing global warming as they store planet-heating carbon and help regulate the climate through rainfall and temperature.
Forests covered about half the earth’s land area 8,000 years ago but only 30 percent is now forested, Price noted.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, could serve as a trigger for greater action to safeguard forests, the report added.
“With this devastating pandemic, we also have the opportunity to build back better and really look at our relationship with nature and start to heal that relationship,” said Price.
The report urged people to play their part in combating deforestation by protecting nature where they live and avoiding products linked to deforestation by checking food labels.
Voters should also urge their leaders to champion policies aimed at halting deforestation and restoring forests, it added.
In addition, urgent action from governments, businesses and regulators was needed to secure land rights for Indigenous peoples and local communities, strengthen local control of forests and conserve biodiversity-rich areas, WWF said.
Measures should also be taken to ensure products sourced from forests are produced and traded legally, ethically and sustainably, to reform supply chains and to push more firms, lenders and investors to commit to zero deforestation, it added.
Other ways to curb deforestation, Price said, include reducing food waste, using degraded land to produce food, moving to ecological agriculture practices and focusing more on Indigenous and community-led conservation efforts.
“We need to transform our relationship with forests,” she added. “We are at a point where we are doing some soul-searching collectively … and now is the time.”