Bolivia burned while the world watched Brazil.

The Amazon was on fire. Now we know how much forest was lost in 2019.

Camellia Williams
Jun 9 · 5 min read

In August 2019 the world’s eyes were focused on Brazil. The Amazon was on fire and social media was burning up in indignation. The data available at the time told us how many fires there were, but they couldn’t tell us how much forest had been lost. Today, we can finally answer that question. The release of the 2019 tree cover loss data from Global Forest Watch reveals the data we’ve been waiting for.

Global overview.

In 2019, we lost 3.8 million hectares of primary forest — the equivalent of losing one football pitch of primary rainforest every six seconds for the entire year. 2019 was the third-highest year of primary forest loss since the turn of the century.

Global primary forest loss and total forest loss remain stubbornly high despite decades-long efforts to reduce global deforestation. Graphic created by Vizzuality using: Tree Cover Loss (Hansen/UMD/Google/USGS/NASA). Accessed 3 June 2019.

A closer look at South America.

South America lost 4.82 Mha of forest cover in 2019. This accounts for almost 20% of total global forest cover loss in 2019. Image created by Vizzuality using the data: Tree Cover Loss (Hansen/UMD/Google/USGS/NASA). Accessed 3 June 2019.

Brazil retained its position as one of three countries with the largest area of tree cover loss in primary forests.

In 2019, Brazil lost 1.36 Mha of humid primary forest, making up 50% of its total tree cover loss. Clear-cut deforestation — the clearing of land for agriculture and other new land uses — contributed to this loss.

Primary forest loss in Brazil, 2002–2019. The pink pixels on the map show where primary forest was lost. Global Forest Watch: https://gfw.global/3dumF2b

Some of the clear-cut deforestation is happening in areas reserved for indigenous peoples’.

In Brazil, a change in government in 2018 sparked an illegal land grab within indigenous and community lands. Ituna Itata Reserve is one of those places that’s currently threatened. The reserve is set aside for the exclusive use of an uncontacted group of indigenous peoples’ and yet, roads and clearings have appeared in satellite imagery.

Satellite imagery of Ituna Itata in 2017. Global Forest Watch: Basemap by Planet.
Satellite imagery of Ituna Itata in 2018. The clearing of forest is more extensive than in 2017. Image: Global Forest Watch. Basemap by Planet.
Satellite imagery of Ituna Itata in 2019. Extensive clearing is seen across the reserve. Image: Global Forest Watch. Basemap by Planet.

Evidence of tree cover loss was first detected in 2012 but the situation rapidly deteriorated in 2018 and 2019. A total of 7.64Kha of tree cover was lost in 2019 in Ituna Itata, a decrease of 10% compared to data for the year 2000.

Tree cover loss in Ituna Itata increased significantly in 2018 and 2019 following a change in government in Brazil. Global Forest Watch: https://gfw.global/303kONH

Fires are just a part of the story.

The number of fires peaked in the week of 3 September when a higher than normal number of VIIRS fire alerts were reported. Although we can see the location of these alerts, we cannot tell what the cause of the alert was, or if it resulted in tree cover loss. On-the-ground reporting is needed to answer how and why tree cover loss has occurred.

The number of VIIRS fire alerts peaked in the week of 3 September 2019. The yellow and orange dots on the map indicate the location of these alerts but a loss of tree cover should not be assumed. Global Forest Watch: https://gfw.global/2XErK0S

Bolivia’s tree cover loss breaks records.

While the world’s attention was focused on Brazil, fires were also burning in Bolivia. The record-breaking total tree cover loss was 80% greater than the country’s next-highest year on record. In 2019, loss of humid primary forest made up 34% of the total tree cover loss in Bolivia.

The loss was mostly due to extensive fires in the Santa Cruz province. Many of these fires were intentionally set after a decree signed in July 2019 permitted the clearing of forest for agricultural purposes but climatic conditions also contributed to the spread of fires.

Primary forest loss loss in Bolivia 2001–2019. Loss of humid primary forest made up 34% of the total tree cover loss in Bolivia. The locations of these losses are marked in pink on the map. Global Forest Watch: https://gfw.global/2YbBjoz

The number of fires in Bolivia in 2019 was higher than usual. The peak happened in the week of 3 September 2019 with 18,797 VIIRS fire alerts.

The 2019 fire season in Bolivia was longer and more intense than in previous years. Graph was created by Vizzuality using: L. Giglio, C. Justice. 2015. MOD14A2 MODIS/Terra Thermal Anomalies/Fire 8-Day L3 Global 1km SIN Grid V006. NASA EOSDIS Land Processes DAAC. https://doi.org/10.5067/MODIS/MOD14A2.006
The number of VIIRS fire alerts in the week of 3 September 2019 was high in comparison to the same week in previous years. The yellow and orange dots on the map indicate the location of these alerts but a loss of tree cover should not be assumed. Global Forest Watch: https://gfw.global/2Xy7QWR

But so what?

The loss of primary forest is bad news for our planet. Forests, especially those in tropical or sub-tropical areas like the Amazon, are home to an immense variety of species. Together these species provide the things we all depend on: clean air, clean water, food, medicines, and so much more. Even the simple knowledge of their existence brings inherent joy.

La Fortuna Waterfall, Alajuela, La Fortuna, Costa Rica, Photo by Etienne Delorieux on Unsplash.

We need our forests to sustain all life on earth. They also have an essential role in our efforts to mitigate the impacts of climate change. If we take care of our forests now, we can create a better, more sustainable future for all.

Brazil captured the headlines in 2019 but forest loss due to fires, climate change, agriculture, and urbanisation is happening everywhere. Every year we lose a little more and the impact of this loss keeps growing. We can’t continue with business as normal. We have to act now to save our forests, the biodiversity within them, and the people who depend on them.


Camellia is Vizzuality’s Lead Writer. She writes about climate change, biodiversity, and how data and design can help us create a better future.

Vizzuality Blog

Posts on data design, user research, open data, and…

Camellia Williams

Written by

Lead Writer at Vizzuality.

Vizzuality Blog

Posts on data design, user research, open data, and software development. We create tools and applications with a lasting benefit to society and the environment.

Camellia Williams

Written by

Lead Writer at Vizzuality.

Vizzuality Blog

Posts on data design, user research, open data, and software development. We create tools and applications with a lasting benefit to society and the environment.

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