Roughly 64% of the world’s tropical rainforest has been destroyed or degraded since pre-industrial times, according to a new report by the Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN).
That means that just 36% of global rainforest — from the Amazon to the Sumatra to the Congo Basin — remains fully intact. The ongoing loss of rainforest and tropical ecosystems threatens the stability of the climate, food systems, water supplies, and biodiversity, the report, published on Tuesday, warns.
“Humans are chopping these once vast and impenetrable forests into smaller and smaller pieces, undermining their ability to store carbon, cool the planet, produce rain, and provide habitats,” Anders Krogh, the author of the report and a special advisor at RFN, said in a statement. “The world depends on tropical rainforests to provide these services.”
The decline of rainforests has happened in stages over the past few centuries, accelerating in recent decades, according to RFN.
As the industrial revolution picked up in the 18th century, colonizing countries cut down rainforests for timber and to clear areas for the extraction of valuable minerals. Eventually, demand for rubber led to massive deforestation, followed not long after by the pursuit of fossil fuels and other sources of energy. Today, the international trade of agricultural commodities such as cattle, soybeans, and palm oil primarily drives deforestation.
Between 2002 and 2019, rainforest area the size of France has been destroyed, the report notes.
“These highly specialized ecosystems are suffering from constant and persistent abuse, through our bottomless appetite for land and resources,” Krogh said.
In Brazil, for example, cattle ranchers and industrial farmers illegally burn and clear swaths of forest. On the Indonesian island of Sumatra, more than 90% of rainforest has been degraded or destroyed, largely by palm oil production, mining, and farming. Forests are also cleared away to make way for human development such as roads, railways, towns, and cities.
Over time, this encroachment creates a dangerous interface between human civilization and wildlife, raising the likelihood that zoonotic viruses such as COVID-19 will jump species, causing global pandemics.
“Massive deforestation is violating nature’s natural virus protection mechanisms, putting the whole world at risk from potential new pathogens spreading from animals to humans,” Krogh said. “The aftermath of COVID-19 should bring rainforest protection to the top of the agenda of all policymakers and world leaders concerned about preventing the outbreak of new pandemics.”
Krogh defined an “intact rainforest” as any rainforest that has 500 uninterrupted kilometers, which, in his estimation, would allow the ecosystem within to sustain itself. Anything smaller, he told Reuters, could be subject to gradual erosion and decline along the edges.
In this age of climate change and species loss, protecting rainforests is more than a matter of preserving beautiful landscapes. Rainforests provide food, water, and medicine. They regulate the climate, act as a carbon sink, and buffer communities from flooding and extreme storms.
Momentum is building for the protection of biodiversity worldwide. More than 50 countries have pledged to support the United Nations’ call to protect 30% of land and marine spaces from exploitation by 2030.
While the world has lost a staggering amount of rainforest, Krogh says that the remaining rainforest can be protected and encouraged to grow.
“The good news is that we have an area half the size of Europe that is still completely intact,” he said. “The world depends on tropical rainforests to provide these services.”