About two-thirds of the Amazon rainforest cover has degraded or destroyed, raising alarm that a key natural buffer against climate change is quickly vanishing. Logging and land conversion, mainly for agriculture, have wiped out 34% of the world's original old-growth tropical rainforests, and degraded another 30%, leaving them more vulnerable to fire and future destruction, states a study done by the non-profit Rainforest Foundation Norway.
The dense vegetation of the South American forest has been the largest living reservoir of carbon. And its loss inadvertently has also contributed to climate warming emissions. As more rainforest is destroyed, it will potentially advance climate change, in turn making it more difficult for remaining forests to survive, said the report's author and tropical forest researcher Anders Krogh.
"It's a terrifying cycle," Krogh said. To give a sense of the loss, Krogh explained that the total loss between just 2002 and 2019 was larger than the area of France.
In fact, the rate of loss in 2019 roughly matched the annual level of destruction over the last 20 years, with a football field's worth of forest vanishing every six seconds, according to another recent report by the World Resources Institute.
The Brazilian Amazon has been under intense pressure in recent decades, as an agricultural boom has driven farmers and land speculators to torch plots of land for soybeans, beef and other crops. This trend intensified since 2019, when right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro took office and began weakening environmental enforcement.
The Amazon represents the best hope for preserving what rainforest remains. The Amazon and its neighbors – the Orinoco and the Andean rainforest – account for 73.5% of tropical forests still intact, said Krogh.
The new report "reinforces that Brazil must take care of the forest. Brazil has the biggest chunk of tropical forest in the world and is also losing the most," said Ane Alencar, a geographer with the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, who was not part of the study.
Southeast Asian islands, mostly belonging to Indonesia, collectively rank second in terms of forest destruction since 2002, with much of those forests cleared for palm oil plantations. The third spot went to Central Africa with most of the destruction centered around the Congo River basin, where the forest was being cleared for traditional and commercial farming as well as logging.
Forests that were defined in the report as degraded had either been partially destroyed, or destroyed and since replaced by secondary forest growth, Rainforest Foundation Norway said.
Meanwhile, Tasso Azevedo, coordinator of the Brazilian deforestation mapping initiative MapBiomas, believed that the report's definition for intact forest may be overly strict. The study only counts untouched regions of at least 500 square km (193 square miles) as intact, leaving out smaller areas that may add to the world's virgin forest cover, he said.
Krogh, however, explained that this definition was chosen because smaller tracts are at risk of the "edge effect," where trees die faster and biodiversity is harder to maintain near the edge of the forest.