Amazon rainforest loss fuelled by destruction around roads

Forest destruction around roads fuelled a “sharp spike” in tree loss in Brazil’s western Amazon rainforest, with the rate of losses unrelated to fires up more than 25 per cent in some areas, researchers have found.

“It’s not necessarily a new phenomenon to see forest loss happening around roads,” said Mikaela Weisse, deputy director of Global Forest Watch at the World Resources Institute, which released the data. “What’s new this year, or intensified, is the rate of that loss.”

Western Brazil was particularly badly hit, the researchers found in their annual stocktake. New “hotspots” appeared in the more accessible areas of woodland surrounding roads, which were probably being cleared for cattle pastures, they said.

In the Amazon, some roads have been paved for the first time, making the forest easier to access and chop down, the researchers found. “An interesting question is: do roads cause the deforestation or is the incentive to deforest creating the roads?” Weisse asked.

Brazil accounted for more than 40 per cent of global primary forest loss in the tropics last year, roughly the same as the previous year. The country topped the global list for lost tropical primary forest, losing about 1.5mn hectares, an area roughly the size of The Bahamas, according to University of Maryland, which compiled the data.

Chart showing that halting deforestation could cost-effectively avoid emitting 3.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year between 2020 and 2050

Ending deforestation has been identified by experts as a crucial step in lowering carbon emissions. Halting the destructive practice globally could prevent 3.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide being emitted in the years to 2050, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s state of the world’s forests report.

South America was the region with the greatest carbon savings potential, the FAO found. Planting trees on degraded land globally could also suck up around 1.2 gigatonnes of carbon in the years to 2050, it added.

Globally, the amount of tropical primary forest lost in 2021 fell slightly to about 3.75mn hectares, an area greater than the size of Belgium, with the rate remaining stable since 2018, the Maryland researchers found.

Those total losses resulted in 2.5 gigatonnes of carbon pollution, a volume roughly equivalent to the annual emissions of India, they estimated.

Indonesia proved a rare bright spot, where the rate of tree loss declined for the fifth year running, falling a quarter compared with 2020. However, it still ranked fourth in the list of countries by tropical tree loss.

More than 140 countries, including Brazil, agreed to halt and reverse forest loss at last year’s COP26 summit in Glasgow. But deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon rose to a 15-year high in the 12 months to July 2021, according to the country’s National Institute for Space Research.

This week the FAO said cropland expansion, including palm oil plantations, were the “main driver of deforestation”, responsible for about half of the practice worldwide. Livestock grazing was also a driver, accounting for a little over a third.

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