For yet another year, the world lost a ridiculous amount of tree cover in 2017. New data shows that over 15.8 million hectares (39 million acres) – an area the size of Bangladesh – of tree cover was lost in the tropics during 2017. That’s around 40 football fields of trees every single minute.
A massive new report from Global Forest Watch and the University of Maryland has used masses of satellite data to keep tabs on the rate of tree cover loss across the globe, either due to human activity or natural causes such as fires.
Their damning findings show that 2017 was the second-worst year on record, only beaten by 2016. While that does mean tree cover loss is narrowly down from the previous year, the situation is far from resolved.
This rate of tree cover loss is disastrous for wildlife, indigenous people, and the Earth's battle against climate change. Forests play a vital role in storing carbon, helping to absorb carbon emissions created by human activity. The report notes that forest conservation could potentially do 30 percent of the work towards the goals set by the Paris Climate Agreement. However, not enough money or energy is being put into tackling the problem.
“We are trying to put out a house fire with a teaspoon,” said Frances Seymour at the World Resources Institute, which runs Global Forest Watch, according to The Guardian. “This is truly an urgent issue that should be getting more attention.”
Yet again, Brazil topped the charts with rates of tree cover loss remaining historically high. Much of this is due to fires. The vast majority of fires were started by people to clear land for agricultural production of soy, cattle, palm oil, and wood. This is often done illegally and under the radar, fueled by local corruption. Climate change also plays a role by leading to more droughts and leaving the landscape more susceptible to forest fires.
The country with the second-highest tree cover loss was the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which reached a record high in 2017, up 6 percent from the previous year.
Colombia also saw a particularly worrying spike in tree cover loss with a 46 percent rise compared to 2016. Much of this trend is political. Last year, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) was squashed and disarmed. This powerful rebel group controlled huge portions of remote forest and tightly controlled commercial use of the land. With the FARC gone, multiple small armed groups flooded in and began to exploit the land, illegally clearing it for cocoa farming, mining, and logging.
However, it’s not all bad news. Indonesia experienced a 60 percent drop in tree cover loss in 2017, namely thanks to a temporary prohibition on peat drainage in protected areas. 2017 was also a non-El Niño year, which brought exceptional rainfall to the area and fewer fires compared to past years.