Bolivia burned while the world watched Brazil.
The Amazon was on fire. Now we know how much forest was lost in 2019.
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.
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.
A closer look at South America.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.