The far-reaching importance of tropical forests, from stabilising regional climate to underpinning rural economies, has not protected them from rapacious deforestation.

Tropical deforestation during a single year (to July 2016) in a single country (Brazil) amounted to 7,893 square kilometres, an area which would almost cover the island of Cyprus. After a long period of significant reduction in deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon region, the rate has been rising since 2012. This disappointing trend has continued into 2015 and 2016, escalating by 60% over those two years.

This picture in Brazil, together with that in Indonesia, contributed 50% of all tropical deforestation in 2016. The overall scale and trend in global tropical deforestation remains immensely sensitive to fickle political developments in these two major rainforest countries, as well as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Brazil is home to 40% of the Amazon rainforest, the largest in the world, while DRC hosts 60% of the Congo Basin forest.

Currently, the politics in these countries is the source of much concern for forest campaigners. In Brazil, the government of Michel Temer has surprised even the most conservative landowners with its enthusiastic abolition of regulations for land use, apparently content to scramble a decade of progress. In the DRC, an increasingly unstable government granted vast concessions totalling 6,500 square kilometres to Chinese companies in 2017, violating its own moratorium that has been largely observed since 2002.

The rate of deforestation in sub-Saharan Africa generally, as well as DRC, has been relatively modest over that period, due to inaccessibility and political risk. But there are signs of increasing vulnerability as the continent opens up to foreign investment.

This rising global trend for deforestation is a major disappointment after a generation of environmental activism to protect tropical forests, supported by billions of aid dollars. For the purpose of its statistics, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization defines deforestation as the complete conversion of an area of forest to a different land use. It considers land to be forest if it has minimum canopy cover of 10% and “the absence of other predominant land uses.”

However, reports submitted by individual countries do not necessarily follow this approach and the quality of data is notoriously suspect in the forest sector. The rapid advance of satellite technology, such as Global Forest Watch, now offers real-time accuracy within 100 metres of resolution, the data openly available.

Forest degradation is the term which expresses less drastic loss of forest cover. Where industrial logging is selective in its approach, it may be assessed as forest degradation. Carbon dioxide emissions caused by rainforest degradation amount to as much as one-third of those arising from deforestation.

In temperate regions of the world, forest cover is increasing. Deforestation is countered by extensive programmes of replanting and forest regeneration, especially in China and India.


more Forests briefings (updated April 2018)
Importance of Tropical Forests
Tropical Forests and Climate Change
Causes of Deforestation
Sustainable Development Goal for Deforestation
Consumer Solutions to Deforestation
Rights-based Solutions to Deforestation
Market-based Solutions to Deforestation
Source material and useful links