The 2010s opened as a moment of optimism for tropical forests. The world looked like it was on track to significantly reduce tropical deforestation by 2020.
By the end of the 2019 however, it was clear that progress on protecting tropical forests stalled in the 2010s. The decade closed with rising deforestation and increased incidence of fire in tropical forests.
According to the U.N., in 2015 global forest cover fell below four billion hectares of forest for the first time in human history.
The 2010s opened as a moment of optimism for tropical forests. Widely available satellite imagery via platforms like Google Earth brought new levels of accountability which, for the first time, meant the world couldn’t use ignorance as an excuse for not addressing the destruction of tropical forests. Deforestation in Earth’s largest rainforest — the Brazilian Amazon — was in the midst of a historic plunge, while governments around the world were pledging billions of dollars in new money toward a mechanism to compensate tropical countries for protecting their forests. Several countries closed out the decade with important new conservation initiatives, while activists, empowered with a new set of tools, pushed the private sector to begin adopting a new type of sustainability commitment: the zero deforestation policy for commodity production and sourcing. Some of the largest consumer-facing companies adopted these forest-friendly policies with near-term implementation targets. The world looked like it was on track to significantly reduce tropical deforestation by 2020.
By the end of the 2019, however, it was clear that progress on protecting tropical forests stalled in the 2010s. On the climate front, a decade of science has mostly confirmed what we already knew 10 years ago: Tropical forests are deeply threatened by the current pace of climate change. Combined with ongoing deforestation, degradation, and fragmentation, the outlook for some of the planet’s largest forests, from the Amazon to Indonesia, is increasingly bleak.
The 2010s were also marked by mixed progress for tropical forest conservation. Advances in remote sensing were undercut by backsliding on corporate and government commitments to protect forests. Gains in new protected areas were partially offset by a trend toward protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement (PADDD) in countries from Brazil to Indonesia. Efforts to recognize the value of healthy and productive natural forests were confronted with the challenging realities of implementation, public indifference and the punishing economics of rising demand for food, fiber and fuel in the context of unaccounted costs of environmental externalities. Political leaders in several important tropical forest countries turned a blind eye to — or in some cases even actively encouraged — threats against environmental defenders and the free press, contributing to hundreds of murders and assassinations of activists, indigenous leaders and journalists.
The 2010s closed with rising deforestation and increased incidence of fire in tropical forests. According to the U.N., in 2015, global forest cover fell below four billion hectares (10 billion acres) for the first time in modern human history.
Industrial logging in Malaysian Borneo. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Trends in tropical forests
The 2010s opened with a concerted push to reduce tropical deforestation by 2020 as a way to achieve multiple objectives, including combatting climate change, stabilizing forest-dependent livelihoods and ecosystem services, and slowing species extinction rates. That ambition, however, failed to meet its most basic target: Deforestation in the 2010s far outpaced the rate of forest loss in the 2000s, rising at least 30%, according to two datasets developed by a team lead by Matthew Hansen of the University of Maryland.
Hansen’s data shows that tropical tree cover loss between 2010 and 2018 averaged 12 million hectares per year, an increase from 8.5 million hectares per year from 2002-2009. Tree cover loss, however, includes both deforestation and activities within tree plantations, like cyclical harvesting and replanting. As a result, it is not a complete indicator of what’s happening in tropical forests, especially in countries like Malaysia and Indonesia that have large industrial plantation sectors. Therefore, Hansen’s data on primary forests, which excludes plantations, is a useful proxy for providing more context on tropical forest trends.
According to Hansen, the average annual rate of primary forest loss in the tropics between the 2010s and the 2000s rose 30% to 3.7 million hectares from 2.9 million hectares. But importantly, this dataset does not include 2019, when deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon hit the highest level in at least 11 years and forests in Southeast Asia and Africa were affected by large-scale fires. That suggests the final tally for the 2010s will be worse than the current numbers indicate. Either way, we missed the goal of reducing deforestation this decade by a wide margin.
From a regional standpoint, Africa experienced the largest increase in forest loss during the 2010s, with the rate of loss more than doubling for both tree cover and primary forests. But Africa started from a lower base and trailed both the Asia-Pacific region and the Americas in terms of the extent of primary forest loss and tree cover loss. The Americas, led by Brazil, Peru, Bolivia and Colombia, lost more primary forest than Africa and Asia combined.
As was the case in the 2000s, tropical forests experienced catastrophic fires in the 2010s. These conflagrations generally coincided with droughts; El Nino (ENSO) years were especially bad. Forest fires garnered the most attention when their smoke blew over major population centers, as was the case with fires in Indonesia in 2015 and 2019, and fires in the Brazilian Amazon in 2019. Fires in Africa attracted less attention, but in 2016, the largest-ever fire recorded in the Central African rainforest burned 15,000 hectares in the Republic of Congo.
Commodity production on tropical forest lands continued to rise through the 2010s despite global stagnation in commodity prices in the second half of the decade. Accordingly, a relatively limited number of export-oriented commodities — cattle, palm oil, soy, timber and wood pulp — accounted for an outsize share of deforestation in the tropics.
The cattle sector is the single largest direct driver of tropical deforestation globally due to its outsize footprint in the Amazon. At the end of the last decade, major Brazilian slaughterhouses signed a “cattle agreement” brokered by Greenpeace, which endeavored to clean up the sector. But widespread cheating — and a large clandestine market — limited the effectiveness of the pact. Substantial amounts of deforestation for cattle pasture also shifted from the Amazon to adjacent dry forests and wooded savannas like the Chaco and Cerrado biomes. And although the end of the 2010s saw a surge in interest in meat alternatives in the United States, global beef consumption continued to rise with growing levels of affluence.
Palm oil arguably attracted the most attention among tropical commodities during the decade for its rapid expansion and the heavy toll it is taking on some of the world’s most endangered forests and wildlife, especially in Southeast Asia. Although palm oil prices have been depressed since 2012, the crop still represents the most profitable form of agricultural land use in many countries. As a result, oil palm expansion was larger in the 2010s than in the 2000s. Asia added nearly 4 million hectares of plantations between 2010 and 2017, accounting for nearly 90% of expansion over the period. Pressure from environmental groups and importing governments — for example, the EU via renewable fuels mandates — prompted many of the largest companies operating in the palm oil sector to adopt zero deforestation, zero peat and zero exploitation (ZDPE) policies in the first half of the decade. But implementation has been slower than expected, and deforestation won’t be eliminated from the majority of palm oil supply chains by 2020. Facing existential threats from ZDPE commitments and government certification programs, the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) tightened its certification criteria but still suffers from subpar demand for its product. By the end of the decade, both the Indonesian and Malaysian governments were working to counter the palm oil supply glut by creating their own domestic sources of demand via biodiesel mandates.
The soy sector’s biggest impact on tropical forests occurs in South America: in the Amazon, the Cerrado and the Chaco. Much of this soy is produced for livestock feed rather than direct consumption by people. In 2006, Greenpeace kicked off the ZDPE movement with a campaign on Amazon soy that prompted the five largest soy crushers in the Brazilian Amazon to adopt a moratorium on deforestation. That deal laid the groundwork for all future ZDPE commitments. Third-party spatial analysis suggests the soy moratorium did an effective job in the 2010s, but leakage of deforestation into adjacent biomes was a major issue: Farmers essentially traded deforestation in the Amazon for the deforestation of drier landscapes.
Selective logging has major impacts in tropical forests around the world, but it is usually an indirect driver of deforestation — by creating roads that open up forests to eventual clearing, for example, or degrading the economic value of a forest to the point where it is then converted for another use, like a plantation. Industrial timber and wood pulp plantations, however, are major direct drivers of deforestation around the world. Nowhere in the tropics is the impact of the wood pulp sector greater than in the forests of Southeast Asia, where vast areas of peatlands and lowland rainforests have been converted for acacia and eucalyptus plantations. Indonesia’s two largest wood pulp producers established ZDPE policies mid-decade but had returned to mostly business as usual approaches by 2019, leading key NGO partners to sever ties. Demand for packing products has been bolstered by e-commerce.
The impacts of infrastructure this decade will be felt for generations. A building spree in South America, including dams across the Amazon, came to an abrupt halt with the corruption scandals around Odebrecht, a Brazilian construction giant. The fallout from the Odebrecht scandal bought a temporary reprieve for tributaries of the Amazon River, but it also ushered in a new wave of politicians, including Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, who arguably represents the biggest threat to the Amazon rainforest in decades. Meanwhile, China pushed ahead with its Belt and Road Initiative, which grew from a regional road and port construction play to the biggest-ever infrastructure development scheme.
Duri oil field in Riau, Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Rainforest in Sarawak, Malaysia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Some bright spots for forests
While tropical forest conservation sustained significant setbacks in the 2010s, there were a few bright spots for the sector.
Recognition of the role that indigenous and local communities play in forest conservation was a dominant theme during the decade. This approach presents an alternative to “fortress conservation” by supporting legal frameworks that enable forest peoples to secure land tenure and usage rights of customary forest lands. Over the course of the 2010s, hundreds of millions of dollars flowed into such rights recognition as a conservation strategy. In Indonesia, up to 40 million hectares of state land could eventually be recognized as local peoples’ customary forests.
Land tenure reform is one of the byproducts of the discussions around the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) mechanism, which was seeded in the late 2000s. While world leaders fell short on adopting a binding framework on climate and the associated REDD+ mechanism never gained the momentum expected at the beginning of the decade, working through the details of REDD+ led to progress on some important issues.
An area that benefitted from REDD+ discussions was tropical forest monitoring. Advancements in technology, especially in remote sensing via satellites, airplanes, drones and acoustic devices, improved our capacity to understand what is happening in the world’s forests. Some of these technologies provide near-real-time data that enable authorities and communities to take action before tree cutting becomes large-scale deforestation. There are hopes that some of these technologies can help support a new push to restore forests as a climate change mitigation strategy. Indeed, tree planting and assisted natural regeneration gained increasing prominence as the decade drew to a close.
The idea of performance-based conservation coupled with improved monitoring had other effects too, including calls for greater transparency and accountability among NGOs, governments and companies. Some obliged, disclosing more information about their operations and sourcing practices, while others faced painful public reckonings at times. Social media, data leaks, satellite imagery and the wide availability of mobile phones is making it more difficult to keep secrets.
Rainforest in Indonesia. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.
Epitaph for the 2010s
All told, the 2010s were a tumultuous time for tropical forests. The decade opened with hope and optimism built on solid momentum around recognizing the value of forests and their inhabitants, technological advances that increased transparency, empowered activists and communities, a new breed of corporate conservation commitment, and unprecedented progress in reducing deforestation in Earth’s largest rainforest. But the decade closed with the outlook for tropical forests looking as bleak as ever, but with less margin for error and less time to spare to correct course.
For the decade, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon — which accounts for nearly two-thirds of Earth’s largest rainforest — was below the 2000s, but deforestation for the country as a whole rose slightly as forest clearing moved to drier forests. Brazil established vast areas of new protected areas and indigenous territories, but also removed protected status from large areas.
Colombia: The signing of a peace agreement with the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (FARC) in 2016 brought a welcome reprieve to the violence that has affected Colombia for decades, but the new stability also threatened to usher in an era of increased deforestation with the entrance of industrial agriculture regions previously off-limits due to conflict. As if to confirm the threat, deforestation accelerated sharply in Colombia after the peace agreement was signed. But in other ways, Colombia was arguably one of the leaders in tropical forest conservation during the 2010s; setting aside massive new protected areas, granting “personhood” to the Colombian Amazon, giving it rights under law; increasing recognition of indigenous land rights; and establishing a carbon tax that directly funds domestic forest conservation projects.
Peru: Deforestation in Peru has been on an upward trend since the early 2000s as new and improved infrastructure opened up previously inaccessible areas to conversion and industrial agriculture expanded in the lowlands of the country. Peru however did establish several major new protected areas in the Andes-Amazon region and upgraded its forest monitoring capabilities.
Bolivia: Deforestation in Bolivia increased sharply in the 2010s due to large-scale expansion of industrial agriculture, especially soy and cattle farms in the eastern lowlands of the country.
Indonesia: The 2010s were a complex decade for tropical forest conservation in Indonesia. While the industrial forestry sector continued to expand into forests and peatlands, the Indonesian government established new regulations governing land use in carbon dense ecosystems, culminating in a “moratorium” on clearing certain areas. A series of court decisions established important precedents on forest use, including recognition of customary rights to forest lands and the ability of the state to collect fines for illegal forest clearing. But enforcement of these regulations remained inconsistent and varying levels of the Indonesian government sent mixed signals on the degree to which forests should be protected or converted. Corruption remained a serious problem in the forest sector.
A billion dollar commitment from Norway to help Indonesia move toward more sustainable management of its forests took nearly a full decade to start disbursing funds due to the need for Indonesia to establish legal frameworks for the mechanism.
Malaysia: Through the decade Malaysia continued to have one the of world’s the highest rates of deforestation as a proportion of its remaining forest cover. Most deforestation in Malaysia is for the establishment of plantations.
Sabah and Sarawak, states in Malaysian Borneo where the bulk of recent oil palm expansion has occurred in the country, established extensive new protected areas during the decade. But by the end of the 2010s, both states were also embarking on ambitious highway development projects, which could potentially open forest areas to more deforestation.
Papua New Guinea: Throughout the 2000s and early 2010s, deforestation in PNG remained relatively steady. That changed mid-decade.
Congo Basin countries: Deforestation in the Congo Basin increased at the fastest rate of any region on the planet in the 2010s. This is largely a function of Central Africa having a low deforestation rate in the 2000s owing to poor infrastructure, weak governance, and civil strife which limited investment in large-scale industrial agriculture. Accordingly, deforestation in the region has historically been primarily driven by small-scale agriculture rather than export-oriented commodity production. But there were signs this decade that the situation is starting to change.