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Tropical rainforests have an outsized role in the world, with their significance marked by the World Rainforest Day. Of the Earth’s ecosystems, rainforests support the largest variety of plants and animal species, house the majority of indigenous groups still living in isolation from the rest of humanity, and power the mightiest rivers. Rainforests lock up vast amounts of carbon, moderate local temperature, and influence rainfall and weather patterns at regional and planetary scales.

Despite their importance however, deforestation in the world’s tropical forests has remained persistently high since the 1980s due to rising human demand for food, fibre, and fuel and the failure to recognize the value of forests as healthy and productive ecosystems. Since 2002, an average of 3.2 million hectares of primary tropical forests—the most biodiverse and carbon-dense type of forest—have been destroyed per year. An even larger area of secondary forest is cleared or degraded.

Below is a brief look at the state of the world’s largest remaining tropical rainforests.

Note: All figures below are based on 2020 data from the University of Maryland (UMD) and World Resources Institute (WRI) using a 30% canopy cover threshold. Tree cover loss does not account for regrowth, reforestation, or afforestation.

1. The Amazon Rainforest

The Amazon is the world’s largest and best known tropical rainforest. As measured by primary forest extent, the Amazon rainforest is more than three times larger than that of the Congo Basin, the world’s second largest rainforest. The Amazon rainforest accounts for just over a third of tree cover across the tropics.

The Amazon River, which drains an area nearly the size of the forty-eight contiguous United States, is the world’s biggest river. It carries more than five times the volume of the Congo or twelve times that of the Mississippi. By one estimate, 70% of South America’s GDP is produced in areas that receive rainfall generated by the Amazon rainforest. This includes South America’s agricultural breadbasket and some of its largest cities.

Due to its size, the Amazon leads all tropical forest areas in terms of its annual area of forest loss. Between 2002 and 2019, more than 30 million hectares of primary forest was cleared in the region, or about half the world’s total tropical primary forest loss during that period.

The Amazon is thought to house more than half the world’s “uncontacted” tribes living in voluntary isolation from the rest of humanity. However the vast majority of indigenous peoples in the Amazon live in cities, towns, and villages.

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world rainforests amazon

Extent: 628 million hectares of tree cover, including 526 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: About 60 percent of the Amazon rainforest lies within the borders of Brazil; the balance is found in parts of Peru (13%), Colombia (8%), Venezuela (6%), Bolivia (6%), Guyana (3%), Ecuador (2%), and Suriname (2%), as well as French Guiana (1%), a department of France.

Most famous species: Jaguar; tapir; capybara; river dolphins; various monkeys and parrots. Bulk numbers: more than 40,000 plant species, including 16,000 tree species; 3,000 fish; 1,300 birds, 1,000 amphibians; 430 mammals, and 400 reptiles.

Deforestation trend: Rising in most countries, led by Brazil. The Amazon lost over 30 million hectares of primary forest (5.5% of the 2001 extent) and 44.5 million hectares of tree cover (6.6%) between 2002 and 2019.

2. The Congo Rainforest

The second largest block of tropical rainforest is found in the Congo Basin, which drains an area of 3.7 million square kilometers. The majority of the Congo rainforest lies within the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), which accounts for 60 percent of Central Africa’s lowland primary forest. Gabon, Republic of the Congo, Cameroon, Central African Republic, and Equatorial Guinea account for nearly all the rest of the Congo Basin rainforest.

Until the early 2010s, deforestation in the Congo Basin was relatively low. War and chronic political instability, poor infrastructure, and lack of large-scale industrial agriculture help limit forest loss in the region. Most deforestation was driven by subsistence activities, though degradation due to logging was substantial. The situation is changing however: deforestation has been trending sharply upward in recent years.

world rainforests congo

Extent: 288 million hectares of tree cover, including 168 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: The Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) (60% of the Congo’s primary forest), Gabon (13%), Republic of the Congo (12%), Cameroon (10%), Central African Republic (3%), and Equatorial Guinea (1%).

Most famous species: Forest elephants; okapi; great apes including gorillas, bonobos, and chimps.

Deforestation trend: Deforestation is rising rapidly though it remains lower on a percentage basis than other major forest regions. The Congo lost over 6 million hectares of primary forest (3.5% of the 2001 extent) and 13.5 million hectares of tree cover (4.5%) between 2002 and 2019.

3. Australiasian Realm

The Australiasian rainforest includes tropical forests on the island of New Guinea and northeastern Australia as well as scattered islands that were connected when sea levels dropped during that last ice age. As a consequence of this linkage, both land masses have common assemblages of plants and animals, while conspicuously lacking groups found on islands further west. For example, cats, monkeys, and civets are absent from New Guinea and Australia, but both have an unusually high diversity of marsupials like kangaroos, wallabies, cuscuses, and opossums.

Virtually all this region’s primary tropical rainforest is on the island of New Guinea, which is roughly split between Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

New Guinea is the most linguistically diverse island on the planet with some 800 languages. There are believed to be a few uncontacted groups in remote parts of New Guinea.

Among major forest areas, Australiasia had the second lowest rate of primary forest loss since 2001, but deforestation is trending upward due to logging and conversion for plantations.

world rainforests australia

Extent: 89 million hectares of tree cover, including 64 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Indonesian provinces of Papua and West Papua (51% of the region’s primary forest), Papua New Guinea (49%), and Australia (under 1%).

Most famous species: Tree kangaroos; cassowaries; giant ground pigeons; saltwater crocodiles.

Deforestation trend: Deforestation is rising rapidly due to plantation agriculture, especially oil palm. The Indonesian part of New Guinea lost 605,000 hectares of primary forest since 2002 (1.8% of its 2001 cover), while PNG lost 732,000 hectares (2.2%). New Guinea is seen as the last frontier for large-scale agroindustrial expansion in Indonesia.

4. Sundaland

Sundaland includes the islands of Borneo, Sumatra, and Java, among others as well as Peninsular Malaysia. Most of the region’s remaining forest is on the island of Borneo, which is divided politically between Indonesia, Malaysia, and Brunei.

Sundaland lost the world’s largest share of primary forest cover between 2002 and 2019. Borneo lost 15% of such forests, while Sumatra lost 25%. Deforestation for oil palm and timber plantations, as well as fires set for land-clearing, are the biggest drivers of deforestation. However deforestation has been slowing since the mid-2010s.

world rainforests sundaland

Extent: 103 million hectares of tree cover, including 51 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Indonesia (73% of the region’s primary forest cover) and Malaysia (26%). Brunei and Singapore have less than 1% of the region’s forests.

Most famous species: Elephants; orangutans; two species of rhino; tigers; various hornbill and monkey species.

Deforestation trend: Deforestation is the highest of any major forest region, but trending downward. Between 2002 and 2019, Borneo lost 5.8 million hectares of primary forest (15% of 2001 cover), Sumatra 3.8 million hectares (25%), and Peninsular Malaysia 726,000 hectares (14%). Indonesia accounted for 75% of primary forest loss in the region, compared with 25% for Malaysia.

5. Indo-Burma

The Indo-Burma region includes a mix of tropical forest types, from mangroves to lowland rainforests to seasonal forests. Historical large-scale forest loss due to human population pressure means that surviving forests in this region are more fragmented than other regions mentioned so far. Most of the region’s tree cover consists of plantations, crops, and secondary forests.

The largest extent of primary forests in this region are in Myanmar, which has about one-third of the total area.

Indo-Burma lost about 8% of its primary forests and 12% of its tree cover since 2001. Cambodia accounted for more than a third of the region’s primary forest loss during this period.

world rainforests indo-burma

Extent: 139 million hectares of tree cover, including 40 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Myanmar (34% of the region’s primary forest cover), Laos (19%), Vietnam (15%), Thailand (14%), Cambodia (8%), far eastern India (6%), and parts of southern China (4%).

Most famous species: Elephants; two species of rhino; tigers; gibbons; leopards.

Deforestation trend: The rate of primary forest loss was roughly flat over the past 20 years, while tree cover loss is accelerating. Cambodia accounted for 34% of primary forest loss, followed by Laos (21%), Vietnam (18%), and Myanmar (16%). Cambodia lost over 28% of its 2001 primary forest cover over the period as natural forests were increasingly converted to plantations and industrial projects.

6. Mesoamerica

Mesoamerican rainforests extend from southern Mexico to southern Panama. Costa Rica’s rainforests are arguably the best known in the region thanks to its world-famous ecotourism industry, but the country ranks fifth in terms of primary forest cover.

world rainforests mesoamerica

Extent: 51 million hectares of tree cover, including 16 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Mexico (39% of Mesoamerica’s primary forest cover), Guatemala (13%), Honduras (11%), Panama (11%), Nicaragua (10%), and Costa Rica (9%).

Most famous species: Jaguar; puma; tapir; peccary.

Deforestation trend: The rate of primary forest loss and tree cover loss accelerated toward the end of the 2010s driven by increasing incidence of fire, coupled with conversion of forests for cattle pasture, plantations, and smallholder agriculture. Mexico (534,000 hectares of primary forest loss), Guatemala (480,000), and Nicaragua (460,000) lost the greatest area of primary forest between 2002 and 2019. Costa Rica lost less than 2% of its primary forest during the period. In contrast, Nicaragua lost nearly 30%.

6. Wallacea

Wallacea represents a biogeographic oddity. When sea levels fell during the last ice age, islands to the west of this area joined continental Asia, while islands to the east got connected to land mass formed from Australia and New Guinea. As a result, Wallacea today has an unusual mix of species, drawing plant and animal groups from both regions, but also having high levels of endemism.

world rainforests wallacea

Extent: 24.4 million hectares of tree cover, including 14.6 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Indonesia. More than 60% of Wallacea’s primary forest cover is on the island of Sulawesi. The Maluku islands account for 34%.

Most famous species: Babirusa; tarsiers and various monkeys; hornbills; cuscuses.

Deforestation trend: The rate of primary forest loss and tree cover loss jumped in 2015 and 2016 following a particularly bad fire season. Deforestation for industrial plantations, including oil palm and coconut, increased in the 2010s.

7. Guinean Forests of West Africa

The Guinean Forests of West Africa consists of the lowland tropical forests that extend from Liberia and Sierra Leone to the Nigeria-Cameroon border. These forests have been greatly diminished by agriculture, including subsistence farming by small-holders and commercial cacao, timber, and oil palm plantations.

west africa

Extent: 42 million hectares of tree cover, including 10.2 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Liberia (41% of the region’s primary forest cover), Cameroon (17%), Nigeria (17%), Côte d’Ivoire (10%), and Ghana (10%).

Most famous species: Gorillas and chimps; pygmy hippo; various monkey species.

Deforestation trend: The rate of primary forest loss has been rising since the mid 2000s. Tree cover loss sharply accelerated in the 2010s. While Côte d’Ivoire accounted for only an eighth of the region’s primary forest cover in 2001, it had nearly 40% of total primary forest loss between 2002 and 2019. The country lost about a third of its total primary forests in less than 20 years.

8. Atlantic Forest

The Atlantic Forest once extended from northeastern Brazil into the hinterlands of Argentina and Paraguay. Today it has been greatly reduced by agriculture and urbanization. Most of the tree cover in this region is crops, plantations, or secondary forests.

atlantic forest

Extent: 89 million hectares of tree cover, including 9.3 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Brazil (86% of the region’s primary forest cover), Argentina (9.5%), and Paraguay (4%).

Most famous species: Jaguar; Puma; Golden Lion Tamarin; Howler monkeys.

Deforestation trend: The rate of primary forest loss in the Atlantic Forest—known as the Mata Atlântica in Brazil—has slowed since the 20th century, with annual deforestation remaining relatively flat.

9. Chocó-Darien

The Chocó rainforest extends from southern Panama and along the Pacific Coast of South America through Colombia and Ecuador. It is the world’s wettest rainforest and has the lowest deforestation rate of any of the regions covered in this post. The Chocó is home to both Amerindian tribes and Afroindigenous or “maroon” communities.

 choco-darien

Extent: 15.6 million hectares of tree cover, including 8.4 million hectares of primary forest, in 2020.

Major countries: Colombia (79% of the region’s primary forest cover), Panama (13%), and Ecuador (8%).

Most famous species: Jaguar; Puma; various monkeys.

Deforestation trend: Primary forest loss in the Chocó amounted to 1.4% of its 2001 extent between 2002 and 2019. Ecuador and Panama accounted for a disproportionately large share of this loss.

10. Other Regions

This list is limited to the ten largest rainforests. Missing the cut are the forests of the Eastern Himalayas; East Melanesian Islands; the Philippines; Indian Ocean islands, including Madagascar; Eastern Afromontane; the Western Ghats and Sri Lanka; the Caribbean; and Polynesia-Micronesia.

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Rhett A. Butler, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

A new analysis conducted by the Zoological Society of London (ZSL) of 100 of the most significant tropical timber and pulp companies has found that over half do not publicly commit to protect biodiversity and just 13% actively monitor for deforestation in the areas they manage. The analysis shows an overall failure of timber companies to guarantee environmental protections for at least 11.7 million hectares of tropical forests. 

The analysis shows that over half of these companies (54%) do not publicly commit to protect biodiversity and 44% have yet to publicly commit to zero-deforestation. Meanwhile, only 37% provide evidence of conservation, such as restoring river habitats or planting native species in degraded areas. Alarmingly, only 13% report actively monitoring for deforestation in the areas they manage.

Overall, these companies manage 11.7 million hectares of tropical forest around the world. However, as many of the companies do not disclose the size of the areas under their control, the real extent of at-risk tropical forests is probably far larger, despite the agreement to halve deforestation by 2020 in the New York Declaration on Forests (NYDF) which was signed by governments, representatives of the timber industry and NGOs in 2014. 

Charlie Hammans, ZSL’s Forestry Technical Manager and leader of the analysis, says, “Tropical forests play a vital role as a carbon ‘sink’. They regulate global weather patterns, contain countless species and are home to 300 million people, yet companies still aren’t complying with the basic reporting standards expected of the sector.” 

The assessments have revealed that significant improvements are required from companies to ensure the future of millions of hectares of carbon-rich forest.  Without adequate protection, forests are vulnerable to rapid deforestation and degradation, which often leads to the eventual clearance for other commodities such as palm oil, rubber or cocoa.  

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Hammans adds, “Worldwide trade in unsustainable timber threatens the livelihoods of indigenous and local communities and the existence of wildlife reliant on forest ecosystems. It is accelerating the loss of biodiversity and eroding natural protections against zoonotic viruses. Companies should focus on identifying previously degraded landscapes for new plantation development, alongside adopting robust environmental, social and corporate governance policies and constantly monitoring their implementation.” 

COVID-19 has highlighted the risk of zoonotic diseases. Forest destruction and degradation, and the loss of biodiversity within ecosystems, are known to increase the risk of viral spill-over and make future pandemics more likely. In fact, this sentiment was echoed by the United Nations Environment Programme and the International Livestock Research Institute, who released a report warning that zoonotic diseases are increasing and will continue to do so without action to protect wildlife and preserve the environment. 

With forestry operations and trade ministries worldwide keen to boost exports following the economic impact of the pandemic, governments and industries must improve sustainability standards and drive a green agenda. 

Eugenie Mathieu of Aviva Investors says, “Deforestation, loss of biodiversity and climate change all pose significant financial risks, not only to the planet but also to economies, corporate bottom lines, and investors’ savings and investments. There is now a growing expectation for companies to publicly disclose and implement a zero-deforestation policy covering the entire supply chain, and establish a transparent monitoring and verification system for their suppliers. This analysis not only highlights the companies improving their disclosures, it also shines a light on the laggards that are failing to meet basic commitments to protect these critical habitats.” 

Featured image supplied by Zoological Society of London.

The 1950’s were known as the Great Acceleration which was marked by profound human transformation of the planet. Forests have declined rapidly since the Great Acceleration due to industrialisation, urbanisation and land degradation, particularly in South Asia. There are almost 16 different forest types in the region which vary from tropical rainforest to coastal mangroves. With the population of South Asia set to grow to 2 billion in 2050 from 1.8 billion today, how can South Asia ensure the survival of its forests?

The graph below shows forest area as a share of land in South Asia from 2000 to 2015, which excludes agricultural production systems. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh are seeing a gradual decrease in forest cover while India has seen a gradual increase in forest cover. Only Bhutan has seen a small increase in overall forest cover.

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south asia forests
A graph showing various countries in South Asia and their forests as share of land area (Source: Our World in Data).

India

India is the 6th largest country in the world and has 4 types of forests: tropical forests, subtropical, temperate and alpine. Since the early 1950’s the country has been increasing its afforestation and reforestation efforts and consequently, the country has increased forest cover by 70.5% between 1950 and 2006; there are now more mangrove forests and forests in hill districts.

In 1952, the country set a target to have 33% of its land under forest cover, however this is currently at 21.54%. Ajay Narayan Jha, the secretary of the ministry of environment forest and climate change, wants to convert open, moderate and degraded forests into dense forests to improve the quality of existing forests. 

The overall increase in forestry in India is attributed to both conservation efforts and better satellite data, however a research paper states that the figures ‘ignore’ the ground realities of India’s situation – by including commercial plantations which are largely monoculture and should not be counted as an increase in India’s forest cover. This could mean that India’s actual forestry numbers are far less than the official counts. Additionally, within the country, there are massive differences in forestry among states with Andhra Pradesh and Kerala recording increases in forest cover while the North-Eastern states of India are recording India’s largest rates of forest cover decline. This is attributed to cultivation and development activities.

Bangladesh

Bangladesh is one of the most densely populated countries on Earth, with 163 million people living on a delta plain bordering the Bay of Bengal. As a consequence of this, only 6% of Bangladesh is forested, paling in comparison to the rest of South Asia. Over 50% of Bangladesh’s forests have been deforested in only the last 20 years, which can be mainly attributed to the massive increase in urbanisation and agriculture. Further, illegal sand mining is prevalent in the country, which is an extremely destructive process that has been linked to floods in Kerala. For Bangladesh this illegal practice has led to a sharp decline in river bodies and forests; when sand and minerals are illegally extracted, river banks become unstable and collapse during times of heavy rain or monsoons season, affecting water quality. The Sundarbans is a 10 000 sq km mangrove forest which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site that has been badly affected by sand mining and deforestation. 

This mangrove forest environment is crucial to protecting Bangladesh’s coastline from tropical storms. Additionally, conflict in Myanmar has led to the large-scale movement of refugees entering Bangladesh through Cox’s Bazaar. This mass migration has forced Bangladesh to build security outposts in the region, however, these have been built on protected forestry land. The government has also drained and filled wetlands to create settlements to relieve the overpopulation crisis which has hampered the country’s forest preservation efforts. Bangladesh is in a difficult position as the country will need to find a balance between relieving its overcrowding crisis in urban areas while conserving forests.

The rise of aquaculture in Bangladesh has also contributed to the decline in forests; in 2013, there was an estimated 8.3% loss in forest cover, partly because land was cleared to make way for shrimp farms.

Sri Lanka

Between 1990 and 2005, Sri Lanka had the world’s highest rate of deforestation. Deforestation is attributed mainly to the rise of the plantation sector, particularly for coconut production.  However, since the end of the country’s civil war in 2009, Sri Lanka has made significant progress in protecting and preserving its forests, with 22 national parks and a newly-added UNESCO World Heritage Site. In 2015, the country declared all mangrove forests to be protected by law. The country also plans to quadruple the size of the Sinharaja Rainforest to 36 000 hectares, which is the country’s only UNESCO Heritage Site- listed rainforest with over 50% of the country’s endemic species and 60% of endemic trees  found in this rainforest. The country hopes to utilise the forest’s bufferzone and incorporate nearby defragmented forests into the rainforest

However, this progress was marred when the state built a second international airport inside a bird sanctuary in 2013 in the south of the country. This project, along with two expressways which run through many sensitive environmental areas, was seen as a major setback in the government’s promise towards environmental protection. Although the state has been paramount in setting out legislation, it has been the work of grassroot community action which has spearheaded Sri Lanka’s protection of forests. There are women-led initiatives that cultivate mangrove ecosystems which allow for the careful fishing of prawns which reside in mangrove ecosystems. Other citizen-led groups, such as Reforest Sri Lanka, have been planting trees in neglected areas such as abandoned tea estates. Despite the failings of the government to protect its forests, citizen-led groups have been educating, preserving and protecting Sri Lanka’s natural environments. 

Bhutan

Bhutan is the world’s only carbon negative country, which means it absorbs more carbon dioxide than it produces. This small mountainous country is 80.9% forested– the highest rate of forest cover in South Asia. Almost 51.4% of the country’s area is designated as natural parks and sanctuaries. The country enforces strict environmental policies such as ensuring that 60% of the country remains forested; this is also contained in the country’s constitution. Such policies fall under the country’s four pillars of Gross National Happiness (GNH), which has helped the country concentrate on conservation and forestry. GNH is the measure of economic and moral progress of Bhutan, which differs from the typical practice of focusing on economic indicators. However the country’s rigid environmental policy has been criticised as rural communities continue to lose livestock due to the protection of snow leopards (however, the government compensates farmers for killed livestock by). 

Bhutan’s efforts should be commended both in South Asia and globally. The country’s stern environmental laws have allowed it to protect and maintain its forests, setting a precedent for the rest of the world.

South Asia is fast developing economically and is experiencing rapid population growth. If countries in South Asia are to combat global warming, they will have to work together to protect forests which transcend national boundaries such as the Sundurbans and forests on the Himalayas. Although environmental progress has been slow, concern for the environment is becoming an important macroeconomic objective of South Asian governments and with the rise of citizen-led groups and the involvement of communities, the fight for South Asia’s forests remains far from over. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has swept the globe and is showing little sign of dissipating, with fresh outbreaks being reported in Latin America, including Brazil. Now, health experts are saying that rampant deforestation, particularly in the Brazilian Amazon, could bring about a new pandemic.

Since it arrived in Brazil, COVID-19 has divided the nation. One side calls for strict social isolation measures to contain the virus, while the other says that everyone should get back to work now, except for the elderly and most vulnerable.

These conflicting views are evident even in the heart of the government. President Jair Bolsonaro in a recent television broadcast declared that hysteria has gripped the country over a disease that he calls “no worse than a mild flu.” His Health Minister, Luiz Henrique Mandetta, disputes that, telling Brazilians to stay home.

Misinformation is rife. Rumors proliferate on social media, particularly regarding the number of deaths, while the government discredits the mainstream press, as it tries to report the rapidly developing pandemic and inform the public.

This scenario is not new. Since taking office in January 2019, Bolsonaro and his administration have smeared scientists trying to alert the population over the risks of global warming, or critical of the undermining of federal environmental regulations and agencies. In the first half of 2019, there were conflicting reports within the government itself and among scientists and NGOs about the scale and seriousness of deforestation and, later in the year, regarding the extent of Amazon fires and their close link to major forest clearing.

However, behind all this raucous debate, it is becoming clear to experts that COVID-19 and deforestation in the Amazon could be linked — both being products of the natural and human devastation brought by an invasion of the world’s remaining forests through the rapid expansion of timber harvesting, mineral extraction, industrial agribusiness and transportation infrastructure.

Even as the outbreak of COVID-19 is being possibly linked to the wildlife trade and humanity’s destruction of biodiversity, researchers say that the growing momentum of Amazon deforestation is creating conditions for the eruption of future pandemics.

Indeed, there are signs that this may already be happening.

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Deforestation Roars Ahead, Risking Rise of New Diseases

In 2019, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon reached its highest level in ten years (9,762 square kilometers, or 3,769 square miles). Importantly, in protected indigenous reserves, it increased even faster, expanding by 74 percent in 2019 under Bolsonaro as compared to 2018. Amazon deforestation rates continue escalating in 2020, doubling from August 2019 to March 2020, compared with the same period in 2018-19.

That’s not only bad news for wildlife and indigenous peoples. It is well understood among scientists that major deforestation can lead to the emergence of dangerous new viruses and bacteria against which humanity has little defense, leading to epidemics and pandemics.

“Wild vertebrates, particularly rodents, bats and primates, harbor pathogens that are novel to the human immune system and, if we clear their habitat and put ourselves in closer contact with them, we can increase the risk that a spillover event occurs, introducing a novel pathogen,” Andy MacDonald, an ecologist specializing in disease at the Institute of Geosciences at the University of California, told Mongabay.

Kate Jones, chair of ecology and biodiversity at University College London (UCL), part of London University, says that researchers have long known that animal-borne infectious diseases are an “increasing and very significant threat to global health, security and economies.” In 2008, she was part of a research team that determined that at least 60% of the 335 new diseases that emerged between 1960 and 2004 originated with non-human animals.

One of the principal drivers of this transfer of diseases from wild animals to humans occurs as the result of habitat disturbance — especially the disruption of tropical forests.

“Approximately one in three outbreaks of new and emerging illnesses is linked to changes in land use, like deforestation,” explained Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance, a not-for-profit organization based in New York. Daszak was lead author in a study entitled “Infectious disease emergence and economics of altered landscapes” published last year. That paper notes that “diseases causally linked to land change use include deadly diseases such as HIV/AIDS, Ebola, and Zika Virus.” Preliminary research indicates we can now likely add COVID-19 to that list — the most devastating pandemic to strike humanity since the 1918-19 flu which killed upwards of 50 million people.

One way deforestation leads to the emergence of new diseases is through fire. In mid-August 2019, a group of international experts on zoonotic diseases (that is, illnesses transmitted from animals to humans), met in Colombia to analyze the impact of the wildfires then underway in the Amazon. In their statement, they warned: “The Amazon region of Brazil, endemic for many communicable or zoonotic diseases can, after a wildfire, trigger a selection for survival, and with it change the habitat and behaviors of some animal species. These can be reservoirs of zoonotic bacteria, viruses, and parasites.”

This wildfire scenario has already played out elsewhere. In 1988, huge fires in Indonesia created conditions allowing the emergence of the Nipah virus, which has a morbidity rate of between 40% and 70%. Researchers believe that the outbreak of fires there caused fruit bats to flee their forest homes, seeking food in orchards. Then pigs ate the fruit that the bats had nibbled, becoming infected with the virus, ultimately infecting local people, who began to die from brain hemorrhages. Amazon fires are expected to grow far worse, as agribusiness uses it as a tool to clear rainforest, and as climate change intensifies drought there.

Fever Follows in Wake of Environmental Ruin

In fact, there are already Brazilian examples of a major environmental disruption provoking disease. One such incident concerns the bursting of the Mariana iron mining tailings dam on the Doce River in Minas Gerais state in 2015, which killed 19 people and was regarded at the time as the most serious environmental disaster in Brazil’s history.

Biologist Márcia Chame, from Fiocruz, a foundation specializing in the science and technology of health, believes that a major surge in yellow fever cases in Minas Gerais in 2016-17, leading to the state government decreeing a state of emergency, was partly the result of the disaster which polluted 500 miles of river all the way to the Atlantic Ocean.

Chame argues that the bursting of the dam, which led to “an avalanche of 2.2 billion cubic feet of mud and mine waste,” pouring into the Doce River, severely affected animals in the surrounding watershed, making them less resistant to disease.

“An abrupt change in the environment will have an impact on animals, including monkeys. With the stress of the disaster and the lack of food, they become more susceptible to illnesses, including yellow fever.” Chame says that many monkeys in the Doce watershed fell ill with yellow fever. Those monkeys were then bitten by mosquitoes, who in turn bit humans, bringing the disease to the region’s towns. According to her, mosquitoes — particularly Haemagogus leucocelaenus and H. janthinomys — were “driven by landscape modifications, with forest fragments running in peri-urban areas, allowing enough interaction [between monkeys, mosquitos and people] to produce such an epidemic.”

Similar processes may well be underway in the Amazon, though going mostly unexamined and undetected. A study published last year, entitled “Development, environmental degradation and disease spread in the Brazilian Amazon” concluded that “too little attention has focused on the emergence and reemergence of vector-borne diseases that directly impact the local population, with spillover effects on other neighboring areas.”

Severe forest disturbance is already known to contribute to the expansion of known diseases like malaria, says MacDonald. “The primary mosquito vector in Latin America does really well in recently cleared patches of forest, on the margins of the remaining forest (where there is more standing water for breeding, higher temperatures which can facilitate faster development of the mosquito and malaria parasite, as well as increase human biting rates). With people settled in these cleared patches… it can increase malaria transmission.”

Comparing satellite images and health data, MacDonald, together with Erin Mordecai from Stanford University, determined that deforestation in the whole of the Amazon Basin has helped lead to a significant increase in malaria. MacDonald told Mongabay that the research team calculated that in 2008 a 10% rise in deforestation, that is, about 1,600 square kilometers (618 square miles) of additional forest cut, led to a 3.3% increase in malaria transmission. That amounted to an additional 9,980 cases across the region.

Bolsonaro Paves the Way for More Deforestation

In the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, the Brazilian Congress now stands ready to vote, turning a temporary 120-day Provisional Measure decreed by Bolsonaro in December 2019, into permanent law. Provisional Measure (MP) 910, instead of curbing illegal land invasions, rewards land grabbers who illegally felled forest on public lands in Amazonia before December 2018 — regularizing their illegal occupation by allowing the purchase of the property at greatly reduced prices, turning it from public to private. Essentially, the measure allows land grabbers to break the law and get away with it.

According to a technical note issued by the not-for-profit organization, IMAZON, the MP could lead to the deforestation of up to 16,000 square kilometers (6,178 square miles) by 2027, an area ten times larger than the area that led to an increase of nearly ten thousand new cases of malaria in the MacDonald study.

Under the present terms of MP 910, authorities are not required to check the validity of any claim made by a potential landowner for properties under 2,500 hectares (6,166 acres) in size — a stipulation that supposedly benefits small-scale farmers.

But Amazon land grabbers are extremely skilled at bypassing such regulatory limits. One very common practice is to utilize laranjas (literally oranges, but more accurately, stooges). The big landowners get relatives, friends or employees to register a small plot in their names, avoiding federal oversight. Later, the laranjas hand the property over to the land grabber, sometimes in exchange for a small payment.

If a landowner employs 20 laranjas, each registering a plot of 2,500 hectares (6,166 acres), he ends up with a property of 50,000 hectares (111,000 acres). Another worrying consequence is that land grabbers can seize land occupied by indigenous communities who lack deeds, as is happening with the Sateré-Mawe indigenous group in Amazonas state.

MP 910 also allows those who have already benefited from the regularization of invaded public lands, but who have sold that property, to join the queue again requesting a new plot. Although she recognizes the need to sort out the current anarchy over landownership in the Amazon, Suely Araujo, former president of IBAMA, the government’s environmental agency, is critical of the MP. “With this flexibility, and without separating big landowners from small ones, this law legalizes those who live from land invasion, deforestation and the sale of public land,” she told Mongabay.

On March 27, Minister Alexandre Moraes, a member of the Federal Supreme Court, Brazil’s court of last resort, issued a preliminary ruling for facilitating the approval of Provisional Measures. Even though the intention is to fast-track urgent measures during the COVID-19 crisis, environmentalists fear that the ruralist lobby will take advantage of this new procedure to push ahead more energetically with their agenda. “If there isn’t a political decision to withdraw MP 910 from the measures to be voted through, we run the risk of a serious environmental reverse during this [health] crisis,” warned Araújo.

Greater Risks Ahead

Even as Brazilian deforestation rates soar, and land use laws in the Amazon basin are undermined, indigenous peoples across Latin America are trying to draw attention to the gravity of the global environmental crisis, which they believe caused the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Coronavirus is telling the world what indigenous peoples have been saying for thousands of years — if we do not help protect biodiversity and nature, we will face this, and even worse threats,” said Levi Sucre Romero, an indigenous man from Costa Rica at a press conference organized by Covering Climate Now in New York City in mid-March.

Another indigenous leader at that meeting, Dinamam Tuxá, coordinator of APIB (the Articulation of the Indigenous Peoples of Brazil), was just as vehement: “The cure for the next pandemic, and even for this one, can be found in the biodiversity in our indigenous lands,” he argued. “This is why we need to protect our lands and rights, because the future of life depends on it.” In contrast, Bolsonaro is pushing legislation through Congress that would allow large-scale mining, oil and gas drilling, and industrial agribusiness within Brazil’s indigenous reserves, largely without input from the people living there.

Experts continue warning urgently that more pandemics lie ahead. “I am not at all surprised about the coronavirus outbreak,” disease ecologist Thomas Gillespie, an associate professor in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences, told Scientific American. “The majority of pathogens are still to be discovered. We are at the very tip of the iceberg.”

John Scott, head of Sustainability Risk with the Zurich Insurance Group, referring to the Ebola, SARS, MERS, and other recent epidemics, offers a similar message: “The past 20 years of disease outbreaks could be viewed as a series of near-miss catastrophes, which have led to complacency rather than the increased vigilance necessary to control outbreaks.”

Climate Change, Deforestation, Successive Pandemics

Scientists were not startled by the COVID-19 pandemic; they’d been warning the world about such an event for decades. Similarly, many won’t be surprised if the much neglected climate crisis reaches a point of no return, with far more serious impacts for the world — including massive Amazon tree die off and huge atmosphere-destabilizing carbon releases, driven not only by policies favorable to land grabbers, but due to a drastic decline in Amazon rainfall and an increase in fires. Indeed, many say that these multiple crises are intertwined.

One great challenge of the post-COVID-19 world will require that civilization somehow recover from the global economic recession (or depression) it causes without further aggravating the climate crisis via the mass conversion of forests to gold, zinc and bauxite mines, or to cattle ranches and soy plantations. The danger: if tropical deforestation continues out of control, we may barely recover from one pandemic before being faced by another.

The next plague could arise nearly anywhere: in the increasingly disrupted Amazon, the Congo, Indonesia, or even far beyond the tropical zone, in the Arctic, where permafrost is melting rapidly, possibly thawing out unknown and dormant viruses that could unleash the next planetwide health crisis. In this sense, COVID-19 — horrific as its outcomes could be — may only be a harbinger of far worse pandemics to come.

Featured image by: quapan

This article was originally published on Mongabay, written by Thais Borges and Sue Branford, and is republished here as part of an editorial partnership with Earth.Org. 

New research shows that tropical forests are taking up less carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, reducing their ability to act as ‘carbon sinks’ and instead becoming sources of carbon. What does this mean for the future of humanity?

The Amazon could turn into a source of carbon instead of one of the biggest absorbers of the gas as soon as the next decade, as a result of the damage caused by loggers and farming interests and the impacts of the climate crisis, according to new research in the journal, Nature

How much carbon is stored in tropical rainforests?

Intact tropical forests sequestered almost 50% of the global terrestrial carbon uptake over the 1990s and early 2000s, removing about 15% of carbon dioxide emissions. A new report shows that these carbon sinks are becoming saturated in both Amazonian and African rainforests, with different patterns of change. 

“We’ve found that one of the most worrying impacts of climate change has already begun,” said Simon Lewis, professor in the school of geography at Leeds University, one of the senior authors of the research. “This is decades ahead of even the most pessimistic climate models.”

These rainforests are now taking up a third less carbon than they did in the 1990s, owing to the impacts of higher temperatures (trees have only partially acclimated to recently rising temperatures), droughts and deforestation. This downward trend is likely to continue, as forests come under increasing threat from the climate crisis and exploitation. According to Lewis, the typical tropical forest may become a carbon source by the 2060s. 

Tropical rainforests act as net carbon sinks when the amount of carbon gained through the establishment of new trees and tree growth is larger than the amount lost through tree mortality. In these circumstances, the quantity of carbon stored in the biomass increases over time. 

The researchers of the study monitored tree establishment, growth and mortality in 244 undisturbed forest plots in Africa across 11 countries between 1968 and 2015. This data was then compared with similar measurements from 321 plots in the Amazonian region. The results showed that carbon uptake in the Amazonian region started to decline around 1990, whereas signs of a potential slowdown in Africa appeared in 2010. 

The uptake of carbon from the atmosphere by tropical forests peaked in the 1990s when about 46 billion tonnes were removed from the atmosphere, equivalent to about 17% of carbon emissions from human activities. By the last decade, that amount had sunk to about 25 billion tonnes, or 6% of global emissions, similar to a decade of fossil fuel emissions from the UK, Germany, France and Canada put together. 

According to the report, by 2030, the carbon sink in Africa will be 14% lower than in 2010-2015, while the Amazonian carbon sink will reach zero by 2035 (meaning that there will be no more net carbon uptake from the atmosphere). 

The researchers say that the reason for this difference between Amazonian and African tropical forests is because of increasing mean annual temperatures and droughts since 2000 that have reduced tree growth, offsetting the increase in carbon uptake. These reductions are smaller in Africa than in Amazonia.

Tropical Forests Losing Ability to Store Carbon
A figure showing estimated declines of carbon dioxide intake. By 2030, the carbon sink in Africa will be 14% lower than in 2010-2015, while the Amazonian carbon sink will reach zero by 2035 (Source: Nature).

Further, the higher carbon gains persisted for longer in Africa than in Amazonia because the warming rate was slower, there were fewer droughts and air temperatures were generally lower (because African forests are located at higher elevations). Generally, trees in Amazonia grow faster and have shorter residence times than those in African forests. 

According to the report, the carbon sink strength of the world’s two most extensive tropical forests ‘have now saturated’. Reaching emissions reduction targets counts largely on the continuation of a large tropical carbon sink, which are disappearing at a rapid rate and could soon turn into carbon sources by the end of the decade. The protection of these tropical forests as well as faster greenhouse gas emissions will be needed to prevent catastrophic climate changes. 

This year’s UN climate talks, Cop26, will most likely see many countries coming forward with plans to reach net zero emissions by mid-century. This will be crucial in the fight against anthropogenic global warming.

Featured image by: Jonathan Hull

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