Why Tropical Forests Are Being Lost, and How to Protect Them
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There’s good news and bad news for forests. The good news is that forests are high on the international agenda: A plethora of initiatives are underway to follow through on existing commitments to halt and reverse forest loss in the interest of climate mitigation. Those actions are being complemented with reaffirmations of forests’ importance to biodiversity.
The bad news is that deforestation data spanning the last two decades reveals that efforts to slow a persistent hemorrhaging of the world’s most valuable terrestrial ecosystems are not yet sufficient to stop the bleeding.
Over the last decade, satellite imagery and other remote sensing technologies have revolutionized our ability to monitor and understand the causes of forest loss.
Global tree cover loss trends show that in the 21st century, by far the most deforestation — meaning when forests are permanently converted to other land uses — is occurring in the tropics. We now have more than two decades of data on the loss of primary tropical forests, and it paints a sobering picture: Stubbornly persistent annual losses hovering around 3 to 4 million hectares each year, punctuated by spikes associated with major fires.
The main direct cause of tropical forest loss is expansion of commercial agriculture, augmented in different regions to varying degrees by clearing for small-scale agriculture, extractive activities and roads and other infrastructure, with complex linkages among them. Even lockdowns associated with the coronavirus pandemic didn’t appear to disrupt those patterns in any consistent way; in fact, losses ticked up in 2020 compared to the previous year. Similarly, effects on forests of the abrupt shifts in global supply chains for energy and food prompted by the war in Ukraine are not immediately discernable in the 2022 data.
An especially worrisome signal in recent data is that forest loss globally is increasingly driven by climate change through increased exposure to droughts, fires, storms and pest outbreaks. In 2022, a newly available data set enabled us to distinguish between fire-related losses and other causes of forest loss. It confirms an upward trajectory for both the absolute area and percentage share of forest loss that can be attributed to burning across many countries in tropical, temperate and boreal latitudes. This highlights the trend that forest loss from fires continues to be exacerbated by the hotter, drier conditions caused by global climate change, as well as directly by the effects of forest loss and degradation itself on local temperature and rainfall.
In 2020, Bolivia moved up into third place on the list of the countries losing the most rainforest due to extensive wildfires following a drought. In the same year, forests covering some 30% of the world’s largest tropical wetland — the Pantanal in Brazil — burned. In 2021 and 2022, fires kept Bolivia in third place, and nudged the losses of second place Democratic Republic of the Congo up to and exceeding half a million hectares.
Such loss is tragic on multiple levels. Tropical rainforests are especially valuable for meeting global objectives: Their vegetation and soils sequester vast amounts of carbon, and they harbor a disproportionate share of the world’s plant and animal species.
Forests also play important, if hidden, roles in stabilizing the climate at global, regional and local scales in ways other than via their role in the global carbon cycle. Scientists are increasingly recognizing the special role of tropical forests in regulating the global climate system, for example:
- At the global scale, the biophysical effects of tropical deforestation — such as decreases in evapotranspiration, surface roughness and albedo from cloud cover — significantly amplify the global warming effects of released CO2 alone.
- At the regional scale, rainforests in the Amazon and Congo Basin have been shown to generate rainfall in addition to their roles in regulating surface water flows. Deforestation can disrupt precipitation patterns important for agricultural production, hydroelectric power generation and municipal water supplies.
- At the local scale, tropical forests moderate average and extreme temperatures, meaning deforestation can increase exposure to heat stress affecting agricultural workers and the crops and livestock they tend.
And forests are essential for the well-being of some of the world’s most vulnerable Indigenous and local communities, whose livelihoods and cultural integrity are threatened by forest loss. In a profound irony, although Indigenous Peoples are now recognized as among the world’s most effective forest stewards, they are also well represented among the hundreds of environmental defenders whose lives are being lost every year to violent conflict over natural resources.
However, it doesn’t have to be this way. Many of the causes of forest loss are amenable to change in the near-term.
For example, a large proportion of forest loss is illegal — such as forest clearing within the boundaries of protected areas in Colombia and recognized Indigenous territories in Brazil — and could be addressed through increased law enforcement. Many of the commodities fattened or cultivated at the expense of forests — led by beef, oil palm, soy, cocoa, plantation rubber, coffee and plantation wood fiber — as well as illegally logged timber are globally traded and thus subject to pressures from government regulation and consumer preferences.
Indeed, two of the most interesting deviations from the relatively consistent patterns of forest loss across the tropics are those from Brazil and Indonesia, which both illustrate the effectiveness of government policy and corporate restraint.
In Brazil, an impressive decade-long reduction in high rates of deforestation after 2004 is attributable to a suite of public policy measures and private actions under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s (known as Lula) first administration, but that success unraveled due to policy reversals under subsequent administrations. In 2022, the last year of the administration under President Jair Bolsonaro, forest clearing unrelated to fires continued on an accelerated upward trajectory — and for the past five years it has exceeded lower levels that were maintained from 2007 to 2015. Lula’s re-election has inspired hope among domestic and international constituencies alike that forest loss in Brazil can once again be tamed.
Conversely, Indonesia’s rate of forest loss was on a steady upward trajectory in the early years of this century until experiencing a steep and continuing decline following government and corporate responses to catastrophic fires in 2015. Since then, Indonesia chalked up several years in row of successful efforts to reduce deforestation, and forest loss in 2022 remains near record lows. With President Joko Widodo (known as Jokowi) nearing the end of his second term, the resilience of Indonesia’s achievements through a transition to new leadership will be a story to watch in the coming years.
Tropical tree cover loss, 2001-2022
Experience in addressing the causes of deforestation in both Brazil and Indonesia are relevant to the current situation in Bolivia, which hosts the world’s seventh largest area of remaining primary tropical forest but has not received a commensurate share of international attention. Expansion of commercial agriculture and extensive fires have placed the country in the top ten of all three league tables of forest loss in 2022: The second highest increase in forest loss (comparing 2015-2017 and 2020-2022), the third highest area of primary forest lost and the seventh highest loss in percentage terms. Clearing and burning have affected globally significant biodiversity reserves as well as the respiratory health of people affected by smoke from the fires. Strategies combining government regulation and enforcement with private sector action to get deforestation out of commodity supply chains and prevent uncontrolled burning proved effective in Brazil earlier this century and more recently in Indonesia; they are now desperately needed in Bolivia as well.
However, addressing the immediate causes and underlying drivers of deforestation is never easy, and is harder in some places than others.
For example, in the Congo Basin, much forest loss is due to small-scale clearing by very poor people for subsistence livelihoods. Pursuing a law enforcement approach to address such situations in the absence of viable economic alternatives and human rights protections is unacceptable. Instead, development finance is needed to provide access to clean energy sources to replace reliance on wood-based fuels, and to create other forest-friendly rural livelihood options.
2022 saw a dramatic rise in primary forest loss in Ghana, which suggests a similarly thorny set of challenges in addressing the portion of deforestation and forest degradation driven by the expansion of cocoa farming, among other drivers. Though the forest loss seen in Ghana is relatively small in absolute terms, the country had the highest proportion of loss of any tropical country in 2022 and has little primary forest left. Since 2017, Ghana, along with its neighbor Côte d’Ivoire, has partnered with dozens of leading cocoa and chocolate companies to get deforestation out of their supply chains in the Cocoa & Forests Initiative. Despite significant investments to support higher yields on existing farms and having mapped hundreds of thousands of cocoa farms to achieve traceability of more than two-thirds of cocoa purchased directly from smallholders, these efforts have not yet resulted in effective protection of Ghana’s dwindling area of primary forest. These efforts must be redoubled in light of new regulations in the European Union and the United Kingdom that will restrict the import of commodities linked to deforestation, as continued failure will put smallholder livelihoods as well as forests at risk.
New narratives, new leadership could accelerate action on deforestation
2022 was the first year following the ambitious Glasgow Leaders Declaration signed by 145 heads of state at the UN climate summit (COP26) in 2021, promising to halt and reverse forest loss by 2030.
The Declaration was accompanied by a suite of commitments, including those from public sector donors and private philanthropists to provide $12 billion of forest-related climate finance and $1.7 billion of financing to support Indigenous Peoples and local communities, and from private sector agricultural companies and financial institutions to halt forest loss associated with agricultural commodity production and trade.
The fact that the loss of tropical primary forests increased by 10% in 2022 suggests that front-line decision-makers who control the fate of the forests — such as government officials permitting new roads into intact forest areas, and farmers clearing additional land for their crops — have not yet felt a change in incentives sufficient to alter their behavior. While lag times in translating commitments into action are to be expected, it’s clear that current levels of effort to shift those incentives are too low and too slow to make a difference on the ground and at the pace needed.
But there is hope that new narratives and new leadership that have emerged over the last year could prompt enhanced ambition and accelerated action.
One cause for cautious optimism is the emerging alignment across initiatives aiming to harness forests for their climate mitigation potential and those aiming to conserve biodiversity.
In recent years, much of the international attention focused on tropical forests has emphasized their benefits for the global climate, for good reasons. The 2019 IPCC Special Report on Climate Change and Land concluded that “reducing deforestation and forest degradation rates represents one of the most effective and robust options for climate change mitigation, with large mitigation benefits globally,” and represents a “no regrets” strategy for mitigation, adaptation and other Sustainable Development Goals. The most recent IPCC Sixth Assessment Report (AR6) on climate change mitigation reinforced the message that, with deforestation accounting for 45% of land sector emissions, ending the conversion of tropical forests, peatlands and other carbon-rich ecosystems represents a high-priority, low-cost mitigation option. For example, Roe et al. 2019 estimated that the land sector could contribute up to 30% of the global carbon mitigation needed to limit warming to 1.5 degrees C (2.7 degrees F).
While the special role of tropical forests in maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services has long been recognized, over the last year a series of international events and initiatives have helped elevate the forest agenda and catalyze alignment on efforts to protect forests in ways that serve both climate and nature-oriented objectives. For example:
- In December 2022, government Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity adopted the Kunming-Montreal Global Biodiversity Framework at COP15. The Framework mirrors the Glasgow Leaders Declaration, aiming to halt and reverse biodiversity loss by 2030. It builds on the prior endorsement by key countries and a broad range of stakeholders of the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People’s 30x30 target — to protect 30% of the world’s land and oceans by 2030 — an objective that had already attracted $5 billion in early philanthropic funding pledges in 2021.
- In rapid follow up to the climate and biodiversity COPs in late 2022, Presidents Emmanuel Macron of France and Ali Bongo Ondimba of Gabon co-hosted the One Forest Summit in March 2023 to shine a spotlight on the forests of the Congo Basin as especially important to both sets of global objectives. Discussions at the summit focused on ways to synergize across the two agendas, including by capturing biodiversity values in forest carbon crediting.
These initiatives could inject new energy into forest-related research, mobilize new sources of forest finance and attract new constituencies to the forest protection agenda. They could also increase the potency of advocacy decrying the clearing of some of the world’s most biodiversity-rich forests, which the 2022 data reveals is happening in several countries.
High-level leadership of countries and institutions plays an important role in assembling political will and finance on the forest agenda. New leadership in key countries and international institutions could prove pivotal in 2023. For example:
- Lula took office as President of Brazil in January 2023. Since then, he has signaled his intent to follow through on campaign promises to repeat the success of his previous administration in reducing deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. He has re-appointed as his Minister of Environment Marina Silva, who played a key role in assembling a whole-of-government approach to deforestation in the previous Lula administration, and appointed Sônia Guajajara, an Indigenous rights advocate and Member of Congress, to lead a new Ministry of Indigenous Affairs. Among Lula’s first actions was to launch an enforcement operation to drive illegal gold miners out of the Yanomami Indigenous territory in the Amazon. The fate of the world’s largest expanse of tropical forests rests on his ability to follow through with his promises — and while Lula faces political and economic headwinds, these indicators of his determination are a stark contrast to the impunity for forest destruction encouraged by his predecessor.
- David Malpass stepped down as president of the World Bank under pressure after allegations of climate denialism. Leadership under new president Ajay Banga could swing the Bank’s considerable analytical and financial weight more squarely behind efforts to end tropical deforestation, and hopes are high that Banga will act quickly to follow through on prior commitments to mainstream climate and nature into the institution’s policies, analyses and operations. Among many opportunities, the Bank could build on the achievements of the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility and Carbon Fund in building capacity in forest-rich countries, and collaborate with the International Monetary Fund — now under the leadership of Kristalina Georgieva, an environmental economist who once led the World Bank Environment Department — to promote innovations in green finance.
4 ways to end deforestation by 2030
In light of the political and financial commitments listed above, how can we most effectively deploy available resources in the limited time we have left to follow through on what science tells us is necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement and end deforestation by 2030? Here are four actions to keep in mind:
Thanks to the rapidly expanded quality and availability of forest monitoring data, not only can we detect where forest loss is taking place in near-real time, we can identify the causes of that loss and analyze past patterns to predict future trajectories of deforestation. Further, we can be increasingly confident that we know what works to slow and halt forest loss. We need to act on that knowledge.
Governments can apply policy tools that have proven effective, such as:
- If forest loss is caused by illegal forest clearing by commercial actors, prior experience in Brazil and recent experience in Indonesia demonstrate that enhanced enforcement of legal and regulatory requirements can curtail it.
- Establishing protected areas and recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ rights can slow advance of the deforestation frontier. For example, deforestation rates in the Amazon on securely held Indigenous land are 50% lower than areas outside Indigenous lands.
- Officials can design fiscal incentives such as access to credit or direct payments to reward forest protection rather than subsidize forest clearing.
- If building roads into intact forests is the main driver of encroachment (as an analysis of 2021 and 2022 deforestation hot spots in the Western Brazilian Amazon suggests is the case), officials can find alternative routes to meet legitimate needs for access to markets and services.
For companies that produce, trade or purchase commodities associated with deforestation — and for those in civil society who seek to influence those companies — overlaying maps that show forest cover change with related data sets (for example, locations of concessions) can pinpoint where to prioritize corporate risk management efforts or external advocacy.
In other words, companies and activists can analyze the linkages between where deforestation is happening and the boundaries of forest and plantation concessions, the locations of processing facilities, the shipments of exported commodities, and the financiers associated with each, and as a result, focus their interventions on the production areas, commodities, companies, financiers and consumers at highest risk of being implicated in deforestation.
Hundreds of companies and investors now use a suite of tools including Global Forest Watch Pro, Trase and the Accountability Framework to identify and manage deforestation risk in their supply chains and investment portfolios.
And while increased transparency has not always generated immediate changes in behavior, we know that access to better information can make a difference.
For example, an evaluation found that subscriptions to Global Forest Watch’s tree cover loss alerts in Africa were associated with an 18% decrease in the probability of deforestation.
Another study found that providing Indigenous communities in Peru with access to forest monitoring tools and training led to a dramatic 52% decrease in local deforestation in the first year, and 21% the following year.
Certainly, the financial and capacity constraints in forest-rich developing countries are real, such as the inability of law enforcement officials to go into the field due to budget cuts, or local government officials’ lack of knowledge about how to attract carbon finance and other green investment opportunities. Yet the main limitation on action is lack of political will.
It's clear that global demand for commodities drives forest loss, and that failure to internalize the value of forests into global financial systems fuels deforestation-as-usual practices. And while it might be possible for domestic officials to stop those practices though a combination of the approaches described above, it often does not appear desirable for those with the power to do so.
Such calculations are often skewed by opportunities for personal enrichment achieved through corruption, or political advantage gained from the support of constituencies that profit from deforestation, regardless of the broader public interest.
The decision-makers who control the most direct levers to protect forests — the establishment and enforcement of legal, regulatory and fiscal regimes to protect forests — such as cabinet ministers and governors are responsive to domestic political constituencies and national development narratives. When vested interests are able to frame forest protection as coming at the expense of smallholders, jobs or national sovereignty, the political costs of forest-positive action rise.
As a result, appeals to global objectives served by protecting forests — including climate protection and biodiversity conservation — tend to fall flat, especially if they entail costs to important domestic constituencies.
Well-intended legislative initiatives in consumer countries to restrict imports of commodities linked to deforestation, such as a new EU regulation to exclude products associated with deforestation from European markets, could provoke a counter-productive backlash unless they are accompanied by incentives that create a value proposition for elected leaders.
Therefore, there is a need to raise awareness of the very real — but often hidden — domestic benefits of forest protection and the very real domestic costs of forest destruction, and of who bears those costs.
It is not a coincidence that Indonesia’s successful efforts to protect forests kicked in following the trauma of the catastrophic fires of 2015, which imposed an estimated $16 billion cost to the economy and exposed tens of millions of Indonesian citizens to hazardous air pollution.
Recent studies have illuminated how deforestation in Brazil results in costs on the agriculture sector from increased temperatures that depress soy yields, and from a shorter wet season that constrains double-cropping. Broader understanding of the size and distribution of these impacts could change the national political economy of deforestation.
Leaders of forest-rich countries are much more likely to follow through on the pledges they make at global summits if doing so aligns with domestic political and economic interests.
Taken together, recent scientific advances and forest loss data suggest prioritizing attention to High Forest Low Deforestation (HFLD) countries, states, provinces and Indigenous territories. Such areas have historically maintained low rates of forest loss and have not realized significant revenues from either agribusiness development or carbon finance. A jump in deforestation in Brazil’s Western Amazon states points to an urgent need to prompt a recalibration of forest-related interests going forward.
Meanwhile, the international community should find ways to recognize and reward the success of HFLD jurisdictions, such as Gabon, in maintaining already-low deforestation rates. Researchers estimate that while clearing of intact forests accounted for 3.2% of gross carbon emissions from all tropical deforestation, the full net carbon impact of intact forest destruction was at least 6 times greater when accounting for factors such as degradation and forgone capacity for continued carbon sequestration — and thus, there is a larger-than-realized mitigation potential from preventing the loss of remaining intact forests. In 2022, Guyana, another HFLD country, issued the first forest carbon credits independently verified to a recognized certification standard, and entered into a $750 million transaction for a portion of current and future credits.
Proponents of tropical forest conservation are working on multiple initiatives to translate international interest in forest protection into politically salient value propositions for leaders in forest-rich countries. In effect, we are conducting several simultaneous and interconnected experiments to discover what works in changing the balance of incentives facing decision-makers. These initiatives include:
Putting a value on forest carbon: Since the idea of REDD+ first entered international climate negotiations 15 years ago, the promise of performance-based payments for forest protection has prompted incremental progress on building national systems for forest monitoring and other pillars to support improved forest management.
However, the limitations of donor funding also led to considerable disappointment and acrimony, which was on display when in 2021 Indonesia abruptly terminated its 10-year agreement with Norway in a dispute over payment. A new agreement was established in 2022.
Over the last two years, all eyes have been on the potential of the voluntary carbon market to generate the scale and type of finance that aid budgets were not designed to deliver. For example, the LEAF Coalition has mobilized more than $1 billion in commitments from private companies for jurisdictional-scale tropical forest protection and signed letters of intent with five countries to reduce emissions from deforestation.
But after a surge in 2021, demand for carbon credits of all types leveled off amid uncertainties related to what companies could claim based on credit purchases, and related to the quality of the credits themselves. Regarding tropical forest carbon credits in particular, there are lively ongoing debates over the relative merits of crediting at different scales and against different standards, the relative priority of emissions reductions vs. removals, and whether forest carbon crediting is more likely to benefit or cause harm to Indigenous and local communities. Guidance published in February 2023 by a coalition of civil society groups is designed to help corporate buyers navigate these debates.
Removing deforestation from commodity supply chains and financial portfolios: Civil society organizations have implemented increasingly sophisticated strategies to get deforestation out of commodity supply chains by blocking companies’ access to markets and finance if they defy laws and norms designed to protect forests and communities.
The strategy includes demanding voluntary corporate action, shifting consumer and investor preferences and imposing demand-side policies in consumer countries. It’s difficult to discern the effectiveness of this bundle of strategies, and their potential to influence local producers with access to alternative domestic markets and investors or those in other emerging market countries is questionable.
A story to watch this year is whether or not Indonesia and Malaysia can continue to maintain historically low deforestation rates in the face of less favorable weather and/or higher palm oil prices, as fires in dry years and oil palm plantations have historically been huge drivers of tree cover loss.
Implementing these approaches at the scale of subnational jurisdictions: Linking the two strategies above are attempts to support improved forest and land-use management at sub-national levels, such as at the scale of states and provinces.
Initiatives are underway in dozens of such jurisdictions across the tropics, and are often characterized by official commitments to reduce deforestation, efforts to develop and implement “green” development plans and multistakeholder platforms linked to companies’ commodity supply chain commitments.
While there is growing literature describing the jurisdictional approach and theories of change, analysis of their impacts on deforestation rates is just beginning.
It is imperative that we rigorously assess these initiatives’ ultimate impacts on forests as they progress and adjust our strategies accordingly.
The science is clear that protecting forests — especially tropical forests — is an essential component of any strategy to avoid catastrophic climate change. And indeed, forests have not received a share of climate finance and political attention commensurate with their mitigation potential, which new science reveals is even larger than we thought. But at the end of the day, our efforts to protect forests must be accompanied by aggressive efforts to mitigate all sources of greenhouse gas emissions.
An alarming signal from forest monitoring data is that forests themselves are increasingly vulnerable to the rising average and extreme temperatures, erratic rainfall, severe storms and widespread pest infestations that a changing climate brings.
One implication of this is that we need to avoid not just the wholesale conversion of remaining forests, but also degradation and fragmentation to maintain forests’ resilience to these mounting stressors. Another implication is that forest protection, restoration and other “nature-based solutions” cannot substitute for urgent mitigation action in other sectors.
In the context of forest carbon credits, this means that in addition to insisting on high quality on the supply side, we also have to ensure that demand for such credits represents additional mitigation action. In other words, companies or others making climate action claims based on carbon credit purchases should only do so in addition to reducing their own emissions as aggressively as is technologically and economically feasible, and in line with science.
2023 is poised to be an inflection point for the world’s forests.
Will the hope generated by pledges made at the 2021 COP continue to dissipate, or will we begin to see signs that they are shifting incentives that influence decisions around deforestation?
Will the new international narrative joining climate and biodiversity conservation objectives stimulate significant new sources of support for protecting tropical forests, especially in HFLD countries?
Will the current uncertainty hampering demand for tropical forest carbon credits be overcome sufficiently to enable the flow of finance?
Will President Lula be able to repeat his previous feat of reversing forest loss trends in Brazil?
Will Indonesia be able to maintain its historically low rate of forest loss, or face a reversal in light of increasing pressures?
Will forest loss in Bolivia attract the attention of domestic and international constituencies commensurate with its significance to global and local values?
Regular data updates from Global Forest Watch and other monitoring platforms will help answer some of these questions.