Fri, Apr 26, 2019 - Page 7 News List

Tropical forest the size of England destroyed last year


Last year humanity destroyed an expanse of tropical forest nearly the size of England, the third-largest decline since global satellite data become available in 2001, researchers reported yesterday.

The pace of the loss is staggering — the equivalent of 30 football fields disappearing every minute, or 12 million hectares a year.

Almost one-third of that area, about 36,000km2, was pristine primary rainforest, according to the annual assessment from scientists at Global Forest Watch, based at the University of Maryland.

“For the first time, we can distinguish tree cover loss within undisturbed natural rainforests, which contain trees that can be hundreds, even thousands of years old,” team manager Mikaela Weisse said.

Rainforests are the planet’s richest repository of wildlife and a critical sponge for soaking up planet-heating carbon dioxide.

Despite a slew of counter-measures at national and international levels, deforestation has continued largely unabated since the beginning of the century.

Global forest loss peaked in 2016, fueled in part by El Nino weather conditions and uncontrolled fires in Brazil and Indonesia.

The main drivers are the livestock industry and large-scale commodity agriculture: palm oil in Asia and Africa, soy beans and biofuel crops in South America.

Small-scale commercial farming — of cocoa, for example — can also lead to the clearing of forests.

Last year, one-quarter of tropical tree cover loss occurred in Brazil, with the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DR Congo) and Indonesia each accounting for about 10 percent.

Malaysia and Madagascar also saw high levels of deforestation.

Nearly one-third of primary forest destruction took place in Brazil (13,500km2), with the DR Congo (4,800km2), Indonesia (3,400km2), Colombia (1,800km2) and Bolivia (1,500km2) rounding out the top five.

Madagascar lost 2 percent of its entire rainforest last year.

“The world’s forests are now in the emergency room,” said Frances Seymour, a distinguished senior fellow at the World Resources Institute, an environmental-policy think tank based in Washington.

“The health of the planet is at stake, and band aid responses are not enough,” she said. “With every hectare lost, we are that much closer to the scary scenario of runaway climate change.”

Globally, forests absorb about 30 percent of man-made greenhouse gas emissions, just more than 11 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

Oceans are also a major “sink,” soaking up another 23 percent.

Burning or clear-cutting vast tracts of tropical forest not only releases carbon into the atmosphere, it reduces the size of the sponge that can absorb carbon dioxide.

One bright spot in the report was Indonesia, which lost 3,400km2 of primary forest last year — a 63 percent drop compared with 2016.

In 2015, massive forest fires on Sumatra, Borneo and other Indonesian islands leveled 20,000km2 and generated pollution over a large swathe of Southeast Asia.

However, in Brazil trend lines are moving in the wrong direction.

“Our data shows a big spike in forest loss in 2016 and 2017 related to man-made fires,” Weisse said. “Shockingly, we are also seeing invasions into indigenous lands that have been immune to deforestation for years.”

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who came into office in January, has vowed to curtail environmental regulations and allow commercial farming and mining on indigenous reserves, which comprise more than 10 percent of Brazil’s territory.

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