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Only a third of the world's tropical rainforest remains intact – RFN report

Of the approximately 14.5 million square kilometres (sq. km) of tropical rainforest that once covered Earth’s surface, only 36 percent remains intact. Just over a third, 34 percent, is completely gone and the last 30 percent is in various forms of degradation according to the world’s first complete historical and current overview "State of the tropical rainforest" report by Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN).

Of the approximately 14.5 million square kilometres (sq. km) of tropical rainforest that once covered Earth’s surface, only 36 percent remains intact. Just over a third, 34 percent, is completely gone and the last 30 percent is in various forms of degradation according to the world’s first complete historical and current overview “State of the tropical rainforest” report by Rainforest Foundation Norway (RFN). Intact tropical rainforest in the world in 2016 in km2 (graphic courtesy RFN).

According to Rainforest Foundation Norway, the “State of the tropical rainforest: The complete overview of the tropical rainforest, past, and present” report reveals that two-thirds of the tropical rainforest on Earth are gone or degraded, and the report launch comes at the beginning of a significant year for environmental protection, with the UN biodiversity and climate change summits providing opportunities for accelerated global efforts.

We now know how much tropical rainforest is left in the world and the state it is in, and we have compared this to estimates of how much tropical rainforest existed before modern human interference. This knowledge is essential for the upscaling of the global fight to save what is left. It is alarming that nearly half of the world’s rainforests are degraded, said Anders Krogh author of the report.

Working as a special advisor at Rainforest Foundation Norway, Krogh has analyzed and compiled Global Forest Watch (GFW) data from all of the 73 countries that are home to the world’s tropical rainforests, the planet’s oldest and most diverse terrestrial ecosystem. His unique findings are bleak yet offer hope going forward.

Of the approximately 14.5 million square kilometres (km2) of tropical rainforest that once covered Earth’s surface, only 36 percent remains intact. Just over a third, 34 percent, is completely gone and the last 30 percent is in various forms of degradation.

Of the current (2019) remaining rainforest cover, 55 percent is intact while 45 percent is in a degraded state.

The good news is that we have an area half the size of Europe that is still completely intact. However, the remaining tropical rainforests are either severely damaged or increasingly fragmented. Humans are chopping these once vast and impenetrable forests into smaller and smaller pieces, undermining their ability to store carbon, cool the planet, produce rain and provide habitats. The world depends on tropical rainforests to provide these services, Anders Krogh said.

A tipping point for tropical rainforest ecosystems

According to Krogh, researchers are now warning that the tropical rainforest ecosystems are getting closer to a tipping point, where their natural ecosystem services can no longer be sustained, and the forest starts collapsing.

Signs of this are already evident in parts of the Amazon rainforest.

These highly specialised ecosystems are suffering from constant and persistent abuse, through our bottomless appetite for land and resources. We expect that upcoming UN climate and biodiversity summits provide specific targets and measures to protect intact tropical rainforests, said Anders Krogh.

The human consumption of tropical rainforests predates the industrial age. Although agricultural expansion has always been a key driver for deforestation, the mineral extraction during European colonization and the worldwide use of timber in construction and railroad infrastructure also mark industrial and global exploitation of these resources.

At the turn of the 19th century, the need for rubber in the mass production of cars fuelled the ‘rubber boom’, continuing into the second world war industry, and followed by the advancement of commercial flights.

Large continuous areas of rainforests such as this in Peru taken in 2012, are under increasing pressure (photo courtesy Wolter Silvera).

The increased need for energy over the last century and continuing through to today manifests itself in drilling for oil and hydroelectric power plants.

Today, deforestation of tropical rainforests is mainly driven by international trade and commodity production, such as soy, palm oil, cattle, as well as timber and mineral mining.

Deforestation is big business. It is lining the pockets of a relatively small group of multinational companies and national actors operating in countries whose governments are allowing this to happen. All parties involved are putting profit and power ahead  of our global climate and biodiversity, Anders Krogh said.

As globalization of trade and movement expands, often driven in some form through deforestation, the forests are now hitting back.

Massive deforestation is violating nature’s natural virus protection mechanisms, putting the whole world at risk from potential new pathogens spreading from animals to humans. The aftermath of COVID-19 should bring rainforest protection to the top of the agenda of all policymakers and world leaders concerned about  preventing the outbreak of new pandemics, said Anders Krogh.

First-of-its-kind report

The first-of-its-kind report has compiled available data on all tropical rainforests around the world, comparing original tropical rainforest cover with current, as well as presenting a global status on tropical rainforest degradation.

The current data span is from 2002 to 2019. Key findings include

  • One-third (34 percent) of the original tropical rainforests are gone, one-third (30 percent) is degraded, and one-third (36 percent) is still intact.
  • Almost half (45 percent) of the remaining tropical rainforest is degraded.
  • Between 2002 and 2019, the world lost 571 863 km², a tropical rainforest larger than the size of continental France.
  • The Amazon has 72 percent of the world’s intact tropical rainforests, of which 42 percent is in Brazil alone.
  • Asia is particularly hard hit, with only 7 percent of the world’s intact tropical rainforest left today. On the island of Sumatra, only 9 percent of the original tropical rainforest remains intact.

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