In the year to July 2018, Brazil lost 790,000 hectares of rainforest, a 13.7 per cent rise on the previous year and the worst annual deforestation figures in a decade. Elsewhere in the tropics, the picture is just as alarming. In 2018, according to the World Resources Institute (WRI), the world collectively lost 12m ha of rainforest cover. In Indonesia, chiefly in the province of Papua, the proportional loss is even higher than the Amazon, at 10.8 per cent. The Congo basin, an area running from the west of Cameron to Uganda in the east, has lost 5.9 per cent of its cover since 2010, equating to 692,700 ha every year. Critically important primary rainforest, also known as old-growth tropical forest, which holds more carbon than younger forests and which have an important cooling effect, declined by nearly 3.65m ha in 2018, which is slightly higher than the 15-year average annual figure.
All this makes harrowing reading for anyone who had dared to hope that a decade of falling deforestation rates meant a corner had been turned. Deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon fell by 70 per cent between 2005 and 2015 (though this still meant more forest was lost each year). As recently as 2017, deforestation rates in the Amazon fell 16 per cent year on year.
Deforestation confounds the environmental movement. Never before have forests been so high up the political and social agenda; never have rainforests enjoyed so much protection, been monitored in such detail by satellite or people been so mobilised to support them.
Important laws include the European Timber Regulation, which came into force in 2013 and prohibits operators in Europe from placing illegally harvested timber and related products on the EU market. Meanwhile, the 2006 Amazon Soy Moratorium bans traders from purchasing soya grown in the Amazon on land deforested after 2008. Although the moratorium has its detractors, supporters say it has resulted in a spectacular drop in deforestation. In Indonesia a three-year moratorium on new licences for oil palm plantations was passed in 2018. Above all, the overarching framework of the 2015 Paris Agreement sees the protection of rainforests as one of the key tools with which to limit global temperature rises.
Given all this, why is deforestation not only continuing but increasing? Environmentalists and scientists are commendably candid. ‘It’s about getting the right combination of sticks and carrots,’ says Simon Counsell, director of Rainforest Foundation UK. ‘Clearly we haven’t been getting it right as forests are still falling.’
‘It’s really hard to sustain a durable slowdown of deforestation,’ says Professor Matthew Hansen, Department of Geographical Sciences, University of Maryland. ‘You have to win all the battles all the time, otherwise the forests will be lost.’
It appears goodwill, knowledge and even laws are not, by themselves, suffi cient. ‘We know the figures,’ says Hansen. ‘Thanks to satellite imagery we can pretty much
18 • Geographical tell what trees are taken out on a given day. We thought that would be the game changer but it hasn’t. Signing pieces of paper hasn’t translated into good progress.’ Those pieces of paper matter, says Frances Seymour, senior fellow at the WRI. ‘The truth is that all the tools we have are weaker than they appear on paper,’ says Seymour. ‘We aren’t marshalling resources commensurate to the drivers of the problem. The investment flows, economic interests for business as usual, totally dwarf the finance going into protecting forests. Just two per cent of all climate change money goes to forests. It’s alarming that we have made no progress at all in stopping the loss of primary rainforest, given we know the value of them.’
Virtually all rainforest loss is driven by human activity, the key drivers remaining the same for decades: cattle ranching, the growth of demand in soy (used for animal feed for beef, sheep and chickens), palm oil (oil palm is the world’s most productive oil crop), as well as fires deliberately started to clearing forests. In all, 80 per cent of global deforestation is a direct result of agricultural production.
50%The amount – at least – of native vegetation lost in the Cerrado as soy companies, unable to plant in the Amazon, seek pastures new
Brazil’s Cerrado region is providing an alternative for companies facing restrictions in the Amazon
In Asia, palm oil is the key driver, with rainforests cleared and peatlands dried out. In its 2017 report, For Peat’s Sake, Rainforest Foundation Norway pointed out how for decades the palm oil industry in Southeast Asia has been inextricably linked to deforestation, habitat loss and peat destruction. Rubber is also a growing threat in Asia, as well as in the Congo basin.
At least 50 million hectares of forest has been destroyed for commodities over the past ten years, according to a Greenpeace report published this summer (2019). The report, Countdown to Extinction, asserts that since 2010, production and consumption of agricultural commodities linked to deforestation – including cattle, soya, palm oil, rubber and cocoa – has