Tropical forest losses hit their third-highest level in almost two decades last year, despite improved conservation in parts of Southeast Asia, researchers said yesterday, warning of rising deforestation risks as nations restart pandemic-hit economies. 

The loss in 2020 of 4.2 million hectares (10.4 million acres) of primary forest – intact areas of old-growth trees – equalled the size of the Netherlands, according to data from Global Forest Watch (GFW) and the University of Maryland.

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“2020 was supposed to be this landmark year for all of these international commitments … and actually we’re seeing things moving in the wrong direction,” said Mikaela Weisse, a project manager at the GFW forest monitoring service, run by the World Resources Institute (WRI), a Washington-based think-tank.

A group of global household brands missed a 2020 target to buy only sustainably produced commodities, while a goal backed by more than 200 countries, companies and green groups to cut natural forest loss by at least half by 2020 was not met.

WRI said primary forest loss, which hit a record high in 2016 and 2017, was about 12% higher in 2020 than in 2019. Agricultural expansion, wildfires, logging, mining and population growth all fuel deforestation, researchers said.

The top three countries for primary forest loss last year were Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Bolivia.

Brazil once more topped the list for annual primary forest loss with 1.7 million hectares in 2020, more than three times the next-highest country and a hike of 25% from 2019, they said.

Neighbouring Bolivia rose to number three with nearly 276,900 hectares lost, mainly due to fires. As in Brazil, most fires were likely set by people to clear land but burned out of control due to drought and hot weather.

Meanwhile, in Colombia, ranked sixth, primary forest loss rose in 2020 to nearly 166,500 hectares after a dip in 2019.

The DRC, in second place, lost 490,000 hectares of primary forest in 2020. Like previous years, the majority was caused by the expansion of small-scale agriculture and wood energy demand.

Indonesia, which has the world’s third-largest tropical forests, fell from third to fourth place with primary forest loss at just over 270,000 hectares, showing a fourth straight year of declines. Strong government policies and effective law enforcement were instrumental behind the success.

Forest loss also dropped for the fourth year in neighbouring Malaysia, ranked ninth place, to nearly 73,000 hectares.

The downward trend in Indonesia and Malaysia was not visible in other Southeast Asian countries, however, with Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar showing sustained or higher levels of deforestation.  

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