Tropical forests around the world were destroyed at an increasing rate in 2020 compared with the year before, despite the global economic downturn caused by the pandemic, which reduced demand for some commodities that have spurred deforestation in the past.
Worldwide, loss of primary old-growth tropical forest, which plays a critical role in keeping carbon out of the atmosphere and in maintaining biodiversity, increased by 12% in 2020 from 2019, according to the World Resources Institute, a research group based in Washington that reports annually on the subject.
Overall, more than 10 million acres of primary tropical forest was lost in 2020, an area roughly the size of Switzerland. Loss of that much forest added more than 2 1/2 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, or about twice as much as is spewed into the air by cars in the United States every year.
Brazil once again led the world in forest loss by a wide margin, as the pro-development policies of the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro, led to continued widespread clear-cutting. Surging forest losses were also reported in Cameroon in West Africa. And in Colombia, losses soared again last year after a promising drop in 2019.
Indonesia and Malaysia were rare bright spots, with forest loss declining from 2019.
As in previous years, most forest loss in the tropics was driven by agriculture, either the production of commodities like palm oil and cocoa or subsistence efforts by small farmers. In either case, forests are usually clear-cut and the resulting debris is burned to prepare the fields.
Most of the forest loss in Brazil occurred in the Amazon rainforest, as it has for years. But this year the Pantanal, the enormous wetlands region in the southern part of the country, which also covers parts of Bolivia and Paraguay, contributed greatly to the losses. The region experienced a historic drought that led to a severe fire season, with 16 times more forest loss in 2020 than the year before.
Frances Seymour, a senior fellow at the institute, said that what happened in the Pantanal was just one example of global warming’s increasing role in forest loss.
Seymour said that globally it was “astonishing that in a year that the global economy contracted somewhere between 3 and 4%, primary forest loss increased by 12%.”
She said the world has yet to see the greatest impact on forests from the pandemic, “which will probably come into play as economies start to recover.”