Why are Tropical Forests Being Lost, and How to Protect Them
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There’s good news and bad news for forests. Over the last 10 years, satellite imagery and other remote sensing technologies have revolutionized our ability to monitor and understand the causes of forest loss.
The bad news is that deforestation data spanning the last two decades reveals a persistent hemorrhaging of the world’s most valuable terrestrial ecosystems — and we’re not doing enough to stop the bleeding.
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 two decades of data on the loss of primary tropical forests, and it paints a sobering picture: stubbornly persistent annual losses hovering between 3 and 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.
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. This year, a newly available data set enables 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 climate change.
In 2020, Bolivia surpassed Indonesia for third place on the list of the world’s top deforesters 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, fires kept Bolivia in third place, and nudged the losses of second place Democratic Republic of the Congo up to 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 supporting national economies, including by generating rainfall and regulating surface water flows important for agricultural production, hydroelectric power generation and municipal water supplies.
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 cattle, 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 effectives 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, but deforestation has recently crept back up due policy reversals under a new administration. In 2021, forest clearing unrelated to fires continued on a slight upward trajectory — for the last four years it has exceeded lower levels that were maintained from 2007 to 2015.
Conversely, Indonesia’s rate of forest loss was on a steady upward trajectory until experiencing a steep and continuing decline following government and corporate responses to catastrophic fires in 2015. In 2021, Indonesia chalked up the fifth year in row of successful efforts to reduce unplanned deforestation.
Tropical tree cover loss, 2001-2021
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.
Encouraging signs of progress to curb deforestation
Amid the bad news on the stubbornly persistent rates of rainforest destruction, there are some hopeful signs that tropical deforestation is once again high on the international agenda, and that at least some of the many commitments to action are being translated into results on the ground.
One cause for optimism is that the scientific basis for conserving the world’s forests to meet a variety of objectives is growing ever stronger. Scientists are increasingly recognizing the special role of forests in regulating the global climate system.
For example, an 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 Working Group III report on 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.
Indeed, a series of peer-reviewed papers provide a relentless drumbeat of reasons to increase attention to forests to meet climate and other global and local goals. To cite just a few:
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).
Maxwell et al. 2019 estimated 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 six 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.
Lawrence et al. 2022 calculated that the biophysical effects of tropical deforestation — such as changes in
albedo, evapotranspirationand surface roughness— significantly amplify the global warming effects of released CO2 alone.
Holders of political power, purse strings and purchasing decisions have all updated their previous promises to reduce deforestation. Most recently, at the UN climate summit (COP26) in 2021, 141 heads of state signed a Leaders Declaration promising to halt and reverse forest loss by 2030. The declaration was the capstone of a package of commitments that included:
Public sector donors and private philanthropists pledged to provide $12 billion of forest-related climate finance. Additionally, they pledged $1.7 billion of financing to support Indigenous Peoples’ and local communities’ forest tenure rights and recognize their role as guardians of the forests.
Major agricultural companies committed to halt forest loss associated with agricultural commodity production and trade.
More than 30 financial institutions representing $8.7 trillion in assets committed to tackle agricultural commodity-driven deforestation by publicly disclosing risks, establishing policies to address deforestation, engaging with companies and increasing investment in nature-based solutions.
The LEAF Coalition announced that it had mobilized $1 billion for jurisdictional-scale tropical forest protection and signed letters of intent with five countries to reduce emissions from deforestation.
Multilateral development banks committed to mainstream nature into their policies, analyses and operations.
If followed up with concrete steps to increase transparency, accountability and inclusion in forest management decision-making — in addition to increased finance for forest conservation — these commitments could begin turning the declaration’s vision into action. The loss of 3.75 million hectares of primary tropical forests in 2021 — most of which had already occurred before the declaration was announced in November — provides one baseline against which we can measure progress in the brief window still available for bringing the number to zero.
While most international attention has focused on the role of forests in fighting climate change, forest ecosystems are also potentially affected by biodiversity and nature conservation forums.
For example, key countries and a broad range of stakeholders endorsed the High Ambition Coalition for Nature and People’s call to protect 30% of the world’s terrestrial and ocean areas by 2030 (30x30) — an objective that’s already attracted $5 billion in early philanthropic funding pledges.
While the 15th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD COP15) has been serially postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic and few issues have been agreed on so far, recent preparatory meetings saw support for the 30x30 target and strengthening the rights of Indigenous Peoples.
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 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 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 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 cost 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 proposed 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 the 2021 forest loss data suggest prioritizing attention to so-called 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 recognize and reward the success of HFLD jurisdictions, such as Gabon, in maintaining and even reducing already-low deforestation rates in 2021.
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, it has also led to considerable disappointment and acrimony, most recently on display when in 2021 Indonesia abruptly terminated its 10-year agreement with Norway in a dispute over payment. Now, all eyes are on the potential of the voluntary carbon market to generate the scale and type of finance that aid budgets were not designed to deliver. And there are lively ongoing debates over the relative merits of project vs. jurisdictional-scale crediting, 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.
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 can continue to decrease its deforestation rates in the face of high palm oil prices, as oil palm plantations have historically been a huge driver 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.
2022 will be a pivotal year for the world’s forests.
Will governments, philanthropies, companies and financiers that made zero-deforestation pledges at the 2021 climate summit show evidence of following through on their commitments?
Will the CBD COP15 result in a new framework for nature conservation that will have a material impact on forests?
Will surging carbon markets begin delivering forest conservation finance at scale and find a way to reward HFLD jurisdictions?
Will increased understanding of Indigenous Peoples’ key role as forest stewards translate into recognition of rights?
Will a global economy emerging from a pandemic and disrupted by the broader impacts of war in Europe and inflation generate new pressures on forests through increased food and energy prices?
Will Indonesia be able to extend its five-year streak in reducing deforestation even as palm oil prices skyrocket?
And will climate action globally rise to the level needed to overcome the challenge?
Regular data updates from Global Forest Watch and other monitoring platforms will help answer some of these questions.