When rebels gave up their weapons in Colombia last year, a five-decade civil war came to an end. But as the military battles ceased, a form of ecological violence took its place.
Deforestation in Colombia grew 46% in 2017 compared to 2016, as mining, logging, and farming interests exploited the fact that armed rebels weren’t camping out in the country’s forests. It was the sharpest rise in tropical forest loss in the world, according to a new report by the Global Forest Watch, an initiative of the nonprofit World Resources Institute (WRI).
And this growing crisis is part of a larger global pattern.
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The researchers found that 2017 was the second-worst year of tropical forest cover loss in recorded history. Overall, the tropics lost 15.8 million hectares (39 million acres) of tree cover in 2017, which is the equivalent of losing 40 football fields of trees every minute.
“The biggest takeaway is that despite international and national efforts, tree cover loss is going up in the tropics, which is rather alarming,” Mikaela Weisse, a research analyst at WRI, told Global Citizen. “Rather than seeing this as a sign that we should abandon our efforts, it more than anything tells us we need to double down to increase national and international funding to conserve forests.”
The Amazon rainforest in Brazil also suffered tremendous losses, despite a long-running campaign to conserve trees.
Photo by Alan Godfrey on Unsplash
The researchers attributed this loss to badly managed land clearing efforts and severe drought. As farmers tried to expand their territories for livestock grazing, they started fires that burned out of control across dry lands, leveling 3 million acres of forest, The New York Times reports.
Indonesia, on the other hand, saw a 60% decline in tropical cover loss, largely due to a less severe El Niño weather pattern in 2017 compared to 2016. International pressure, however, also helped to mitigate forest loss, as did well-funded efforts to conserve peatlands, which are critical to maintaining moisture in forests.
Across the Caribbean, meanwhile, forceful hurricanes toppled large sections of trees.
Throughout the world it appeared that disruptive effects of climate change — especially rising temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns — drove the bulk of forest loss, but Weisse emphasized that voluntary human action was the main culprit.
“We are seeing some signs of the impact that climate change is having in forests in terms of these natural disasters, but at the core a lot of this is due to human activity, so there is more that we could be doing to stop the increase in tree cover loss,” she said.
Weisse also said that forest conservation has far-ranging benefits.
For instance, a global plan to conserve forests could get the world 30% of the way to reaching the goal of the Paris climate agreement, according to a 2017 report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States.
Further, forests are essential to water quality, food security, regulation of local temperatures, and much more, according to Weisse.
Not surprisingly, Indigenous populations have been at the forefront of environmental protection.
The report found that in 20 areas controlled by Indigenous peoples around the world, tree loss was half compared to the surrounding forest. However, these surrounding areas are growing around the world as Indigenous land rights are violated.
And there currently exists a huge funding gap for forest conservation among countries.
That’s ultimately the biggest obstacle, according to the report.
“The overall trend in the tropics that the amount of funding doesn’t match the scale of the problem,” Weisse said.
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