An Area Roughly the Size of California—166,000 Square Miles—Lost to Deforestation Worldwide Between 2004 and 2017

WASHINGTON, January 13, 2021 - More than 166,000 square miles of forest habitat—an area roughly the size of California—were lost to deforestation in the tropics and subtropics between 2004 and 2017, according to a new report from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) titled “Deforestation Fronts: Drivers and Responses in a Changing World.” The report provides a comprehensive analysis of the causes of deforestation, tracking 24 hot spots encompassing more than 2.7 million square miles, where large areas of remaining forests are most threatened.

“Deforestation is at the root of the most pressing problems currently threatening our planet,” says Kerry Cesareo, senior vice president, forests, WWF. “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.”

Nearly two-thirds of the total forest loss tracked in the report—almost 104,000 square miles—occurred in Latin America, which contains nine of the 24 deforestation fronts identified by WWF. The Brazilian Amazon saw the most devastation with almost 60,000 square miles lost. These findings echo another recent WWF report that found an average 94% decline in monitored vertebrate species populations in Latin America and the Caribbean between 1970 and 2016.

“Deforestation Fronts: Drivers and Responses in a Changing World” cites commercial agriculture, particularly large-scale agriculture, as the main driver of deforestation in Latin America. Smallholder farming is a key driver in some geographies, for example in Africa. In Asia, the main drivers are the expansion of plantations and the growth of commercial agriculture linked to global demand and domestic markets. Across all 24 fronts, infrastructure development, including the expansion of roads and mining operations, also contributes to deforestation. In addition, the report states that nearly half of the remaining forests in these areas have suffered some type of fragmentation, meaning human development has divided once vast areas of forest into smaller, disjointed sections.

The report urges individuals to avoid products linked to deforestation and calls for several urgent actions from governments, businesses and regulators. These actions include securing the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities to their lands and territories and strengthening local control of forests; ensuring companies’ supply chains are as sustainable as possible; fostering ambitious, inclusive and appropriately funded public-private-people partnerships; and enacting policies and laws requiring all imported forest-related commodities and products be free from deforestation and conversion. The report also stresses the necessity of balancing regulations and standards with the needs of smallholder and subsistence farmers.

“The COVID-19 pandemic actually provides us with an opportunity to reverse these devastating trends,” adds Cesareo. “As we recover, we have a once-in-a-lifetime chance to make sweeping changes that will save our forests, slow climate change, protect wildlife and help prevent the emergence of future zoonotic diseases like the novel coronavirus. 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.”