Despite an increasing commitment to protect our planet’s forests, critics highlight the insufficiency of these efforts and the need for swifter actions if we are to end deforestation by 2030. Three world forests – the Brazilian Amazon, Congo Basin, and the Bolivian Amazon – have been central to the deforestation problem. On International Day of Forests 2023 and in the face of mounting pressure, we review how these fared in 2022 and discuss why swift action to halt deforestation is more crucial than ever.
The 27th Conference of the Parties (COP27), held in November 2022, heralded a significant step to curtail global deforestation as twenty-six countries accounting for nearly 35% of the world forests launched the Forest and Climate Leaders’ Partnership (FCLP). This was in addition to increasing the Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest Finance (LEAF) coalition’s financial commitment to $1.5 billion. In total, public and private donors have further committed US$4.5 billion since COP26 to stop deforestation.
While these developments signal an intensified effort to restore our forests, they fall short of the global target to end deforestation by 2030 set by more than 100 world leaders, representing 85% of the world’s forests, at Glasgow’s climate summit in 2021. According to the Forest Declaration Platform, finances “will need to dramatically increase – by up to 200 times – to meet 2030 goals”.
Moreover, the recently published Forest Declaration Assessment suggested that, despite slower forest destruction rates throughout 2021, the world is not on track to meet the vital goal set out by the Deforestation Pledge.
In order to better understand where we are today in terms of slowing down forest loss worldwide, we take a look at the state of the world forests in 2022 by focusing on three major deforestation spots: the Brazilian Amazon, the Congo Basin, and the Bolivian Amazon.
State of the World Forests in 2022
1. Brazilian Amazon
In the first half of 2022, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon declined, as reported by the government. However, while forest loss fell by 11% compared to the previous year, it was still much higher than in any other year between 2009 and 2020. In September, Amazon deforestation reached new record levels for the month, with a total coverage loss equivalent to 1,455 square kilometres (562 square miles). Satellite images from the Brazilian space research agency INPE showed that 2022 rates of deforestation in the Amazon also hit a record high for the first nine months of the year. Since January, an area 11 times the size of New York City was cleared.
Between May and October 2022, the Monitoring of the Andean Project (MAAP), also detected 704 major fires in the Brazilian Amazon. Although 71% of these fires were in recently deforested areas, MAAP further recorded 100 cases in which standing forests were burnt.
The Amazon rainforest covers land across nine countries including Colombia and Peru, but around 60% of it lies within Brazil. Despite efforts to protect forest land, legal deforestation is still rampant, and about a third of global tropical deforestation occurs in Brazil’s Amazon forest, amounting to 1.5 million hectares each year.
According to critics, leadership has been a crucial contributor to deforestation in Brazil. For example, an analysis of annual data from Climate Observatory, a network of environmental groups, revealed that in the four years of former President Jair Bolsonaro’s leadership, deforestation surged by 60%, compared to the preceding four years. Since satellite monitoring commenced in 1998, this would be the highest rise in deforestation under a single presidential administration.
“If [President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva] wants to decrease forest destruction by 2023, he must have zero tolerance for environmental crime from Day One of his administration. That includes holding accountable those who sabotaged environmental governance in the country while in office over the past four years,” said Marcio Astrini, executive secretary of the Climate Observatory.
In a move reflecting this line of thought, President Lula recently appointed Marina Silva, a well-known Amazon activist, as his environment minister. Given that she had previously served in the same position during Lula’s first presidential term in 2003, overseeing the creation of conservation areas in the rainforest, there is a growing optimism of swifter responses to the deforestation problem.
2. Congo Basin
Known as the “lungs of Africa”, the Congo Basin is the world’s second-largest tropical rainforest, spanning six countries (Cameroon, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and the Republic of the Congo). Despite the Basin’s capacity to absorb 1.5% of the world’s annual carbon emissions, the World Economic Forum revealed that it could be completely gone in 80 years due to deforestation. While two of the six Congo Basin countries (the Republic of the Congo and Gabon) reduced their deforestation rate in 2021 by 30% and 28% respectively, however, the overall level of deforestation in the region increased by 5%.
In recognition of the Congo Basin’s importance, governments alongside partners like the Central African Forest Initiative, PROGREEN, and REDD+ have introduced multiple initiatives to combat deforestation in the region. However, there is more to be done, given the multiple drivers of deforestation in the area.
Antoine Tabu, African Wildlife Foundation’s DRC Country Coordinator echoed this, saying: “First, there is over-exploitation of wildlife species and natural resources: overfishing, deforestation, poaching, and artisanal mining in protected areas. On top of that, there is water, soil, and air pollution, and the introduction of invasive exotic species. The presence of transhumant herders in search of grazing pressures habitats as well.”
Women have been at the forefront of DRC’s reforestation efforts through a DR Congo Women for Forests project. So far, they have planted over 100,000 trees and are actively campaigning to stop illegal timber harvesting in the DRC’s Itombwe Rainforest. But we are still far from addressing the climate change threat. Considering that the Congo Basin is the world’s largest carbon sink, absorbing more carbon than the Amazon, it is critical to address the multifaceted factors driving forest loss in the region in 2023.
3. Bolivian Amazon
In 2021, Global Forest Watch placed Bolivia third in the world for primary forest loss, behind Brazil and the DRC. But there is another dynamic to deforestation in Bolivia in 2022 as a study uncovered its role in the destruction of archaeological archives. Once considered to be pristine wilderness, a growing number of archaeologists are uncovering earthworks in the Amazon basin predating Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. However, there seems to be a race between archaeologists’ attempts to understand the complexities of these societies and the growth of Bolivia’s agribusiness sector, resulting in the destruction of these monuments.
Given the intricate linkage of deforestation in Bolivia to the country’s growing agribusiness in 2022, critics are also pointing out how the country’s success comes at a high environmental cost. For example, the Bolivian government’s plan to extend its 4 million hectares of cultivated land to 13 million hectares has allowed for fewer illegal deforestation fines, a move that could likely increase forest loss.
With that said, MAAP also detected 151 major fires in the Bolivian Amazon in 2022. However, much like in the Brazilian Amazon, this was a tale of two parts. First, there were those restricted to recently deforested areas (26,400 hectares) for new soy plantations. Then, in September, the country experienced significant human-caused forest fires (standing forests), burning around 110,000 hectares in Santa Cruz alone. However, the forest fires in 2022 were not as intense as the two previous years, MAAP said.
Although critics are quite pessimistic about the current pace of world forest restoration efforts, there were some decisive wins in 2022. In addition to the FCLP and an expansion of the LEAF’s financial commitment, another game-changer was the European Union’s announcement of a new law to address global deforestation. Given the intricate linkage between deforestation and agriculture, this crucial legislation would ensure that commercial products in its territory are not derived from deforestation actors. Considering that the Amazon and Congo Basin are notorious deforestation spots for aggressive agribusinesses, this law, pending its adoption, is bound to be a significant stride in protecting the world forests.
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