An area of pristine rainforest the size of the Netherlands was burned or hacked down last year, as the destruction of the planet’s tropical forests accelerated despite a global economic slowdown, according to new research.
The worst losses were in Brazil, three times higher than the next highest country, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, according to a report published on Wednesday from Global Forest Watch based on satellite data.
Across the tropics, the study registered the destruction in 2020 of 4.2 million hectares (10.4 million acres) of primary forest – 12 percent higher than the year before.
Ecosystems straddling the equator shelter abundant biodiversity and store vast amounts of carbon.
In total, the tropics lost 12.2 million hectares of tree cover – including forests and plantations – last year, driven largely by agriculture.
But researchers said extreme heat and drought also stoked huge fires that consumed swaths of forest across Australia, Siberia and deep into the Amazon.
These losses are a “climate emergency. They’re a biodiversity crisis, a humanitarian disaster, and a loss of economic opportunity,” said Frances Seymour of the World Resources Institute, which is behind the report.
The study found some evidence that COVID-19 restrictions may have had an effect around the world – with an increase in illegal harvesting because forests were left less protected, or the return of large numbers of people to rural areas.
But researchers said there was little sign that the pandemic had changed the trajectory of forest destruction and warned that the worst could be still to come if countries slash protections in an attempt to ramp up economic growth.
Seymour said the most “ominous signal” from the 2020 data is the instances of forests themselves falling victim to climate change.
“I mean, wetlands are burning,” she said in a press briefing.
“Nature has been whispering this risk to us for a long time. But now she is shouting.”
Plants – especially in the tropics – and soil comprise an enormous carbon sink, sucking up roughly a third of all the carbon pollution humans produce annually.
Yet tropical forests continue to disappear rapidly, threatening irreparable losses to Earth’s crucial biodiversity.
Researchers said the destruction of tropical primary forests in 2020 released 2.64 billion tonnes of CO2 in 2020, equal to the annual emissions of India or 570 million cars, more than double the number on the road in the United States.
“The longer we wait to stop deforestation, and get other sectors on to net-zero trajectories, the more likely it is that our natural carbon sinks will go up in smoke,” Seymour said.
Brazil, where far-right President Jair Bolsonaro has cut funding for environmental programmes and pushed to open protected Amazon lands to agribusiness and mining, lost 1.7 million hectares of primary forest in 2020, an increase of 25 percent from 2019, the report said.
“Brazil, having achieved a huge reduction in deforestation in the Amazon, is now seeing an unravelling of that success, and it’s heartbreaking,” said Seymour.
Much of the loss was in the Amazon, including new areas that were deliberately cleared.
Neighbouring Bolivia rose to number three with nearly 276,900 hectares lost, mainly due to fires. As in Brazil, most fires were likely set by people to clear land but burned out of control due to drought and hot weather.
Meanwhile, in Colombia, ranked sixth, primary forest loss rose in 2020 to nearly 166,500 hectares after a dip in 2019.
“There is a lot of land grabbing,” said Mikaela Weisse, a project manager at the Global Forest Watch monitoring service, run by the World Resources Institute.
The DRC, in second place, lost 490,000 hectares of primary forest in 2020. Like previous years, most was caused by the expansion of small-scale agriculture and wood energy demand, including charcoal production.
Indonesia, which has the world’s third-largest tropical forests and is its largest oil-palm grower, fell from third to fourth place with primary forest loss at just over 270,000 hectares, showing a fourth straight year of declines.
The fall was down to government policies including a moratorium on clearing primary forest and a freeze on permits for oil palm plantations, improvements in law enforcement and land rights, and use of technologies to tackle forest fires, said Arief Wijaya, forests senior manager at WRI Indonesia.
Forest loss also dropped for the fourth year in neighbouring Malaysia, ranked ninth place, to nearly 73,000 hectares.
Malaysia, which has lost nearly a fifth of its primary forest since 2001, set a five-year cap on palm oil plantations in 2019 and plans to toughen forest laws by increasing fines and jail terms for illegal logging.
The downward trend in Indonesia and Malaysia was not visible in other Southeast Asian countries, however, with Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar showing sustained or higher levels of deforestation.
“We are seeing these pretty significant declines in both Indonesia and Malaysia that really aren’t playing out in other parts of the world,” said Weisse.