The great forest dieback: more and more trees are being cleared

More and more forest is being lost around the world. Above all, deforestation of the rainforests of South America and Central Africa is increasing dramatically. This is bad news for all of us.

Just under a third of the earth is covered with forests. They provide habitats for about 80 percent of all land-dwelling animals and plants. Forests provide us humans with food, raw materials and clean air. When forests disappear, entire ecosystems disappear with them.

Still, more trees are cleared each year than new ones grow, experts warn. In 2017, 29.4 million hectares of tree cover were lost – equivalent to nearly 80 percent of Germany’s land area. In 2016, 29.7 million hectares of forest disappeared, the most in a single year since Global Forest Watch began monitoring forests via satellite imagery.

"The numbers don’t look good", says Frances Seymour, a forest expert at the U.S. think tank World Resource Insitute (WRI), which Global Forest Watch runs with the University of Maryland. Forests are cleared mainly for the cultivation of soy and palm oil and for grazing land for cattle. "Much of the deforestation is illegal and linked to corruption,", Seymour adds.

Orangutans like these are losing their habitat with deforestation

Natural disasters such as forest fires and tropical storms, fueled by climate change, also contribute to forest loss, according to Global Forest Watch analysis. The record numbers of 2016 were partly the result of fires set by humans as well as caused by the weather phenomenon El Nino.

Forests help in the fight against climate change

Forests play an important role in the fight against global warming. Because trees absorb and store CO2. Deforestation destroys these natural CO2 reservoirs. When forests are cleared by fires, this has a double negative impact on the environment. Not only the reservoirs are destroyed, additional CO2 is thrown into the air. Forest fires in Indonesia, for example, have released so much CO2 that the island nation has become the world’s fourth-largest air polluter in six weeks.

The international community needs to pay more attention to forests for this reason, urges Andreas Dahl-Jorgensen, deputy director of Norway’s International Climate and Forest Initiative. "Without a drastic reduction in forest clearing, we will not achieve the climate targets we agreed to in Paris", he says.

This week, representatives of various governments, environmental organizations and industry are meeting in Oslo at a tropical forest forum. They want to discuss how to increase the protection of forests. One point of discussion is the United Nations REDD program, which was established ten years ago. Through REDD, developing countries are supposed to receive compensation payments if they preserve and reforest forests as carbon reservoirs.

Critics complain that the incentives are not high enough. Currently, the global community provides about $1 billion (865 million euros) a year for forest conservation, WRI’s Seymour explains. This is "trivial" considering that on the open market and through government subsidies, about "a hundred times as much money" was made Be available for activities that threaten the forest. Seymour and her colleagues now hope that governments at the Oslo Tropical Forest Forum will increase their contribution to forest protection and that companies will commit to stop buying products grown on recently cleared land.

In the Amazon, forest areas are being illegally cleared with fires

Tropical forests in particular are disappearing

According to Global Forest Watch, rainforests are particularly affected by deforestation. Last year, 40 soccer fields of tropical forest disappeared – per minute. In the Democratic Republic of Congo, where much of the world’s second-largest rainforest is located, more has been cleared than ever before in the region. Some 1.47 million hectares of tree cover have had to give way to agriculture, charcoal production and for mines.

In Brazil, 4.5 million hectares of forest have been destroyed. That was 16 percent less than in 2016, but still more than the years before that. One-third of the loss was recorded in the Amazon, the world’s largest rainforest. The Amazon has also lost in Colombia, albeit somewhat less. More than 0.4 million hectares of rainforest have been cleared there, a 46 percent increase from the previous year and more than double the average loss between 2001 and 2015.

The peace deal with FARC rebels in Colombia could be one explanation for the increase, believes Mikaela Weisse, who analyzes the figures for Global Forest Watch. "FARC’s demobilization has left a power vacuum, leading to rampant land speculation. Also, other armed groups are now clearing to make way for pasture and coca plants", says Weisse.

The rebel retreat in Colombia has unexpected consequences: It is leading to more clearing in the rainforest

Good news from Indonesia

Despite the negative trend in most of the world’s tropical forests, there is positive news from Indonesia. In 2017, the Southeast Asian country managed to reduce its virgin forest loss by 60 percent compared with 2016. At the time, forest fires had destroyed more tree cover than ever before. The fact that much less forest was lost in 2017 is largely because it was not an el Nino year. Increased efforts by the Indonesian government have also contributed to the success, says Putera Parthama, a representative of Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry.

In 2016, the government passed a law to protect peatland forests from destruction and renewed a forest moratorium in 2017 for another two years. In addition, the country is now more vigorously pursuing compliance with the law and punishing illegal clearing under criminal law. "Indonesia is now the only country where the number of clearings is decreasing", says Parthama. "One year is not a trend, but we are determined to start a trend."

The rainforest calls SOS

Nature’s distress call

The distress call SOS can only be seen from the air, it is as if nature itself is calling for help. The call for help goes out to people around the world to save Sumatra’s rainforests and the animals that live there, including the orang utan. Their livelihoods are being massively threatened by the palm oil industry and the clearing of rainforest.

The rainforest calls SOS

Landscape art on 20 hectares

It took a week to make the landscape sculpture. It is the brainchild of well-known Lithuanian graffiti artist Ernest Zacharevic. He was supported by the Sumatran Orangutan Society (SOS), a conservation organization based in England.

The rainforest calls SOS

Rainforest conservationists with chainsaw

British cosmetics company Lush also got involved. Together with SOS, it raised the money to buy the plantation of 50 hectares of land. It will be planted entirely with rainforest trees and will join Leuser National Park. 1100 oil palms were felled for the temporary SOS sculpture.

The rainforest calls SOS

With enthusiasm at work

Zacharevic was able to win over the local population to participate in the project. They will soon plant tens of thousands of saplings to renaturalize the site. Among other things, orangutans are to reestablish themselves here. The felled oil palms should also contribute as compost.

The rainforest calls SOS

Critical consumers don’t want palm oil

The SOS call to save the rainforest is part of increasing public pressure on consumer goods companies to move away from palm oil or insist on sustainable palm oil sourcing.

The rainforest calls SOS

World corporations see palm oil issue differently

Multinationals such as Unilever, Nestle, Procter&Gamble have vowed transparency and want to disclose the origin of the palm oil in their products. However, according to Greenpeace, other corporations, including Pepsico, Ferrero or Kellogg’s do not (yet) want to do this.

The rainforest calls SOS

Urgent call to save endangered animals

The growing palm oil plantations are steadily reducing the habitat of the animals living there. In Sumatra, only about 14.600 orangutans live. The Gunung Leuser Nature Reserve is the only place where these apes, elephants, rhinoceroses and tigers still exist in one place (9000 square kilometers).

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