An Area the Size of California Has Recently Been Lost to Deforestation

In 24 deforestation hotspots, more than 166,000 square miles were decimated in 13 years.

Deforestation often happens to clear the way for agriculture or infrastructure. Artur Korpik / EyeEm / Getty Images

More than 166,000 square miles of forest habitat were recently decimated due to deforestation in the tropics and subtropics, according to a new report from the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

The report tracks two dozen deforestation hot spots covering more than 2.7 million square miles where massive areas of forest remain threatened. “Deforestation Fronts: Drivers and Responses in a Changing World” analyzed forest loss between 2004 and 2017. 

“This report finds that in a 13-year period, we’ve lost an area of forest in the tropics and subtropics the size of California,” Kerry Cesareo, senior vice president, forests, WWF, tells Treehugger.

“And about half of what’s left has suffered some kind of fragmentation, meaning human development has divided these once vast areas of forest into smaller, disjointed sections.”

Losing forests has a resounding impact on many aspects of life for humans and nature.  

“Deforestation is at the root of the most pressing problems currently threatening our planet,” says Cesareo. “It is one of the biggest underlying risk factors for outbreaks of emerging infectious diseases and a primary reason wildfires are more frequent and destructive in critical ecosystems such as the Amazon. It’s also the leading cause of decline in wildlife populations and a major contributor to compounding runaway climate change.”

The reasons for deforestation depend on the area where it happens.

“In Latin America, it’s primarily deforestation to clear the way for large-scale agriculture—things like cattle ranching and soy production. In Africa, a key driver is smallholder farms. In Asia, it’s the expansion of plantations and commercial agriculture linked to global and domestic markets,” Cesareo explains.

“And everywhere in the world, we’re seeing the expansion of infrastructure, like roads and mining operations. This also contributes to deforestation.”

Forests Everywhere are Suffering

The majority of forest loss is located in these 24 hot spots across Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and Oceania, according to the WWF. But these are far from the only areas of concern.

“The truth is that forests everywhere are suffering from deforestation, degradation, and fragmentation to some degree,” Cesareo says. “The reasons will be different depending on the location, but the resulting destruction is the same.”

Almost two-thirds of lost forests tracked by WWF happened in Latin America. Nine hot spots there reported 104,000 square miles of deforestation. The Brazilian Amazon lost nearly 60,000 square miles of forest.

“A large proportion of the deforestation is occurring in Latin America, something that tracks with recent WWF research showing that populations of monitored vertebrate species in that area have declined an average 94% between 1970 and 2016,” Cesareo says. 

“And this is, in large part, because of clearing forests to produce products like beef and soy, or products that come from forests, like timber. This is all driven by increasing demand, so there really is a very personal connection to everyone. What we eat and what we buy matters. We have to consider where our products are coming from and what impact they have on the environment, and we have to make better choices for both our health and the planet.” 

The WWF report urges people to avoid buying products linked to deforestation and calls for actions from businesses, governments, regulators, and policy makers. These actions include:

  • making sure company supply chains are as sustainable as they can be
  • balancing the need for regulation with the needs of farmers
  • enacting zero-deforestation policies 
  • strengthening the rights and controls of indigenous people and local communities to their forest lands

“The role of Indigenous peoples and local communities is critical. These communities have long been stewards of these lands. In fact, today Indigenous peoples alone are custodians of a quarter of the Earth’s land surface, including well over a third of remaining intact forests,” Cesareo says. 

“One of the main strategies for addressing deforestation is securing these communities’ rights and local control of the land. We need ambitious, inclusive, and appropriately funded partnerships between the public sector, the private sector, and local peoples to keep these forests intact in the long term.”

She says WWF is on the ground working with these groups to make sure that “procedures, policies, and laws are sustainable and practical for all parties. At the center of this work are the people who live in these forests who have been critical to maintaining them for millennia.” 

Deforestation and Pandemics

The report also notes that the spread of zoonotic diseases may have a connection to forest loss.

“Research shows deforestation is a consistent root cause of pandemics in modern times. There is a clear link between the loss of forests and the outbreaks of zoonotic diseases as humans come into closer contact with wild animals,” Cesareo says.

“There is a lot we still don’t know... so while I can say that deforestation may have played a role, I can’t say definitively that we could have prevented this particular outbreak. However, we know that preserving forests is one of the most important ways that we can prevent future zoonotic spillover.” 

She adds, “It’s time to shift our focus from short-term gains to the incalculable long-term benefits forests provide—not only for the health of humanity but for the future of all living things.”

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