Around 12 million hectares of tropical rain forest were lost in 2018, according to report by Global Forest Watch, which gives a bleak picture of what is happening in South America, West and Central Africa and Indonesia.
Of particular concern were so-called primary forests, of which an area the size of Belgium was lost in 2018.
Primary forests, which are also known as old growth forests, consist of trees which are hundreds and sometimes even thousands of years old and have been virtually untouched by humans. Primary forests are critical in sustaining biodiversity and are home to an incredibly diverse number of species including large endangered mammals such as jaguars, tigers and orangutans.
Old growth forests are also one of the most important stores of carbon dioxide in the world, and their loss will only accelerate global warming.
“For every hectare of forest loss, we are one step closer to the scary scenarios of runaway climate change,” Frances Seymour, from the World Resources Institute, who run Global Forest Watch, told the BBC.
Deforestation – A Complex Picture
However, the data shows a complex picture that is not the same across all tropical countries. For example, in Brazil and Indonesia, there was a reduction in primary forest loss, while The Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Columbia, Bolivia and Peru all saw large increases in the loss of old growth forests.
In Columbia, this was mainly due to the peace process with the FARC guerrillas, which has seen areas once held by them opened up for development. In Ghana deforestation was mainly because of small-scale gold mining and cocoa farming.
In many countries round the world, the loss of forests also means that people who rely on them are pushed out and their traditional homeland is relocated by big businesses and their interests.
“All too often the loss of an area of forest is also associated with a funeral because every year hundreds of people are murdered when they try to stop the miners, loggers, ranchers and other commercial interests from appropriating their forest wealth – the moral imperative to act on these numbers is unquestionable and urgent,” Seymour explains.
In Brazil forest loss occurred close to supposedly protected indigenous territories, the Ituna Itata reserve, home to one of the world’s last independent tribes, had more than 4,000 hectares of tree cover illegally chopped down.
But Indonesia has seen an increase in effectiveness of law enforcement with protected areas seeing a big decline in deforestation. Overall Indonesia managed to reduce primary forest loss by 40%, the lowest rate since 2003.
“Our law enforcement is another policy that shows we take it seriously. In the country, there are several companies that have been punished or have had a letter from the government, so we are really trying on law enforcement,” Dr Belinda Margono, from the Indonesian Ministry of Environment and Forestry, told the BBC.
Overall, 2018 saw a slight decline in primary forest loss compared to 2016, the worst year on record, but Seymour warned against any kind of complacency.
“If you look back over the last 18 years, it is clear that the overall trend is still upwards. We are nowhere near winning this battle,” he said.