The World Lost a Belgium-Size Area of Old Growth Rainforest in 2018

Written by on April 27, 2019 in Environment, Environmental Hazards with 0 Comments

Madagascar’s famous for its towering baobab trees. // Image Credit: Mongabay.com

By Morgan Erikson-Davis | Mongabay

  • Newly released data indicate the tropics lost around 120,000 square kilometers (around 46,300 square miles) of tree cover last year – or an area of forest the size of Nicaragua.
  • The data indicate 36,400 square kilometers of this loss – an area the size of Belgium – occurred in primary forest. This number is an increase over the annual average, and the third-highest amount since data collection began.
  • Indonesia primary forest loss dropped to the lowest level recorded since 2002. Brazil’s numbers are also down compared to the last two years, but still higher than the 18-year average.
  • Meanwhile, primary rainforest deforestation appears to be on the rise elsewhere. Colombia recorded the highest level since measurement began at the beginning of the century. Madagascar had the highest proportion of its tropical forest lost in 2018; Ghana experienced the biggest proportional change over 2017.

At first glance, the news seems good: global tropical deforestation declined for the second year in a row, according to new satellite data. But digging in a little deeper reveals a more complicated, grimmer reality.

The data, released today by World Resources Institute (WRI)  on its forest monitoring platform Global Forest Watch (GFW), show how much tree cover was lost in 2018, and where this loss happened. These data come from satellite images that are collated and analyzed by the University of Maryland in the U.S. and can pinpoint areas of canopy loss as small as 30 meters.

Overall, the data indicate the tropics lost around 120,000 square kilometers (around 46,300 square miles) of tree cover last year – or an area of forest the size of Nicaragua. This number is down from the previous two years, when around 170,000 and 160,000 square kilometers were respectively lost in 2016 and 2017. But 2018’s total is still well above the 18-year average since data collection began in 2001.

“It’s tempting to celebrate a second year of decline since peak tree cover loss in 2016,” said Frances Seymour, Distinguished Senior Fellow at WRI. “But if you look back over the last 18 years, it’s clear that the overall trend is still upward. We are nowhere near winning this battle.”

The world’s rainforests are home to multitudes of animals and plants, such as this dusky titi monkey (Callicebus spp), which lives in the forests of Peru.


In an analysis released with the data today, GFW zooms in on primary forest; that is, forest that hasn’t been logged or degraded in recent history. Overall, it finds that around 36,400 square kilometers of primary forest was deforested in the humid tropics in 2018, which is a jump from the annual average and the third-highest level since 2002.

Brazil and Indonesia, long the global heavy-hitters when it comes to tropical deforestation, together account for 46 percent of all primary rainforest loss in 2018. While this is a big chunk, it represents a significant decline over the 71 percent they contributed in 2002.

Indonesia in particular saw a big drop in primary forest loss last year, with 3,400 square kilometers deforested. This is the smallest level of loss recorded since 2002 and a significant drop from the high mark in 2016, which saw more than 9,000 square kilometers lost, due largely to catastrophic forest fires that raged out of control for months. A drying El Nino event coupled with the draining of peatland for agriculture has been blamed for catalyzing the blaze, and its smoke may have contributed to the premature deaths of as many as 100,000 people.

have contributed to the premature deaths of as many as 100,000 people.

Researchers credit Indonesia’s deforestation reduction to forest protection policies. The logging of primary forest was banned in 2011, and more recently the government instituted a ban on the draining and development of peatland forest following the 2015/2016 wildfire crisis. However, with another El Nino expected to affect the region later this year, forest authorities are still concerned Indonesia may be in for yet another bad fire season.

As with Indonesia, Brazil experienced unprecedented primary forest loss in 2016, also due largely to fires. While 2018 loss was markedly lower, levels are still higher than the 2002-2015 average. Drivers behind last year’s deforestation include fire as well as clear-cutting in the Amazon. The data show several illegal deforestation hotspots in protected indigenous territories – including in Ituna Itata reserve, which is inhabited by uncontacted peoples.

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