Tropical primary forests lost 10% more primary rainforest in 2022 than in 2021, according to new data from the University of Maryland and Global Forest Watch (GFW). The loss totaled 4.1 million hectares, the equivalent of losing 11 football fields of forest per minute. The loss produced 2.7 gigatonnes (Gt) of carbon dioxide emissions, equivalent to India’s annual fossil fuel emissions.
The severe loss happened despite a seemingly positive sign: heads of 145 countries promised in the Glasgow Leaders’ Declaration on Forests and Land Use to halt and reverse forest loss by the end of the decade. They recognized the crucial role of forests in combating climate change and biodiversity loss. According to GFW authors Mikaela Weisse, Liz Goldman and Sarah Carter, the trend is moving in the wrong direction.
Forest loss increased dramatically in the two countries with the most tropical forest, Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It also grew in countries like Ghana and Bolivia. In contrast, Indonesia and Malaysia have managed to keep rates of primary forest loss near record-low levels.
1. Why do forests matter?
Forests are critical ecosystems for fighting climate change, supporting livelihoods and protecting biodiversity. Reducing deforestation is one of the most cost-effective land-based measures to mitigate climate change. Forests are both a source and a sink for carbon, removing carbon dioxide from the air when standing or regrowing and emitting it when cleared or degraded.
Some 1.6 billion people, including nearly 70 million Indigenous Peoples, rely on forest resources for their livelihoods. Deforestation, especially in the tropics, also impacts local temperatures and rainfall in ways that can compound the local effects of global climate change, with consequences for human health and agricultural productivity.
Forests harbor the most biodiversity of any ecosystem on Earth. The Global Biodiversity Framework adopted in 2022 emphasizes the need to halt and reverse the loss of natural ecosystems, including forests.
In Brazil, the rate of primary forest loss increased by 15% from 2021 to 2022, with the vast majority of primary forest loss happening in the Amazon. Non-fire-related losses, which in the Brazilian Amazon are most often due to clear-cut deforestation, reached the highest level since 2005. Forest loss in Brazil decreased dramatically in the early 2000s under President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.
According to GFW, recent increases have coincided with the Bolsonaro administration’s eroding of environmental protections, gutting of enforcement agencies, attempted granting of amnesty for illegal deforestation and attempted weakening of Indigenous rights.
Brazil remains the country with the most tropical primary forest loss by far. In 2022 it accounted for 43% of the global total. Its 1.8 million hectares of primary forest loss resulted in 1.2 Gt of carbon dioxide emissions, or 2.5 times Brazil’s annual fossil fuel emissions. In addition to carbon impacts, forest loss in the Amazon impacts regional rainfall and may eventually lead to a “tipping point” beyond which the majority of the ecosystem will become a savanna.
Within Brazil, primary forest loss accelerated in the Western Amazon. The states of Amazonas and Acre saw some of their highest levels of primary forest loss on record in 2022. Amazonas state, home to over half of Brazil’s intact forests, has nearly doubled its rate of primary forest loss in just three years. Primary forest losses in this part of the Brazilian Amazon are mainly large-scale clearings, likely for cattle pastures, along existing highways.
3. Democratic Republic of the Congo
High rates of primary forest loss continued in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The country lost over half a million hectares in 2022 and the rate of loss has continued to increase slightly in recent years. Most of the primary forest loss consists of small clearings near cyclical agricultural areas (land that is cleared and burned for the short-term cultivation of crops and left fallow for forests and soil nutrients to regenerate).
DRC’s growing population is increasing demand for food, leading to shorter fallow periods and the expansion of agriculture into primary forest. Gabon and Republic of Congo — High Forest Low Deforestation (HFLD) countries — continue to experience low overall rates of primary forest loss, as reported by GFW.
According to GFW, Bolivia saw a record-high level of primary forest loss in 2022, with a 32% increase from 2021 levels. For the third year running, the country was third behind only Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo in area of primary forest loss, surpassing Indonesia despite having less than half the amount of primary forest.
Bolivia has received less attention for deforestation than other rainforest countries. It is also one of the few countries that did not sign on to the Glasgow Leader’s Declaration in 2021.
Commodity agriculture is the main driver of forest loss in Bolivia. The department of Santa Cruz has remained a hotspot for loss of primary forests. Soybean expansion has resulted in nearly a million hectares of deforestation in Bolivia since the turn of the century, of which nearly a quarter can be attributed to Mennonite colonies. Though Bolivia has much less soybean production than neighboring countries, most of its expansion has come at the expense of forests. Sugarcane, corn, sorghum and cattle ranching also contribute to deforestation in the country.
Bolivia’s government supports an increase in agribusiness, with goals to reduce imports, implement biofuel production and increase cattle production. These goals have been accompanied by a decriminalization of illegal deforestation and an increase in deforestation authorizations.