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Tropical Forests Were Lost at a Near-Record Rate in 2017

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Tropical forests had a pretty shitty year in 2017. They were battered by hurricanes, lit up by wildfires, and logged over. All told, 39 million acres of tropical tree cover disappeared in 2017, marking the second largest annual decline in tree cover in the tropics on record.

The finding that a Bangladesh-sized hunk of forest cover disappeared comes from a new World Resources Institute (WRI) analysis released on Wednesday. The analysis, which compared recent satellite imagery to previous years, shows the trend of declining tree cover in the tropics continues, posing a number of local and global problems.


The largest loss of tree cover—which includes both natural forests and plantations—occurred in Brazil. Though it declined compared to a record-high amount of forest loss in 2016, it’s clear that fires continue to take a toll on the Amazon. The combination of natural and manmade fires used to clear land for crops like soybeans were largely responsible for wiping out nearly 7.4 million acres of forest in 2017, an area more than three times as big as Yellowstone National Park.

Drought has created increasingly favorable conditions for fire, which is creating increasingly unfavorable conditions for the Amazon and our global climate. Fires in the Amazon released a billion tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere between 2003-15, and the drying trend will only cause emissions to continue. The 2015-16 super El Niño, which tends to dry out the Amazon, also caused huge carbon losses (and there’s another, milder El Niño potentially on tap for later this year).


Elsewhere in Latin America, Colombia’s new peace deal has unfortunately led to the biggest increase in deforestation in the world. The Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) controlled a large portion of the country and kept tight regulations on land use in that area. But with the 2016 peace deal, WRI researcher wrote “a power vacuum has emerged, leading to illegal clearing for pasture and coca, mining and logging by other armed groups.”

Old FARC trails used to mask their movements deep in the forest are also facilitating access to previously undisturbed areas. All told, the country saw a 46 percent leap in tree cover loss compared to 2016 (which itself was the record holder for the biggest annual loss until 2017 came around) showing how even good geopolitical outcomes can have unintended unfortunate consequences.

Nature has also taken its toll on forests (albeit nature perhaps with a climate change boost). The 2017 hurricane season won’t be forgotten for its human toll, but it also wrought havoc on forests in the Caribbean. Hurricanes Maria and Irma denuded large areas of tropical forest in Puerto Rico and Barbuda. An aerial survey in April of Puerto Rico’s forests showed they’re still a long ways from recovery.


No matter the cause, the loss of tropical forests is troubling. They provide local ecosystem services from flood control to food that many communities rely on. Globally, tropical forests also help sequester massive amounts of carbon dioxide and we need to keep them healthy if we want to limit the impacts of climate change.

It’s not all bad news for tropical forests, though. The WRI report shows that Indonesia, one of the world’s deforestation hot spots, saw a huge decline in tree cover loss owing largely to a 2016 moratorium on draining peatlands and burning them. And even though Colombia has seen a major uptick in deforestation, help may be on the way. The country’s Supreme Court ruled the Amazon has intrinsic rights that need to be respected, just like yours and mine. The court mandated that the country had to come up with a plan to address deforestation as well as the impacts of climate change.


The new results from WRI show they better get that plan together ASAP.