Tag Archives: deforestation

Your favorite fashion brands are putting the Amazon rainforest at risk

Major clothing companies are obtaining their leather from manufacturers and tanneries linked to deforestation in the Amazon rainforest, according to a new report. Researchers went through 500,000 rows of customs data and found over 100 brands such as Adidas, Nike, and New Balance are connected to an industry driving deforestation in some of the world’s most delicate ecosystems.

Image credit: Flickr / Quapan.

The findings come after the fashion industry claimed to raise its collective ambition at the COP26 climate summit and do more for the environment. Companies said they recognized the fashion sector as a major global player needing to take an active part in delivering on the Paris Agreement targets and declared their commitment to sourcing environmentally friendly raw materials and using 100% renewable energy. But things are different in reality.

Raising cattle for beef and leather is one of the main drivers of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest – one of the world’s largest carbon sinks. An estimated 13,235 squared kilometers of forest were lost between August 2020 and July 2021, according to the most recent official data. This is the greatest area lost to deforestation since 2006, a trend that is contributing to climate change as well as environmental degradation. 

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has been accused of promoting policies that favor the agribusiness sector at the expense of the environment. The government recently presented new environmental pledges at the COP26 climate summit, showing a different stand than before, but this was regarded with a general lack of trust. Meanwhile, fashion companies are also benefitting from this indirectly. 

“If you’re wearing leather shoes, a leather belt or carrying a leather handbag, it’s highly likely that it was made from cowhide that contributed to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest,” Slow Factory, the NGO behind the report, wrote in a statement. “Brazilian leather is used by tanneries and manufacturers around the world to make countless branded consumer-facing products.”

Fashion and deforestation

The researchers found that a group of 100 fashion brands and companies are working with tanneries and manufacturers that also have links to cattle raised on cleared rainforest land. Half of the companies in the report had links on their supply chain to JBS, the biggest leather exporter in Brazil that has been accused of participating in deforestation.

According to the Soy and Cattle Deforestation Tracker from Mighty Earth, JBS is linked to 42,538 hectares of deforested land in the two years since March 2019 – with half classifying as possibly illegal. Earlier this year, JBS made a commitment to achieve zero deforestation across its global supply chain by 2035 – a target that campaigners say is largely insufficient.

The report found that one-third of the fashion brands identified in the report have made a set of voluntary environmental commitments, such as no-deforestation pledges or agreeing to participate in the Leather Working Group, a global certification and membership body. But the new findings show they have been violating their own policies.

Looking ahead, the report called the fashion industry to no longer buy leather from companies that can’t source their products directly to the farm they came from and to support legislation for the cattle industry to trace its supply chain. At the same time, they should make a public pledge to both points as well as eliminate deforestation from their supply chains. 

The full report can be accessed here. 

EU wants to ban imports linked to deforestation — beef, coffee, and chocolate are included

Companies will soon have to prove that the products they sell to the European Union haven’t been contributing to deforestation, according to draft legislation introduced by the European Commission. The EU is one of the main importers of global deforestation, only exceeded by China, according to a report on trade by WWF, and this move could send a strong signal worldwide for producers to be more environmentally conscious. 

Image credit: CIFOR.

Wanted: only deforestation-free products

The regulation will focus on six commodities: wood, soy, cattle, palm oil, coffee, and cocoa, as well as derived products such as chocolate, leather, and oil cakes. Imports of commodities in the EU have been linked to the loss of 3.5 million hectares of forests between 2005 and 2017 and to the release of 1.8 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2).

“Our deforestation regulation answers citizens’ calls to minimize the European contribution to deforestation and promote sustainable consumption,” EU Commission VP Frans Timmermans said in a statement. “It ensures that we only import these products if we can ascertain that they are deforestation-free and produced legally.”

When approved, the new law will create due diligence mandatory rules applicable to commodity exporters to the EU market. They will have to implement a strict traceability control, collecting coordinates of the land where the commodities were produced. This will ensure that only deforestation-free products enter the EU market.

The EU Commission will operate a benchmarking system to classify countries with a low, standard, or high risk of producing commodities or products that aren’t deforestation-free. The requirements for companies and government authorities will depend on the level of risk of the country, from simplified to enhanced due diligence. 

With the new system, the EU hopes to prevent deforestation and forest degradation. The EU Commission estimates the bloc will reduce at least 31.9 million metric tons of carbon emissions every year due to the EU consumption of the targeted commodities. This would also mean savings of up to $3.6 billion per year, the commission estimates.

“If we expect more ambitious climate and environmental policies from partners, we should stop exporting pollution and supporting deforestation ourselves,” the EU Commissioner for the Environment, Oceans and Fisheries Virginijus Sinkevičius said in a statement. “It’s the most ambitious legislative attempt to tackle this worldwide.”

Will it pass?

The draft will now have to be approved by the EU Parliament and by each EU member country, something that might take a while. It follows recommendations included in a Parliament report last year but it has a more limited scope, not addressing human rights abuses and not creating civil liability for companies that export goods to the EU.

As it is now, it only targets recent deforestation due to its 2020 cut-off date. But this could change as lawmakers discuss the details at the EU Parliament, with some suggesting an earlier starting at 2014 – which is the earliest satellite images are available. The regulation also gives commodity exporters a 12-month transition.

Strong opposition is expected from forested countries that rely on export to the EU. This is the case of Brazil, for example, which exports beef to several bloc member countries. Deforestation rates have been on the rise in the country amid lax policies by President Bolsonaro. Recent data showed higher deforestation in October this year and many see beef imports from places like Brazil as an important contributor to deforestation.

World leaders vow to stop deforestation by 2030. Can it be done?

At the COP26 climate change summit in Glasgow, a group of more than 100 countries, representing 85% of the world’s forests, committed to stopping all deforestation in just nine years. The declaration comes alongside $19 billion of new funding to tackle forest loss, provided by developed countries and companies.

Image credit: Flickr / 979883

The commitment, known as the Glasgow Leaders Declaration on Forests and Land Use, was signed by 101 countries plus the European Union. Forest experts welcomed the announcement (especially the new funding part) but said it’s not enough, and countries are merely delaying action. To dampen optimism even more, this isn’t the first time something like this has been signed.

The 2030 goal is actually similar to another declaration done by a smaller group of countries seven years ago, the New York Declaration of Forests. They also had an interim goal of halving deforestation by 2020 and we’re not even close. The difference now is that the list is longer, and includes the likes of Brazil, which has seen high rates of deforestation. But the fact that countries pledged to do something they’d already agreed to in the past does not bode well.

British prime minister Boris Johnson said humanity will now have a chance to end its “long history as nature’s conqueror and instead become its custodian,” calling it an unprecedented agreement. Meanwhile, US president Joe Biden highlighted the scheme and said his government will present a plan to restore 200 million hectares.

Despite optimism, there’s little detail in the declaration on how the goal will actually be met or how progress will be monitored. Plus, the goal is not binding — so there’s good reason not to get your hopes up just yet. Still, if governments deliver, it could be a big deal. 

“While the Glasgow Declaration has an impressive range of signatories from across forest-rich countries, large consumer markets and financial centres, it nevertheless risks being a reiteration of previous failed commitments if it lacks teeth,” said Jo Blackman, Head of Forests Policy and Advocacy at Global Witness, in a statement. 

Forests and climate change

Forests are a key ally to prevent climate change as they remove emissions out of the atmosphere and prevent them from warming the planet. Still, this climate buffering is quickly disappearing. More than 250,000 square kilometers (99,600 square miles) of forest were lost in 2020, an area larger than the UK, according to Global Forest Watch. The only tropical country that has truly managed to stop and reverse deforestation is Costa Rica, and it managed to do so thanks to a program that put an economic value on standing forests and biodiversity and basically paid people to protect forests. There’s no such system set in place for the new pledge.

Stopping forest loss and degradation and promoting their restoration could contribute to over one-third of the total emissions reduction needed to fulfill the targets of the Paris Agreement on climate change. Forests are also very important for people’s livelihoods and provide billions every year in goods and services such as clean water.

Nevertheless, trees are still cut down on an industrial scale, such as in the Amazon under the government of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Brazil’s emissions rose 9.5% in 2020 largely due to the increasing deforestation. The Amazon lost 10,476 squared kilometers between August 2020 and July 2021, according to a recent report, putting indigenous populations at risk.

“Indigenous peoples are calling for 80 percent of the Amazon to be protected by 2025, and they’re right, that’s what’s needed,” Greenpeace Brazil Executive Director Carolina Pasquali said in a statement, adding the new initiative is essentially allowing another decade of deforestation. “The climate and the natural world can’t afford this deal.”

We’ve changed a third of the Earth’s land surface in less than 60 years

A third of the global land surface, or 43 million squared kilometers, has been subject to change from 1960 to 2019, driven by an expansion in agriculture and cattle ranching, a new study shows. This means that on average a land area of about twice the size of Germany (720,000 squared kilometers) has been altered every year since 1960.

Image credit: CIFOR

“Land-use change” refers to ways in which humans alter the natural landscape. This can be permanent destruction, such as urban expansion, or just temporary. Some changes, such as forest restoration or regeneration, may attempt to repair previous damage. Overall, it’s a widespread phenomenon, previous studies have shown. But we weren’t expecting it to be this widespread.

Land use is usually measured by high-resolution satellite imagery and by large-scale statistical surveys. But each method has its own shortcomings when assessing land-use change. Satellites can capture land use in high detail, but their records only extend back a few decades, while statistical methods go further back in time but at a worse resolution.

Little work has been done to combine both approaches – until now. Karina Winkler, a physical geographer at Wageningen University & Research in the Netherlands, and her colleagues brought together more than 20 satellite land-use products and long-term surveys. The resulting dataset captures changes in land use with a 1km resolution.

But not all land-use change is permanent. So instead of looking at “net” changes that only capture the overall transformation of an area, the dataset captures places where land use has changed multiple times, such as rotation between cropland and pasture. When this is added, the extent of land-use change is really massive.

The map below, done by the researchers shows where both single-change (yellow shading) and multiple-change (red) events are occurring around the world. Instances of multiple-change events are dominant across Europe, India, and the US, while single-change events are widespread across South America, China, and south-east Asia.

Image credit: The researchers

Land-use change

For their study, Winkler and her team established six categories of land use, following the definitions used by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO): urban areas, cropland, pasture, unmanaged grassland, forest, and sparsely vegetated land. Notable patterns jump out when looking at what types of change are occurring where.

For example, about half of the single-change events (or nearly 20% of the total changes) happen because of agricultural expansion, such as deforestation. And 86% of the multiple-change events are agriculture-related, predominantly happening in the global north and select rapidly growing economies.

Averaged globally, land-use change steadily increased for nearly half a century. But, in 2005, there was a “rather abrupt change” in this trend and land-use change began decelerating worldwide, the authors found. This is most evident in Africa, South America, and regions of Subtropics and Tropics and linked to market developments.

The charts below show the differences in land-use change rates in six geographical regions, as well as the worldwide average. The global rates of change are defined by an acceleration period from 1960 to the early 2000s, followed by deceleration since about 2005. Land-use change is responsive to “socio-economic developments,” the authors write.

Image credit: The researchers

Almost one-quarter of total human-caused greenhouse gas emissions between 2007 and 2016 were due to agriculture, forestry, and other land use, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). This falls just behind electricity and heat production as the world’s second-largest contributor to global emissions.

But if conserved properly land can actually help bring down emissions, acting as a sink of greenhouse gases – for example with the carbon absorbed by the forests. The balance of sources and sinks through land-use change, the IPCC says, is a “key source of uncertainty” in considering the future of the land carbon cycle.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Conservation efforts can really help forests regrow naturally

With millions of hectares of forest disappearing every year, conservationists are putting a larger emphasis on forest regeneration – an approach through which natural forests are allowed or encouraged to recover under their own steam.

The efforts seem to be paying off. Almost 59 million hectares of forests have already grown back worldwide since 2000, according to a new study — an area larger than the surface of Spain. The regrown forest area is estimated to store almost 5.9 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), which is good news amid the global climate crisis.

Image credit: Flickr / Walkers

The study is part of a two-year research project from a team lead by WWF researchers which analyzed more than 30 years of satellite imaging data and survey local experts at more than 100 forest regeneration sites in 29 countries. The results can be seen in an interactive map created by the researchers.

“It would take decades or even centuries for a regenerated ‘secondary forest’ to become as rich in carbon and wildlife as an existing, old-growth forest, and some ecosystems can never recover from deforestation. Nevertheless, restoring and expanding forests are central parts of the global challenge to absorb carbon, stabilize the climate and restore wildlife,” the researchers wrote.

Forest regeneration means letting nature take the lead and allowing the forest heal naturally, instead of mass plantations. Some areas need nothing more than to be left alone to begin regenerating, while others need active encouragement to grow back, depending on the condition of the soil and the local land use. It’s a different approach to forest restoration or reforestation, which have been questioned.

One of the simplest ways to remove carbon dioxide from the air is to plant trees. But scientists say the right trees must be planted in the right place if they are to be effective at reducing carbon emissions. That’s why the researchers are instead encouraging regeneration, which can secure even more carbon storage and biodiversity.

“We’ve known for a long time that natural forest regeneration is often cheaper, richer in carbon, and better for biodiversity than actively planted forests,” William Baldwin-Cantello, director of nature-based solutions at WWF, said in a statement. “This research tells us where and why regeneration is happening, and how we can recreate those conditions elsewhere.”

Regeneration efforts

A quick look at the regeneration map shows that, while deforestation hotspots are concentrated in the tropics, most regeneration has taken place in the northern hemisphere. As countries grow richer, they move towards manufacturing and service industries, freeing up land for regeneration, the researchers explained.

Image credits: WWF.

But not all is well. A closer look shows that some of the regeneration hotpots also sit alongside areas known for the high deforestation rates in Southeast Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, and Brazil. This isn’t necessarily surprising, as some of the land cleared for timber or agriculture is usually abandoned shortly after – allowing areas to regenerate naturally. Examples of this include the Atlantic Forest, along the coast of South America, a forest area that once occupied more than a million squared kilometers but now only 15% remains. The mapping study showed an estimated 4.2 million hectares have regenerated in Brazil since 2000, much of it focused around the Atlantic Forest biome.

At the same time, in Mongolia’s boreal forests, conservation efforts have helped to regenerate 1.2 million hectares of forest, the study showed. There has been an increased emphasis from the Mongolian government on protected areas, preventing fires and illegal activities such as logging and mining, in line with natural regeneration.

Despite these encouraging signs, the researchers warned that deforestation levels are still very high around the world. The rate at which the world’s forests are being destroyed increased sharply last year, with at least 42,000 sq km of tree cover lost in key tropical regions, a study by Global Forest Watch showed earlier this year.

Two-thirds of global forest cover loss is occurring in the tropic and subtropic regions of the world, where vast clusters of deforestation hot spots are destroying the important ecosystem services forests provide. There are 24 of these hot spots that are spread across Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Oceania, the WWF showed.

No pandemic break for rainforests: deforestation surged in 2020

The global economic downturn caused by the pandemic last year didn’t slow down the destruction of tropical forests around the world. Quite the contrary: when no one was looking, deforestation surged.

Image credit: Flickr / CIFOR

At least 42,000 squared kilometers were lost in 2020 — a 12% increase compared to 2019, according to data from the University of Maryland and the online monitoring platform Global Forest Watch. It was the third-worst year for forest destruction since 2002 when comparable monitoring began.

The losses were especially severe in humid tropical forests such as the Congo, south-east Asia, and the Amazon. These forests are irreplaceable ecosystems and vital carbon sinks that regulate the global climate. These forests lost 4.2 million hectares in 2020, equivalent to the annual emissions of 570 million cars.

“We’re still losing primary forest at an unacceptable rate,” Rod Taylor, who oversights the Global Forest Watch platform, told the New York Times. “A 12% increase year over year is too much when the trend should be going down.”

As in past years, deforestation driven by commodities was the leading cause of tree cover loss both in primary and secondary forests in Latin America and Southeast Asia. Meanwhile, in Africa, the main cause was shifting agriculture, according to the report. Fires and other climate-related impacts also played a big role around the world.

Deforestation ranking

Unsurprisingly, Brazil was the country to lose the most forests last year, with a total of 1.7 million hectares – a 25% increase compared to 2019. The Amazon was the most affected region in the country, with 1.5 million hectares of forest lost. This coincided with a growing number of forest fires across the Amazon last year. All of this fits with the disregard shown by the current Bolsonaro administration towards protecting the environment and Amazonian forests.

Elsewhere in Latin America, forests have not fared much better. Bolivia rose to number three on the list of countries with the most tropical forest loss in 2020, passing Indonesia for the first time. As in Brazil, forest fires played a big role and affected several protected areas. Large-scale agriculture also affected forests.

Meanwhile, in Colombia, the rate of primary forest loss also rose in 2020. The country has had high rates of forest loss since the 2016 agreement between the government and the FARC guerrilla group, which led to a vacuum of power in previously controlled forest areas.

Peru was in fifth place for most tropical forest loss, mainly because of small clearings for agriculture and cattle ranching. The report also shows a number of new logging roads throughout the Peruvian Amazon rainforest. Gold mining, which used to be a key driver of deforestation, has slowed down thanks to government interventions.

African countries also experienced an increase in forest loss. Cameroon doubled the loss in 2020 compared to 2019, a process fueled by the expansion of small-scale shifting agriculture and wood energy demands. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) had the second-highest amount of forest loss behind Brazil, with 490,000 hectares lost.

A glimpse of hope

Forest loss decreased in Indonesia for the fourth year in a row in 2020, one of only a few countries where this happened. The country dropped out of the top three countries for primary forest loss for the first time since record-keeping began. This is mainly due to national and subnational initiatives from the government, such as a moratorium on new oil palm oil plantation licenses. In other words, forest conservation does work, when enforced properly.

Good news came out from Malaysia too, with a decline in forest loss for the fourth year in a row. The country has lost a fifth of its primary forest since 2001. The report highlighted promising actions for forest conservation, including a five-year cap on plantation area in 2019, and plans to toughen forest laws by increasing fines.

“While there is reason to celebrate this decline in primary forest loss, Indonesia and Malaysia must do more to continue and strengthen existing policies to ensure this trend continues, including extending the oil palm plantation license moratorium which is set to expire in 2021,” the report reads.

Looking ahead

Frances Seymour, a senior fellow at WRI, told the New York Times that globally it was “astonishing that in a year that the global economy contracted somewhere between 3 and 4%, primary forest loss increased by 12%.” She added that the world has yet to see the greatest impact on forests from the pandemic, “which will probably come into play as economies start to recover.”

In the report, the researchers argued that urgent action to tackle forest loss is needed. Countless species are being lost, the effects of climate change are already being felt and forest clearing is having an impact on the livelihoods of indigenous communities. They called to “reimagine policies and economies” in a way that protects forests “before it’s too late.”

Reading this? The odds are your consumer habits are causing the loss of 4 trees per year

Growing imports in developed countries (especially things like beef, coffee, or chocolate) are encouraging deforestation in tropical regions, according to a new study. Consumer behavior in rich countries is responsible for the felling of four trees per person every year, the researchers found, calling to discuss the consequences of international trade.

Image credit: Flickr /CIFOR

Forests are crucial terrestrial ecosystems, covering about a third of the global land area. They’re invaluable to wildlife and humans alike, providing invaluable ecosystem services for global communities. Tropical forests are the richest biodiverse ecosystems, harboring 50–90% of all terrestrial species.

Researchers have been sounding the alarm over the recent decline of the world’s forests, warning that deforestation is one of the biggest environmental challenges, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, biodiversity loss, and changes in the hydrological cycle. To make matters even worse, over half of Earth’s remaining tropical rainforests are located in the Amazon Basin, where the deforestation rate has increased since 2013.

But according to a new study, we all have our part of the blame for this, as our habits (especially the way we consume goods) is causing deforestation on the other side of the globe.

Eating the forests

Two researchers calculated the “deforestation footprints” of individual countries, comparing their domestic deforestation to that which they “import” from abroad through their consumption of foreign-made products. It’s the first time a study links maps of global deforestation to the goods imported by each country.

“We wish people would think more about deforestation before buying and consuming forest-risk commodities,” Dr. Nguyen Hoang, the lead researcher of the study, told Carbon Brief. “Obtaining net forest gains domestically, but expanding non-domestic deforestation footprints – especially in the tropics – might do more harm than good for climate change mitigation.”

Overall, the researchers found that the main trading partners implicated in deforestation footprints include many tropical countries, such as Brazil, Madagascar, Argentina, Indonesia, and Côte d’Ivoire. These countries majorly export forest-risk commodities (for example, cattle, soybeans, coffee, cocoa, palm oil, and timber) to the G7 countries and China.

The maps below show the cumulative spatial deforestation footprint over 15 years, from 2001 to 2015, for China (a), Brazil (b), Germany (c), Singapore (d), Japan (e), and the US. The shaded areas illustrate where the deforestation footprint originates in each country and the scale of the forest loss it drives. The maps were done with forest loss and a global supply chain model.

Deforestation is often on the other side of the world. Image credits: Huang and Kanemoto (2021).

While the study is global and calculates deforestation footprints for a range of countries, the authors focused on these six countries. Japan, the US, Germany, and China are the world’s largest economies, while Singapore is usually described as one of the four “Asian Tigers” due to its rapid economic growth and Brazil is home to a vast area of tropical rainforest — they’re areas of interest, for different reasons.

The US footprint is clearly distinguishable in the map from those of the countries listed above, with US consumption leading to higher deforestation in several deforestation hotspots. The US is the main importer of a wide range of commodities from tropical countries, for example, timber from Cambodia, rubber from Liberia, and soy and beef from Brazil.

The researchers also looked at each country’s per-capita deforestation levels, which were estimated by combining the maps with a global tree density map. Residents in the G7 countries drive an average loss of 4 trees or 58m2 of forest per year per capita through their consumption. This is half of the forest loss driven by US consumption. On the other hand, China and India registered values below 1.

Image credits: Huang and Kanemoto (2021).

They also analyzed the impacts of deforestation from different types of forests – tropical, temperate, boreal, mangroves, Mediterranean, and “other” – and found imports of tropical deforestation-related commodities are growing. Developed countries and China are “major” importers of tropical deforestation-related commodities.

Dr. Chris West, at the University of York, UK, who was not part of the research team, told The Guardian: “Consumption can have large effects overseas, given our dependence on international supply chains. While policy at government level is often focused on domestic concerns, the fact is that if we don’t also tackle this international footprint we will continue to drive devastating environmental impacts globally.”

The study was published in the journal Nature Ecology & Evolution.

Indigenous communities are the best guardians of Latin America’s forests

Deforestation rates in Latin America are significantly lower in territories managed by indigenous and tribal groups that have been recognized with territorial rights, according to a report by the United Nations. The report suggests that indigenous communities are important wardens of local forests and improving the tenure security of these territories would be an effective and efficient way of reducing deforestation.

Image credit: Flickr / CIFOR

The report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) is based on a review of more than 300 studies published in the last two decades. It reveals for the first time the extent to which science has shown that indigenous and tribal people have been the best guardians of the forests across Latin America over the years.

“Indigenous and tribal peoples and the forests in their territories play vital roles in global and regional climate action and in fighting poverty, hunger, and malnutrition. Their territories contain about one-third of all the carbon stored in the forests of Latin America,” FAO’s representative for Latin America, Julio Berdegué, said in a statement

Over 400 million hectares of land are currently occupied by indigenous people in Latin America. But governments have formally recognized property or usufruct rights on only 269 million hectares. Coincidentally, these are the ones to have registered the best results regarding deforestation rates – especially in countries such as Bolivia, Brazil, Peru, and Colombia.

One study included in the report found that from 2006 to 2012, forests managed by indigenous communities in Peru reduced deforestation by twice as much as other protected areas. Another study on the Amazon basin found indigenous territories lost 0.3% of the carbon in their forests between 2006 and 2016, compared to the 3.6% of non-protected land.

“Almost half of the intact forests in the Amazon Basin are in indigenous territories, Myrna Cunningham, president of Fund for the Development of Indigenous Peoples of Latin America and the Caribbean (FILAC), said in a statement. “The evidence of their vital role in forest protection is crystal clear. Their voice and vision should be taken into account in global initiatives and frameworks.”

FAO urged Latin American governments to take action, firstly by recognizing communities with territorial rights. The costs of doing so are 5 to 42 times lower than the average costs of avoided greenhouse gas emissions through fossil carbon capture and storage for both coal and gas-fired power plants. Only $6 are needed to title a hectare of land in Colombia, for example.

The report also suggested reinforcing programs to compensate indigenous and tribal communities for their contributions to climate stability and nature conservation. Paying them for the environmental services they provide has reduced deforestation in countries such as Ecuador, Mexico, and Peru, as they use the funds to finance infrastructure, services, and value chains.

With generations of experience protecting nature, these communities have strong track records of guarding the forest. They favor smaller-scale and more diverse farming, taking less from the land. Unfortunately, they are also under constant threat from climate change and the expansion of beef and fossil fuel production as well as mining and logging.

These threats have led to growing forest loss and conflict. Annual deforestation rates in Brazil’s indigenous territories rose from 10,337 hectares in 2017 to 42,697 hectares in 2019. Between 2000 and 2016 the area of large undisturbed forests in indigenous territories fell by 20% in Bolivia, 30% in Honduras, 42% in Nicaragua, and 59% in Paraguay.

Land-use change is creating an infectious disease boom, study finds

Activities such as deforestation, palm oil plantations, and the conversion of grasslands into new forests are associated with outbreaks of diseases, especially those transmitted by mosquitoes and other vector animals, according to a new study. This shows the urgency of careful forest management to prevent future pandemics.

Image credit: Flickr / Lauria Jacques

It’s no coincidence that pandemics are becoming more and more often. Pandemics tend to come from animal viruses, and the more we interact with animals (read: farm them or take over their territory), the more we increase the risk of a new virus making the jump from animals to humans.

Deforestation and forest degradation is taking place at alarming rates across the world, which contributes significantly to the ongoing loss of biodiversity. Since 1990, it is estimated that 420 million hectares of forest have been lost through conversion to other land uses, according to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The current Covid-19 pandemic has called to investigate the consequences of biodiversity loss for the emergence of zoonotic diseases. Previous studies in Brazil have shown deforestation increases the risk of malaria, while researchers in south-east Asia found that forest clearing favors the mosquito Anopheles darlingi – a vector for several diseases, including malaria.

To better understand these effects, a global team of researchers decided to investigate at a global scale whether the loss and gain of forest cover can promote outbreaks of vector-borne and zoonotic diseases. They looked at global trends in forest cover and epidemics of infectious diseases so to understand their connection.

“We don’t yet know the precise ecological mechanisms at play, but we hypothesize that plantations, such as oil palm, develop at the expense of natural wooded areas, and reforestation is mainly monospecific forest made at the expense of grasslands,” lead author Serge Morand said in a statement. “These simplified habitats favor vectors of diseases.”

Morand and his team looked at the correlation between forest cover, plantations, population, and disease around the globe – using statistics from organizations such as the World Bank, the World Health Organization, and FAO. The study period went from 1990 and 2016, covering over 3,800 outbreaks of more than 100 zoonotic diseases.

Outbreaks increased over time, while plantations also expanded rapidly and forest cover declined gradually. In tropical countries where deforestation was more common, the researchers found a correlation to large outbreaks of diseases like malaria. In temperate countries with afforestation, they found a link with outbreaks of diseases like Lyme Disease.

The findings add to growing evidence that viruses are more likely to transfer to humans or animals if they live in or near ecosystems disturbed by humans, such as cleared forests. This is influenced by consumer behavior, with a quarter of global forest loss driven by the production of commodities such as beef, soy, and palm oil.

With this in mind, the researchers included in their paper a set of recommendations for policymakers.

Stopping deforestation through international agreements that govern forest management, developing more research on how ecosystems regulate diseases and making accountable corporations that profit from deforestation are good ways to start.

“We hope that these results will help policymakers recognize that forests contribute to a healthy planet and people, and that governing bodies need to avoid afforestation and agricultural conversion of grasslands,” Morand said in a statement. “We’d also like to encourage research into how healthy forests regulate diseases.”

The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Veterinary Science.

Parrots are facing extinction, and only policymakers can save them

Parrots may not be very long for this world — and it’s on us. New research finds that parrot species around the world are threatened with extinction due to wide-spread habitat destruction. Current protected areas can’t mitigate these losses, the team adds.

Image credits Will Zhang.

Pressures from human activity is putting parrot species at risk of extinction all around the world. As such, the future of these birds is firmly in the hands of policy makers in Australia and other areas where parrots are endemic, the authors explain. Agriculture and logging are the biggest culprits that the team identified, but other events (such as the Australian wildfires of last year) are also contributing to the problem.

Parrotn’t?

“In a previous global evaluation of parrots with scientists from BirdLife International we showed that they are among the most threatened bird orders, with higher extinction risk than other comparable bird groups,” co-author Dr. George Olah, from the ANU Fenner School of Environment and Society, said.

As their current range experiences significant habitat destruction, parrot species are struggling to adapt all over the world. Those areas that are currently designated as protected are much too small to serve as alternative home for them.

The study is a product of a collaboration between parrot ecologists at The Australian National University (ANU) and spatial ecologists from the National University of Córdoba, Argentina. It looked at and compared the conservation status of parrots in different areas of the planet in order to come up with a wide-scale picture of the threats they face.

Over half of the world’s critically endangered species of parrot live in Australia, Asia, and the Pacific area, the team explains. Apart from habitat destruction, wildlife trade is further pushing parrot species towards extinction here.

The team explains that temperate forests in Australia (which house many species of parrots) were already showing signs of heavy degradation in 2020 due to human-modified landscapes. They project that this trend will continue and worsen the health of these ecosystems by 2050.

“We predicted that agricultural expansion will have a further negative effect on the conservation status of parrots, pushing many of their species to the edge of extinction in the near future,” co-author Dr. Javier Nori said.

The team identified four hotspots of parrot biodiversity, two in the Neotropics and two in Oceania, noting that each faces “different degrees of threat in regard to current habitat loss and agricultural trends”. They add that the findings “suggest the future of the group is subject to policymaking in specific regions, especially in the northeastern Andes and the Atlantic Forest”.

Deforestation, fueled by the need for arable land, remains a dire threat for parrots. These birds are “highly dependent on forests,” the authors explain, and could be pushed “to the edge of extinction in the near future” as more land is cleared. Policymakers can help protect the birds’s habitat and expand on current protected areas, or even set up new ones in the hotspots.

The paper “Global trends of habitat destruction and consequences for parrot conservation” has been published in Global Change Biology.

How satellite alerts are tackling deforestation across African countries

Subscriptions to satellite alerts can help tackle deforestation, one of the main drivers of greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity loss, a new study showed. A group of African countries where organizations received warnings from a service using satellites saw an 18% plunge in forest loss over a two-year period.

Credit image: Flickr / CIFOR

Land-use changes like deforestation account for 6% to 17% of global carbon emissions. And avoiding deforestation is much more effective at reducing emissions than regrowing forests. Needless to say, forests also provide essential support not just for countless ecosystems, but also for human populations.

A group of US researchers wanted to understand whether automated deforestation alerts could help to reduce forest loss. They focused on the Global Land Analysis and Discovery (GLAD) system, which provides frequent, high-resolution alerts when it detects a drop in forest cover. Governments and organizations can freely access the service and receive weekly emails with geographic coordinates of the alerts within the monitored areas.

“The first question was to look at whether there was any impact from having access to this free alert system. Then we were looking at the effect of users subscribing to this data to receive alerts for a specific area,” Fanny Moffette, lead author of the paper and researcher at the University of Wisconsin–Madiso, said in a statement.

Moffette and her team looked at the impact of GLAD in 22 tropical countries across South America, Africa, and Asia from 2011 to 2018. Subscriptions to alerts decreased the probability of deforestation in Africa by 18% relative to the average 2011–2016 levels, the study showed, with no effect seen in other continents.

Africa’s tropical forests include the Guinean Forests and the Congo Basin, an expansive rainforest often referred to as the “world’s second set of lungs”. The continent’s forests store 171 gigatons of carbon, are home to many plants and animals that exist nowhere else in the world, and support an estimated 100 million people.

Calculated using the social cost of carbon for avoided deforestation in Africa, the researchers estimated the alert system’s value to be between $149 million and $696 million. In other words, that’s how much money was saved by preventing deforestation. Protected areas and concessions were the most benefited areas, suggesting alerts can increase the capacity to enforce deforestation policies.

However, being covered by GLAD doesn’t automatically mean less deforestation, the researchers said. Only those African countries in which organizations had actually subscribed to receive alerts saw a decrease in deforestation. Having access to information is good but it’s more important to have people committed to using it.

But the situation is more complex when looking at the entire planet.

While the results were positive in Africa, the researchers found no decline in deforestation in South American or Asian countries, even where organizations subscribed to receive warnings. There are multiple possible reasons for this discrepancy, such as political unrest that limited the use of GLAD in other countries, or a lack of interest in tackling deforestation.

“We see an effect mainly in Africa due to two main reasons,” said Moffette. “GLAD added more to efforts in Africa than on other continents, in the sense that there was already some evidence of countries using monitoring systems in countries like Indonesia and Peru. And Colombia and Venezuela, which are a large part of our sample, had significant political unrest during this period.”

Looking forward, the researchers believe the influence of the GLAD program might grow, as a larger number of governments and organizations register to receive deforestation warnings. Moffette and her team wish to keep looking at GLAD and the effects of the new features recently added to the platform.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon breaks 12-year record, as administration focuses on industry

Despite the pandemic, deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil reached a dire record: a 12-year high. The news drew widespread condemnation of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and his support of industrial and agricultural policies at the expense of the environment.

Deforestation in the Amazon is taking a turn for the worse. Image credit: Greenpeace

‘The Amazon is ours’, Brazil president Jair Bolsonaro famously said in 2019 — cautioning other countries to mind their own business. The overall attitude of the administration was clear: the environment is the least of concerns, and as many areas as possible must be opened for mining, agriculture, and logging. It’s unsurprising, then, that the Amazon is experiencing record deforestation.

A total of 4,281 square miles (11,088 square kilometers) of the forest were destroyed in Brazil’s share of the Amazon in the 12 months to August 2020, according to Brazil’s space agency PRODES monitoring program, which monitors deforestation. This was a 9.5% increase from the previous year, when deforestation also broke a record.

“Because of such deforestation, Brazil is probably the only major greenhouse gas emitter that managed to increase its emissions in the year the coronavirus pandemic paralyzed the global economy,” said the Brazilian Climate Observatory, a coalition of environmental groups, in a statement.

But while most of the Amazon is indeed in Brazil, the rainforest affects all of us. Rainforests like the Amazon play a key role in controlling climate as they absorb carbon, a greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere. Nevertheless, when they die or burn, trees release carbon back into the environment. This and its valuable biodiversity made world leaders call for the protection of the Amazon.

While the new figures are preliminary and will be confirmed early next year, they clash against Brazil’s goal to slow the speed of deforestation to 3,900 square kilometers per year by 2020. The figures came just as Vice President Hamilton Mourao presented the figures in a press conference and assured the government is fighting deforestation.

“The message I bring in the name of President Bolsonaro is that we will continue working with science and technology to support the work of environmental protection agencies,” said Mourao in a press conference, a retired army general who heads Bolsonaro’s Amazon task force against deforestation.

But many aren’t buying it. Carlos Rittl, a Brazilian environmentalist at Germany’s Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, told The Guardian that the numbers were a clear sign of the damage being done to the environment since Bolsonaro took office in 2019. The area deforested this year is a third the size of Belgium, he estimated.

Bolsonaro came to power last year promoting an agenda based on more extractive activities in the Amazon. He even asked Congress to change environmental protection laws and cut the budget and the staff of the federal environmental protection agency IBAMA, recently replacing its managers and coordinators.

Back in May, a video of a governmental meeting showed Environmental Minister Ricardo Salles claiming the government should take advantage of the media’s focus on the COVID-19 pandemic to loosen the environmental restrictions. The video was disclosed as part of a Supreme Court investigation.

Environmental groups have called the government to better penalize the major loggers in order to truly protect the Amazon, using not only sanctions but also blocking bank accounts, for example — because fines just won’t cut it. A study by InfoAmazonia showed that as of 2019, only 3% of the fines imposed since 1980 were actually paid, and the government isn’t taking any real measures to enforce the fines.

International pressure has mounted on Brazil so far this year to protect the Amazon. Global investors managing more than US$2 trillion threatened to pull back their investments if Bolsonaro doesn’t take action. However, Bolsonaro’s outward denial of facts seems to spell more trouble for the Amazon.

French President Emmanuel Macron has fiercely questioned Brazil, claiming it’s not doing enough to protect the forest. At the same time, United States president-elect Joe Biden said in the presidential debate this year that the world should offer Brazil money to fund efforts to stop deforestation. Macron is just one of many international voices criticizing Brazil’s current administration for their lack of environmental policies.

Better health care can help prevent tropical deforestation

Access to affordable healthcare can make a big difference in addressing deforestation, according to a new study. Researchers from Stanford University found that setting up an affordable health clinic near a national park in Indonesia led to a 70% drop in deforestation over a 10-year period.

Credit Flick CIFOR

Tropical forests lose more than 100 trees every second, altering landscapes and impacting livelihoods, health, biodiversity, and climate change. Across the tropics, forest loss now exceeds forest gain, leading to net carbon emission from some of the most important natural carbon stocks in the world.

In biodiverse, carbon-rich tropical forests, the establishment of protected areas benefits both conservation and climate mitigation goals. But it often excludes local communities that surround the areas. Failure to address the needs of local people can in turn lead to unsustainable forest use, such as illegal logging.

Nonprofit organizations Alam Sehat Lestari and Health in Harmony established a healthcare clinic in the vicinity of the Gunung Palung National Park in West Kalimantan, Indonesia. The clinic served thousands of patients and was very affordable, accepting alternative payments such as labor.

The NGOs created a bartering system in the clinic, using hand-made crafts and tree seedlings. The clinic also gave discounts to villages that could show evidence of reductions in illegal logging. Beyond gaining access to affordable healthcare, the residents were provided training in sustainable, organic agriculture.

“This innovative model has clear global health implications,” said study co-author Michele Barry, director of the Center for Innovation in Global Health, in a statement. “Health and climate can and should be addressed in unison, and done in coordination with and respect for local communities.”

A team of researchers at the Stanford University team analyzed the outcomes of the health clinic, covering the period from 2009 to 2019. Using satellite images of forest cover and patient records from the clinic, they linked the health program to a 70% drop in deforestation compared to other national parks in Indonesia.

The fall in deforestation averted an estimated equivalent carbon loss of more than $65 million, using European carbon market prices. Looking at community-level logging rates, the study found that the greatest drop-offs in logging occurred adjacent to villages with the highest rates of clinic usage.

Monica Nirmala, executive director of the healthcare clinic from 2014 to 2018, said: “The data support two important conclusions: human health is integral to the conservation of nature and vice versa, and we need to listen to the guidance of rainforest communities who know best how to live in balance with their forests.”

The study was published in the journal PNAS.

Bolsonaro calls Amazon fires a “lie”, dismisses own government data

Facing a global pressure over his environmental policies, Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro described the fires in the Amazon rainforest as a ‘lie’, despite data from his own administration actually shows that there are thousands of open fires across the tropical region.

Aerial view of a large burned area in the city of Candeiras do Jamari in the state of Rondonia. Credit Greenpeace

A report from Brazil’s national space research agency INPE showed that in the first 10 days of August forest fires were up 17% compared to the same period last year. Deforestation has grown 34.5% in the 12-months through July compared to the same period a year ago, according to INPE.

Nevertheless, Bolsonaro contested the data, claiming that those traveling by air in the Brazilian territory wouldn’t see a single flame.

“They won’t find any spot of fire, nor a quarter of a hectare deforested,” he said in a meeting of members of the Leticia Pact, an agreement between Amazon countries to protect the rainforest.

“This story that the Amazon is going up in flames is a lie and we must combat it with true numbers,” Bolsonaro said, claiming that Brazil proved that it can protect the Amazon alone as most of the forest is still standing. He said media and foreign governments are presenting a “false narrative” about the Amazon.

Nevertheless, environmentalists argue that isn’t the case. They link the forest fires with Bolsonaro’s vision of economic development, which essentially allows illegal loggers, cattle ranchers, and miners to destroy the forest. Bolsonaro has repeatedly said mining and farming are needed to take people out of poverty and has shown a lack of interest for the Amazonian environment.

There are over 240 satellite images of fires uploaded on Planet. This is just one of them.

“This is not because of government incompetence in combating devastation; it has been happening because the Bolsonaro administration’s agenda is to actively promote devastation. This is not incompetence; it’s a design,” said the Climate Observatory, a group comprised of more than 30 non-governmental organizations from Brazil.

It should surprise no one that the Brazilian president is doing his best to undermine the Amazon. Bolsonaro came to power promoting an agenda based on more extractive activities in the Amazon. He even asked Congress to change environmental protection laws and cut the budget and the staff of the federal environmental protection agency IBAMA, recently replacing its managers and coordinators.

The red dots represent the current forest fires in the Amazon forest. Credit Greenpeace

Back in May, a video of a governmental meeting showed Environmental Minister Ricardo Salles claiming the government should take advantage of the media’s focus on the Covid-19 pandemic to loosen the environmental restrictions. The video was disclosed as part of a Supreme Court investigation. The deregulation of the Amazon has been a core part of the Bolsonaro approach so far.

When deregulation could not be done, it’s lack of enforcement. Environmental groups have called the government to better penalize the major loggers in order to truly protect the Amazon, using not only sanctions but also blocking bank accounts, for example. A study by InfoAmazonia showed that only 3% of the fines imposed since October 2019 were actually paid.

International pressure

While Bolsonaro dismisses any sense of urgency, international pressure is mounting on Brazil to protect the Amazon, the largest rainforest in the world and a vital ecosystem to preserve climate change. Global investors managing more than US$2 trillion threatened to pull back their investments if Bolsonaro doesn’t take action. However, Bolsonaro’s outward denial of facts seems to spell more trouble for the Amazon.

But there are some good news yet.

The Brazilian government launched in June the Green Brazil Operation 2, a military mission headed by the Vice President Hamilton Mourão with the aim of curbing illegal deforestation.

“Our goal is to take the fires in the second half (of the year) to the minimum acceptable,” Mourão said in a press conference.

Bolsonaro also said last week his administration will launch a sustainable development fund in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank. It will be “an innovative financial mechanism for countries in the region and investors willing to promote the bioeconomy with respect for our standards,” he argued. Whether or not this project will be carried out responsible remains to be seen.

Environmentalists argue there’s no time to lose. The tropical forest is close to a tipping point when deforestation could alter the entire forest’s ecology and turn large areas into an arid savanna, with devastating consequences not only for the Amazon, but for the entire planet’s climate.

Brazilian Amazon readies for record burn season this year amid coronavirus

An area 11 times the size of New York City could be incinerated this year in the Brazilian Amazon as the annual fire season is set to begin soon. A new report warns that the country could see a “catastrophe” if the peak of the fires overlaps with the current coronavirus epidemic.

According to the Institute for Environmental Research in the Amazon (IPAM), as many as 4,500 square kilometers (1,740 square miles) have already been readied for burns starting July, when the region’s dry season and blazes begin. This would be larger than the forest fires registered last year — when images of the burning Amazon circled the world, shocking readers from all corners of the planet.

Every year, farmers around the Amazon burn down some parts of the rainforest to expand farming activity. Sometimes, the burns are legal; other times, they are not.

As president Jair Bolsonaro continues to cut down on environmental protections, this year is shaping up to be a disaster for the Amazon.

The burned area could even double to some 9,000 square kilometers as tree felling continues, said IPAM, citing data from Brazil’s national space institute. Researchers have already detected the “first major fire of 2020” in the Brazilian Amazon three months ahead of the fire season, so the outlook isn’t positive.

Unlike last year, little stands now on the way of growing deforestation in Brazil. The government officials that have to patrol the rainforest have been sidelined due to the coronavirus pandemic, which has been used by the Brazilian government as an opportunity to weaken environmental regulations and enforcement.

“Deforestation is almost entirely a reflection of public policy signals from President Bolsonaro’s government,” Tasso Azevedo, general coordinator at MapBiomas, a land-use monitoring platform, told Bloomberg. “And what he’s signaling is that illegal actors won’t be punished.”

The smoke generated by a larger fire season could aggravate the chaotic situation caused by the coronavirus outbreak in Brazil. The country already has the world’s second-highest number of cases, at 672,846, according to the Johns Hopkins University site, with growing concerns on the country’s most vulnerable communities. Adding the burden of respiratory problems caused by rainforest burning could be catastrophic for the country’s health system.

Last year, air pollution rose 53% in the Amazon cities near the burned forest and the number of respiratory conditions surged. Health clinics and hospitals in Brazil typically see an increase in patients in the periods when the country experiences forest fires. But beds are already occupied by those infected with the coronavirus. The northern areas of Brazil could see the higher risk, as its death rates from coronavirus exceed by twice the national average.

President Bolsonaro has repeatedly dismissed the criticism towards the situation at the Amazon, claiming the rainforest belongs to Brazil and that its natural resources should be used for the economic development of the country. Foreign interest on the Amazon is only due to countries’ desire to control its mineral resources, he has said.

Defiantly, the country’s Environment Minister Ricardo Salles had said the government should take advantage of the fact that people are distracted by the coronavirus epidemic to move forward in the deregulation of environmental policies. “We have to push through and change all the rules,” he said.

Deforestation: 2019 is the third most devastating year of the century

The world lost almost 120,000 square kilometers of forest in 2019 or about 46,000 square miles–an area the size of North Korea or Malawi. Agriculture, illegal logging, wildfires, and corruption are to blame. Brazil, Bolivia, and Congo were some of the countries with the highest losses last year.

Brazil, Bolivia and Congo were some of the countries with the highest figures last year
Credit Flickr

The World Resources Institute (WRI), which published the data, said almost a third of that loss, an area the size of Switzerland, came from tropical forests, highly important for climate regulation and for their outstanding biodiversity.

The new statistics end a two-year decline on global deforestation and represent the third highest year of forest loss since the turn of the century. Brazil, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Bolivia were some of the countries with the largest forest loss, according to the report.

With the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro disregarding the environment, Brazil had the highest rate of deforestation in 2019. About 46% happened in primary forest, clearing out 14.000 squared kilometers (5,405 squared miles). The forest loss was higher in 2019 than at any other time during the previous 13 years.

Mining, agribusiness and forest fires were only some of the drivers behind Brazil’s deforestation. Environmental organizations have warned that the rhetoric of Bolsonaro has encouraged farmers to invade forests, even in protected areas. The country has seen record forest fires last year.

The DRC ranked second with 4,750 square kilometers of primary forest lost in 2019 and 12,000 square kilometers of general tree cover lost. The numbers were slightly lower than in 2018 but remain close to the record tree-loss seen by the country in 2016 and 2017

Deforestation in the DRC is mainly explained by small-scale agriculture. Nevertheless, the report warned over the expansion of industrial deforestation and that the country is on track to losing all its primary forests by the end of the century if the current deforestation rates continue.

Meanwhile, Bolivia’s forests also had an especially bleak year, losing more trees since data began to be collected in 2001. The country lost 1.3% of its tree cover last year, explained by record-breaking wildfires in the second half of the year. The fires were especially severe in the department of Santa Cruz.

The forest fires in Bolivia were mainly intentional to convert forest to farmland, local NGOs have warned. President Evo Morales signed in 2019 a decree to expand land for the agribusiness sector, which partly explains last year’s deforestation rate – likely to follow the same trend this year.

Some countries are making progress

It wasn’t all bad news for the world’s forests in 2019, as some countries are actually making efforts to bring down their deforestation rates.

Forest loss declined in Indonesia in 2019, accumulating three years in a row with lower deforestation. Primary forest loss especially plunged, reaching its lowest number since 2003. The decline is explained by stronger forest protection policies implemented in the country since its 2016 fire crisis.

Colombia also reported last year its first reduction in primary forest loss in five years. Deforestation dropped 35% from a 17-year high seen in 2018. Nevertheless, WRI warned that deforestation could be again on the rise this year in Colombia, based on preliminary data that shows agribusiness moving into national parks.

At the same time, data from West Africa shows that forest loss declined 50% in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire in 2019, following an increase in 2018. The drop is explained by ambitious conservation initiatives and pledges from countries and companies to end deforestation.

Frances Seymour, a senior fellow at WRI, told The Guardian that the level of global forest loss was unacceptable and that it was clear what was needed to reverse the trend. “If governments put into place good policies and enforce the law, forest loss goes down. But if governments relax restrictions on burning, or signal an intent to open up indigenous territories for commercial exploitation, forest loss goes up.”

The international community could help address the problem, Seymour said, introducing economic or market incentives for protecting forests. There are key steps the governments should embrace, she said, such as increase the monitoring and enforcement and provide the poor with other alternatives rather than forest exploitation.

Humanity is making trees grow less and live shorter lives

Forests around the world are feeling the shifts in global climate and atmospheric chemistry, a new paper reports. Trees are growing shorter, and there are fewer and fewer older ones around, as tree mortality is on the rise due to a conflux of factors.

Image credits Ilona Ilyés.

These changes have a profound effect on the overall makeup of forest ecosystems, and can potentially have ramifications for all other ecosystems on the planet.

Tree troubles

“This trend is likely to continue with climate warming,” said Nate McDowell, the study’s lead author and a researcher at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

“A future planet with fewer large, old forests will be very different than what we have grown accustomed to. Older forests often host much higher biodiversity than young forests and they store more carbon than young forests.”

They used satellite imagery and available research on forests to conclude that the average size of trees has been declining over the last century. The changes in trees’ lifecycles are being driven by rising average temperatures and growing concentrations of atmospheric CO2 gases.

Greater availability of carbon in the air makes for more fertile times, as plants use this element to develop and grow. However, higher average temperatures are placing increased stress on the plants and increasing the frequency of damaging events such as wildfires, droughts, and damaging winds — which increase tree mortality. Deforestation also factors in here, further increasing tree mortality and inducing changes in the age and structure of forests.

According to the team, these elements have already induced a noticeable change in the makeup and average age of forests. Such human-induced changes will most likely continue in the foreseeable future, they add, leading to ever-shrinking old-growth forests globally.

Forest life

The makeup and age of individual forests are closely interlinked characteristics, and they’re primarily the product of three different factors: recruitment, which is the addition of seedlings to a community, growth rates, as determined by the net increase in biomass/carbon, and mortality rates.

“Mortality is rising in most areas, while recruitment and growth are variable over time, leading to a net decline in the stature of forests,” said McDowell. “Unfortunately, mortality drivers like rising temperature and disturbances such as wildfire and insect outbreaks are on the rise and are expected to continue increasing in frequency and severity over the next century.”

“So, reductions in average forest age and height are already happening and they’re likely to continue to happen.”

Old-growth forests have different characteristics compared to young ones. They’re different ecosystems, harboring a greater diversity of plants and animals, as well as more biomass overall. They have a greater ability to process atmospheric carbon, and they store more of it. The shift from old- to young-growth forests around the world “has consequences on biodiversity, climate mitigation, and forestry,” McDowell adds.

The problem is further exacerbated by the fact that large areas of old-growth forests lost over the last century weren’t replaced by young forests, but by completely different landscapes and ecosystems, such as agricultural, pastoral, or industrial areas.

Humanity takes a toll

Image via Pixabay.

As our effects on global ecological mechanisms increases, the toll these changes take on forests will increase as well. The team explains that higher concentrations of CO2 only seem to benefit young forests that have abundant nutrients and water. Given that many fertile areas of the world have issues with the supply of either or both of those essential elements, the increase in atmospheric CO2 only brings a modest benefit to forests.

At the same time, higher temperatures promote freak, damaging weather events, and reduce plants’ ability to photosynthesize. The team explains that this temperature-induced impairment is one of the leading causes of the trees’ reduced size. Droughts associated with climatic shifts further impact forest mortality.

Finally, wood harvesting has one of the most profound effects on global forest age seen in the study. Where forests are re-established on harvested land, the trees are smaller and biomass is reduced.

All in all, the findings make it loud and clear that trees are struggling around the world. Forests are seen as an important part of our current global warming mitigation strategies (which are far from sufficient as it is), and the findings showcase that we may have overestimated how much they can help given their current, damaged state.

The paper “Pervasive shifts in forest dynamics in a changing world” has been published in the journal Science.

For Brazil, the coronavirus isn’t just a health crisis – it’s also an environmental one

For Brazil, the coronavirus epidemic isn’t only a health crisis. While the country has already 179,000 confirmed cases and 12,000 deaths, the environment is also taking a toll, with an increase of logging and mining operations.

Image credits Flickr.

Environmental organizations said the pandemic has provided a cover for extractive activities across the country, blaming Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro for what they say has been a tacit approval of deforestation in the Amazon region.

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon soared by 55% in the first four months of the year compared to the same period last year, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research. Destruction in April was up by 64% from the same month a year ago. A total of 5,606 square kilometers of forest have been lost since the “deforestation year” began August 1, 2019, the highest on record for this time of year. Forest loss in Brazil has now risen 13 consecutive months relative to year-earlier figures.

Ricardo Salles, Brazil’s environment minister, acknowledged that government data showed rising deforestation this year and said the coronavirus pandemic had “aggravated” the situation, without explaining exactly how. He said he was confident in the government’s actions to lower deforestation.

“Government agencies are in quarantine, the population is in quarantine, good people are in quarantine — but the criminals are not, so they are taking advantage of this momentum to increase their activity,” said André Guimarães, the head of Amazon Environmental Research Institute, a nonprofit organization.

The Brazilian state of Amazonas has been one of the hardest-hit regions of the country by the coronavirus pandemic, with many of the country’s resources going to fighting the virus. Campaigners fear this may mean that less attention is being given to the deforestation.

Fernando Azevedo, Brazil’s Defense Minister, said armed forces were establishing bases in three Amazon cities, with 3,800 troops mobilized against illegal logging and other crimes, at an initial cost of $10 million. The military is currently authorized for deployment for 30 days until 10 June but this could be extended.

“We have no doubt this problem will continue to exist,” the vice president said. “We don’t consider this the best job for the armed forces, to be always engaged in this type of action, but unfortunately it’s the means we have to limit these crimes from happening.”

Last year, over 10,000 square kilometers of forest were lost to fires and illegal deforestation. The vast majority of losses took place between May and October. Experts are concerned about the scale of destruction so far this year, since deforestation is normally hampered during these months due to the high rainfall.

Brazil’s environmental agency has seen large staffing and budget cuts since Bolsonaro’s tenure as president began. Environmentalists have repeatedly said that supporting Brazil’s environmental protection agencies would be a more effective plan than sending in military forces.

Palm oil’s emissions mainly come from getting the land ready

Obtained from the fruit of the oil palm tree, the use of palm oil has dramatically increased in recent years, and it is now the world’s most widely consumed and traded vegetable oil. But this has come at a cost: the clearing of land for more crops and the release of a growing amount of emissions to the atmosphere.

A palm oil site in Malaysia. Credit: Stephanie Evers

New research has looked at the greenhouse gas emissions released from palm oil plantations and found that getting the land ready and growing young plants is much more damaging for the environment than mature plantations, releasing twice the amount of greenhouse gas.

The study, published in Nature Communications, was performed by plant experts from the University of Nottingham working in Malaysia. They analyzed five sites with four different stages of land use, including secondary forest, uncleared forest, cleared forest, and mature plantations.

The team looked at soil and gas samples from the sites and concluded that the largest amount of emissions was released during the first stages of the crop development – 50% higher than the emissions released during the mature stage of the crops analyzed.

Tropical peat swamp forests, like the one in which the research was carried out, hold 20% of the global peatland carbon. Nevertheless, that amount of carbon could soon be released to the atmosphere because of the expansion of agriculture, mainly for oil palm and pulpwood.

Farmers drain the peatlands, which increases the amount of oxygen in the soil. This leads to a higher rate of decomposition of the organic material, which causes higher emissions from the drained peatlands. It’s not only carbon dioxide but also other gases such as CH4 and N208 that are released to the atmosphere.

“Tropical peat swamps have historically been avoided by palm oil growers due to the amount of preparation and drainage the land needs, but as land becomes more scarce there has been an increased demand to convert sites and the periphery of North Selangor is being heavily encroached upon by palm oil plantations,” said Dr. Sofie Sjogersten, co-author of the study.

Key facts about palm oil

Close to 50% of the packaged products in supermarkets now use palm oil, according to WWF, ranging from pizza to deodorant. It’s also used in animal feed and biofuels, showing a high versatility due to its properties. It’s resistant to oxidation, odorless, colorless, and stable at high temperatures.

Palm oil is a major driver of deforestation in some of the most biodiverse forests of the world, affecting the habitat of endangered species such as the Sumatran tiger. The deforestation leads to the peat soils reach with carbon being converted into greenhouse gas emissions.

Emissions due to palm oil in Indonesia represented between 2% and 9% of all tropical land-use emissions from 2000 to 2010. Indonesia is the seventh-largest emitter of greenhouse gasses, with deforestation accounting for 30% of those emissions. The country has already unveiled plans to double its palm oil production.

Cut down half the forest and the rest quickly follows suit

Researchers at the University of Cincinnati (UoC) report finding a ‘tipping point’ for deforestation past which rapid forest loss occurs.

Landscapes are constantly in flux due to natural processes and human activity. The latter can either cause changes directly, think clear-cutting, or indirectly, such as climate change.

Image via Pixabay.

In order to better understand how landscapes react to direct causes of human-driven change, a team at the UoC tracked deforestation dynamics across the planet between 1992 and 2015. They found that, at least on a 9-kilometer-wide scale, deforestation occurs slowly until about half of the forest is gone — then the remaining trees disappear quickly. Mixed landscapes such as a forest together with agriculture are comparatively few, the authors explain, and tend to homogenize relatively quickly.

The findings provide new insight into landscape change dynamics, and the team hopes they will be used to guide conservation efforts in the future.

Don’t half-forest it

“I think it’s very intuitive. It corresponds to the different climatic zones,” says Professor Tomasz Stepinski, the paper’s corresponding author. “The Earth before people was certainly like that. You had forests and mountains and wetlands and deserts.”

“You would expect people would create more fragmentation, but as it turns out, people never stop. They convert the entire block on a large scale.”

In his previous research, Stepinski investigated the scale of landscape change, showing that around 22% of the Earth’s surface was measurably altered between 1992 and 2015. The single largest transition he found was from woodlands to agricultural fields. The same dataset was used for this study, which aimed to understand the dynamics of how one landscape changes into another. To this end, the team divided up the Earth’s landmasses into (roughly 1.8 million) 81-square-kilometer blocks. These blocks corresponded to 64 different combinations of landscape types.

All in all, the researchers report, some 15% of these blocks transitioned from predominantly one type to predominantly another between 1992 and 2015. Deforestation was the leading cause of man-made landscape change, they add.

Land-use map shows changing landscapes in North and South America between 1992 and 2015. White indicates little or no change. Darker shades indicate the highest rate of change in each category.
Image credits Tomasz Stepinski/UC.

Next, it was time to get to the meat of the matter. Using a class of modeling algorithms known as the Monte Carlo (MC) methods, they looked at how likely different types of landscape changes are to occur over longer periods of time (centuries, in this case).

“The data we have covers 23 years. That’s a relatively short period of time. But from that we can calculate change in the future,” Stepinski said.

Landscapes, they found, tend to shift from one homogenous state to another. In other words, they tend to move towards (predominantly) the same state across all their surface, at least on the 81-sq-km scale the team used. The authors didn’t look into why they behave like this, but Stepinski says it’s likely that as human developments are introduced into an area — such as the construction of logging roads and drainage systems — subsequent change of the landscape becomes easier and happens faster.

“Planet Earth wants to be homogeneous. The land wants to be the same in all these patches. And when they start to change, they don’t stop until they convert everything into another homogeneous block,” he explains.

“I can only speculate [why] because that was not part of the study, but I would imagine two things are happening. If you are cutting forest, you have the infrastructure to finish it. It’s so much easier to cut the rest. Second, the forest is more vulnerable to change when there has been a disturbance.”

The findings largely align with what we know of landscape conservation so far. Wildlife managers will try to preserve larger intact blocks of a certain habitat or landscape as this improves their resilience to virtually every pressure, including climate change and invasive species. Large swathes of wildland are also difficult and expensive to exploit, reducing their attractiveness as sources of raw material or land. Small parcels are just easier to transform, for nature and humans both.

“I think it is interesting that this property applies both to natural and human landscapes,” said co-author Nowosad, a former UC postdoctoral researcher who now works as an assistant professor at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poland. “This model can be used to help understand how landscapes evolved and are going to evolve in the future,” Nowosad said.

“It’s thought-provoking. My hope is that people will criticize it and come up with different ideas,” Stepinski adds.

The study helps us better understand long-term landscape change, Nowosad explains, adding that it would be interesting to see if the dynamic applies to other types of transitions since the study focused on shifts between forest and agricultural land.

The paper “Stochastic, Empirically Informed Model of Landscape Dynamics and Its Application to Deforestation Scenarios” has been published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.