5 Deforestation Hotspots Flying Under the Radar
In appreciation for all the benefits forests provide for us, the United Nations has announced today, March 21, be recognized as the International Day of Forests. It is a day to celebrate, among other things, the progress we have made improving forest management.
But before getting carried away with the spirit of celebration, consider this: We are still losing forests and trees much faster than they can regrow. In fact, we are losing 50 soccer fields worth of trees every minute!
Many people are working to reverse tree cover loss in the world’s largest remaining forests: the Amazon Basin, Congo Basin, tropical forests of Indonesia and the vast boreal forests of Russia and Canada. These are worthy goals, considering that just two countries—Brazil and Indonesia—still account for about half of all tropical forest loss.
But several hugely important deforestation hotspots are still flying under the radar. These forest areas don’t get the headlines or resources of the major tropical regions, but are seeing alarming trends or have lost much of their tree cover already. Below, we use the latest data from Global Forest Watch, an online forest monitoring and alert system, to dive deeper into some under-reported forest hotspots.
1. Paraguay: The Gran Chaco Is Being Cleared for Soy and Beef
The Gran Cacho, a semi-arid region of dry forests spread across Paraguay, Bolivia, Argentina, and Brazil, is being rapidly deforested, as large rectangular plots of forest are burned or cleared for soy fields and cattle ranches. Guyra, a Paraguayan environmental group, has estimated that 10 percent of the Chaco forests have been cleared in the last five years alone. According to University of Maryland data, Paraguay has lost almost 4 million hectares of tree cover since 2000 and ranks among the top countries in the world for percentage of tree cover lost. If left unchecked, deforestation could wipe out habitat for jaguars, maned wolves, and rare peccaries, as well as threaten a way of life for the Chaco’s embattled indigenous people.
2. Canada: Boreal Forests Are Cleared for Tar Sands Development
It is not just tropical forests that are under threat. Industrial developments associated with the Athabasca tar sands have cleared thousands of hectares of Canada’s boreal forest since the year 2000. The use of tar sands as a source of fossil fuel—and the development of the associated Keystone XL pipeline—have been hotly debated, but relatively little attention has been paid to the local impacts on Canada’s forests.
The animation above shows extensive tree cover loss near Fort McMurray as new pipelines are laid and the ground is cleared for open-pit mining. Smaller “checkerboard” patterns of tree cover loss and gain show industrial forestry on the margins of larger mining operations.
3. Malaysia: Rainforests Are Lost As Palm Oil Expands
Indonesia is now the focal point for much of the world’s concerns about deforestation. But neighboring Malaysia also shows plenty of reasons for alarm.
While the absolute area of forest lost in Indonesia is higher, Malaysia lost a staggering 4.7 million hectares of tree cover from 2000-2012—an annual loss of 1.6 percent, compared with Indonesia’s 1.0 percent. This puts Malaysia among the top 10 countries for percent tree cover lost. Expansion of oil palm plantations is one of the major drivers (especially in Sarawak) as Malaysia feeds a hungry global market.
4. Ivory Coast: National Park Loses 93 Percent of its Forest
In Africa, the forests of the Congo Basin—including those in Cameroon, Gabon, Central African Republic, Equatorial Guinea, Republic of Congo, and Democratic Republic of Congo—tend to dominate the public’s attention. But the past decade has seen a spike in tree cover loss across the West African nations of Ghana, the Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, which have rich forests and biodiversity hotspots of their own.
Marahoué National Park in the Ivory Coast is a dramatic example. A recent study in Current Biology estimated that the park lost a staggering 93 percent of its forest cover between 2002 and 2008, possibly due to the country’s civil conflict. The park had previously been a stronghold for the rare West African chimpanzee (Pan troglodytes verus). Now the population has been almost entirely eradicated.
5. United States: Atlanta Suburbs Replace Forests
“Deforestation” is a term rarely applied within the United States, given the highly managed nature of many U.S. forests. But urban sprawl and a growing demand for more and bigger houses have led to significant forest loss. The animation above shows forests being converted into suburbs outside of Atlanta, including a batch of new housing developments and golf courses near Acworth, Georgia. WRI has used land cover data from the U.S. Geological survey to map the region’s extensive forest loss caused by suburbanization (see visualization here).
Suburbanization is projected to clear much more of the United States’ rich southern forests in the coming years. The U.S. Forest Service estimates that 12.4 million hectares (31 million acres) of southern forest will be lost to development between 1992 and 2040, an area roughly equal to the size of North Carolina. This will mean the loss of some of the most bio-diverse forests in the United States, which provide hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of timber, water purification, erosion control and recreational opportunities.
Data Makes a Difference
Why have these hotspots been relatively overlooked? Perhaps it is because we have lacked an easy way to visualize forest change at a global scale. This has now changed with the launch of Global Forest Watch and powerful new global data from the University of Maryland, Google, and other partners. Decision-makers should take heed that forests have now entered the era of big data, and there are tools at hand to address deforestation challenges that were previously hard to detect or quantify.
But we also need to act on the data. It is time for governments, businesses and NGOs to pay more attention to these overlooked hotspots, as well as other under-studied deforestation hotspots in Bolivia, Zambia, Angola, Cambodia, Argentina and Russia.
So when you observe this year’s International Day of Forests, do something to give back to forests. Go online, and start exploring Global Forest Watch’s data. You just might help uncover the next deforestation hotspot that the world needs to hear about.
Visit EcoWatch’s BIODIVERSITY page for more related news on this topic.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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