Forest Pulse

The Forest Pulse reveals the latest trends in tropical deforestation.

The latest trends in tropical deforestation:

2020 Projections

The GFR relies on annual tree cover loss data to derive official loss figures that are comparable over time, the most current of which runs through 2019. The 2020 data update will be released by Global Forest Watch in early 2021.

In the meantime, we draw on additional near-real-time sources of information to forecast 2020 trends, including GLAD deforestation alerts, recent high-resolution satellite imagery, and reporting from the field.

 

We currently see little evidence that 2020 will depart from the record levels of tropical primary forest loss that have been reported annually since 2016. In critical countries such as Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, forest loss does not appear to be slowing, and places such as Colombia and Indonesia may see a slight increase after trending downward in 2019. 

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Forecasting Tropical Deforestation Using GLAD Alerts

The GLAD deforestation alerts are a near-real-time monitoring system from the University of Maryland. These alerts detect forest disturbances on a weekly basis using Landsat satellite images at 30-meter resolution. The alerts were built to allow people working on the ground to respond to deforestation events as quickly as possible. Although the alerts have some limitations—which make it inadvisable to use them to establish deforestation trends—their locations can indicate where recent deforestation has happened and alert us to new areas of concern. 

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2020 GLAD alerts in the Leuser Ecosystem

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There has been much speculation about the potential impacts of COVID-19 on forests. Anecdotal reports of increased levels of illegal logging, mining, poaching, and other forest crimes can be found around the world as law enforcement authorities face limited mobility and constrained budgets due to the pandemic. There is not yet enough data to determine whether recent deforestation activity in the tropics represents an uptick from past years or how much if it can be attributed to COVID-19. Nevertheless, analysis of satellite data in places such as Prey Lang Wildlife Sanctuary in Cambodia and the Leuser Ecosystem in Indonesia indicate that deforestation continues apace in many areas.

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Fires engulf Brazil’s Pantanal biome

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Fires have also strongly impacted forests in 2020. Though some parts of the tropics, such as Indonesia, have experienced far fewer fires in 2020 compared to 2019, other areas have had fire seasons worse than or similar to last year, which we expect will impact the 2020 forest loss numbers. The Brazilian Amazon has had more fires this year than in 2019, with a significant share burning inside forests, and the Brazilian Pantanal and Bolivia have also been strongly impacted. Outside of the tropics, forests have experienced major damage from fires this year, particularly in the western United States.

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Stories to Watch

In advance of official 2020 tree cover loss data, below are the locations we’re following based on supplementary information, including GLAD deforestation alerts, recent high-resolution satellite imagery, and reporting from the field.

Bolivia

2020 brought more fires for Bolivia following a record-breaking 2019 season, prompting policy action from the President

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Bolivia experienced record-breaking tree cover loss due to fires in 2019, losing 80 percent more than the next-highest year on record. While the number of fires detected in Bolivia in 2020 is lower than the year before, many weeks were still considered “above average” compared to the past and prompted the government to declare a state of emergency in September. A significant share of the 2020 fires have burned in protected areas, including Noel Kempff Mercado National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The widespread fires are due to a combination of climatic conditions and human activity. Many of Bolivia’s fires were likely started by people—as they are every year to clear agricultural land for planting—but they spread out of control into forests and other ecosystems due to sustained winds and drought conditions

Large-scale agriculture, particularly for soy and cattle ranching, is a major driver of deforestation in Bolivia. In recent years, the Bolivian government has made several regulatory changes to promote the expansion of agriculture, including loosening restrictions on controlled burning just months before the 2019 fires. In response to the fires, Bolivia’s interim president repealed some of these regulations this September to “stop the deforestation and indiscriminate burning of our forests.” It remains to be seen whether these recent policy measures will have an impact in reducing fires and slowing deforestation in the future. 

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Brazilian Amazon

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon remained high, and 2020 may bring even greater impacts from fire than 2019

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Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon continued apace in 2020. According to data from Brazil’s National Space Research Institute (INPE), deforestation during the first ten months of 2020 has been on par with that of 2019—despite operations to bring in the military to curb deforestation in the Amazon. INPE had also detected more fires in the Amazon through October 2020 than in all of 2019. Notably, a significant share of the fires in 2020 have burned within forests – different than the year before when most occurred on already-deforested areas as farmers prepared land for agriculture and cattle pastures. The 2019 fires were not a major contributor to Brazil’s primary forest loss in that year, but it’s likely that loss due to forest fires will be more prominent in the 2020 data. Fires have also affected other Brazilian biomes like the Pantanal, a highly biodiverse wetland that has had nearly a quarter of its area burned this year, with potentially severe impacts for its human and non-human residents.

In 2019, Brazil single-handedly accounted for over a third of all loss of humid tropical primary forests worldwide, with more primary forest lost than in any other tropical country in 2019. Apart from 2016 and 2017, when forest fires resulted in unprecedented forest loss, 2019 was Brazil’s worst year for primary forests in 13 years. Much of the loss appears to be relatively large-scale clearings for pasture and agriculture.

Spatial analyses of the pattern of primary forest loss in 2019 also indicates troubling new hot spots of loss within indigenous territories in the state of Pará. In the Trincheira/Bacajá indigenous territory, deforestation as a result of illegal land grabbing accelerated in 2019 and appears to be continuing in 2020. Mining threatens forests in other Brazilian territories, such as Munduruku and Kayapó. Meanwhile, Brazil’s administration proposed new legislation in February that would allow commercial mining and oil and gas extraction within indigenous territories, though it would need to be approved by Congress to go into effect. 

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Brazil’s primary forest loss continues at high levels in 2019

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Hot spots of primary forest loss intersect with indigenous territories in Brazil

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The Democratic Republic of the Congo

Primary forest loss shows no sign of stopping in DRC, which experienced more primary forest loss in 2019 than any other country besides Brazil

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The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) experienced 475,000 hectares of primary forest loss in 2019, the third-highest total annual loss since the turn of the century.  Most of the primary forest loss in the DRC still appears to be linked to small-scale farming activities (usually shifting agriculture), which typically feeds local populations, but there is emerging evidence that some may be tied to large-scale commercial logging, mining, and plantations. Primary forest loss in the DRC’s protected areas increased slightly in 2019, especially in reserves and hunting areas, which have fewer financial resources than national parks for enforcing protection. It also increased in the eastern part of the country, where there is more population pressure from displaced persons and conflict.  

In 2020, primary forest loss caused by shifting agriculture shows no signs of stopping. GLAD alerts have continued to pick up loss along roadways as small-scale agriculture continues to cut farther into areas of previously undisturbed forests.

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West Africa

It’s not yet clear whether primary forest loss in West Africa, which declined dramatically from 2018 to 2019, continued downward through 2020

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West Africa experienced promising downward trends in primary forest loss in 2019 after a large increase in 2018. Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire both reduced primary forest loss by over 50 percent in 2019 compared to the previous year. A number of positive initiatives could be responsible, including REDD+ programs and pledges by both countries and major cocoa and chocolate companies to end deforestation. A one-year drop is encouraging, but it remains unclear whether 2020 has continued this positive trend. The very small patches of clearing and little primary forest remaining in these countries makes it difficult to assess the current situation using GLAD alerts.

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Indonesia

Forest loss in Indonesia has declined three years in a row, a trend that may have continue in 2020

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Primary forest loss in Indonesia decreased by 5 percent in 2019 compared to the year before, marking the third year in a row of lower levels of loss. Indonesia has not seen such low levels of primary forest loss since the beginning of the century. 

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Indonesia’s primary forest loss remains low for a third year in a row

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The decrease comes despite an intense 2019 fire season, which in previous years resulted in large areas of primary forest loss. The government reported that more than 1.6 million hectares were burned in 2019, the second highest after the 2015 fire season. A significant share of the 2019 fires occurred in carbon-rich peatlands, with large impacts on carbon emissions. Delays in detection due to cloud cover and haze could mean some of the damage from fires occurring in late 2019 may not be detected until 2020, which may result in an increase in forest loss in the upcoming 2020 data compared to last year. 2020 had a much milder fire season, with fire alerts through the end of November “below average” compared to normal. 

Several Indonesian policies have likely contributed to this decline, including increased law enforcement to prevent forest fires and land clearing and the now-permanent moratorium on forest clearing in areas designated as peatlands or primary natural forests. GLAD alerts have detected several instances of tree cover loss associated with oil palm plantation expansion and logging so far in 2020, particularly in Kalimantan, but the vast majority appear to be outside of the forest moratorium area. Even though the losses may be legal, those that occur in primary forest, like the examples linked above, will have outsized impacts on biodiversity and carbon emissions.

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Colombia

Colombia’s work to curb rapidly rising deforestation appears far from over

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Colombia experienced a significant decrease in primary forest loss in 2019, offering hope that the country may be changing course after heavy forest losses over the previous two years. Primary forest loss in Colombia rapidly increased after a 2016 peace agreement between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), which ended the violent conflict but also led to a power vacuum in previously occupied lands in the Amazon.

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Primary forest loss in Colombia decreased in 2019

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The trend reversal suggests that the Colombian government’s actions may be having an effect. The country set ambitious goals both to reduce deforestation and plant millions of trees in deforested areas. In April 2019, Colombia’s president launched Operation Artemisa, which employs the military, police, and other public entities to stop deforestation in the country’s national parks—though its activities are not without controversy

Despite the decline, Colombia’s struggle to reduce deforestation is far from over. The country’s primary forest loss in 2019 was still higher than any year on record before the peace agreement, with large losses detected in a number of protected areas and continued clearing for land grabbing and cattle ranching. The 2020 GLAD alerts show that these trends have only continued, with local reports that deforestation this year surpassed 2019 levels by mid-April, raising concerns that the decline in primary forest loss may be short-lived.
 

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2019 Trends

Below are the last tropical tree cover loss trends based on 2019 data.

 

The tropics lost 11.9 million hectares (Mha) of tree cover in 2019, including 3.8 Mha of humid tropical primary forests. That is the equivalent of losing a football pitch of primary forest every six seconds for the entire year.

Primary forest loss was 2.8 percent higher in 2019 than the year before, making it the third-highest year of loss since the turn of the century. At least 1.8 gigatons of carbon dioxide emissions were associated with 2019 primary forest loss, equivalent to the annual emissions of 400 million cars. 
 

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2019 was the third-highest year of primary forest loss on record

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The frontiers of tropical primary forest loss are continuing to shift. Though Brazil and Indonesia were still among the top countries for primary forest loss in 2019, the two countries made up only 45 percent of all loss in 2019, compared to 71 percent in 2002. Notably, the Democratic Republic of the Congo surpassed Indonesia’s annual primary forest loss in 2016 to become the country with the second most primary forest loss, after only Brazil. 

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Brazil had the most primary forest loss of any country in 2019

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Agriculture continues to be the leading cause of tree cover loss across the tropics, linked to 92 percent of all tropical tree cover loss in 2019. Large-scale industrial agriculture led deforestation in Central and South America and Southeast Asia, with globally traded commodities such as beef, soy, and palm oil playing outsized roles. In Africa, shifting agriculture was linked to over 90 percent of tree cover loss. Although shifting agriculture does not necessarily result in the permanent conversion of forests, the expansion of shifting agriculture was responsible for 1.5 Mha of primary forest loss in 2019. 

2019 brought unprecedented and unnatural fires to humid tropical forests. Indonesia, Bolivia, and Brazil were among the countries most adversely affected. These fires are almost always set by humans, and they often only burn out of control under conditions of drought. Forests that have been fragmented by deforestation or degraded from logging or previous fires are more vulnerable to burning since the resulting canopy gaps and forest edges dry the forest out. Since these ecosystems are not adapted to fire, the blazes may cause adverse impacts on those forests for years to come. 
 

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Commodity-driven deforestation is the leading driver of tree cover loss in South America and Southeast Asia, while shifting agriculture dominates in Africa

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