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Early deforestation numbers for 2019 reveal trends in the Amazon

Deforestation in the Colombian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

Deforestation in the Colombian Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler for Mongabay.

  • The Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project, or MAAP, an initiative of the nonprofit organization Amazon Conservation, has published its analysis of preliminary deforestation data for the Amazon in 2019.
  • The figures project that deforestation in 2019 tapered, if slightly, or held relatively steady in four of the five Amazon countries included in the study.
  • Bolivia’s loss of forest in 2019 rose in comparison with 2018, likely as a result of widespread fires that burned standing forest.
  • The researchers used early-warning alerts of tree cover loss in 2019 to estimate total deforestation in the five countries and then compared the figures with historical rates going back to 2001.

A new analysis based on estimated deforestation in the Amazon in 2019 pinpoints hotspots of forest loss and identifies several country-specific trends in the region.

The figures project that deforestation in 2019 tapered — if slightly — or held relatively steady, in four of the five Amazon countries included in the study.

The numbers, published Feb. 11, are still preliminary at this point, said researcher Matt Finer, with official statistics likely to come this summer. Finer led the analysis and is an ecologist with the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project, or MAAP, an initiative of the nonprofit organization Amazon Conservation.

Still, he said, “It’s a fascinating moment where we have the data for 2019.”

Amazon forest canopy in Peru. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

Finer and his colleagues used data from the year’s early-warning updates and compared that to the forest loss figures from the University of Maryland going back to 2001. To weed out areas of previously cleared areas that may have lost tree cover, they focused only on the alerts occurring in areas of primary forest.

MAAP uses real-time forest monitoring to report on deforestation as it’s happening. In September, the team demonstrated that many of the fires in the Brazilian Amazon that had whipped the worldwide media into a frenzy were burning recently cleared areas, not runaway forest fires burning virgin rainforest forest. All told, Brazil likely lost more than 9,700 square kilometers (3,750 square miles) in 2019 from its 60% share of the Amazon.

Compared to the past few years of data from the University of Maryland, this finding indicates deforestation was marginally down in Brazil. The government’s official estimates generally agree with the total deforested area in 2019. However, the government data didn’t track the striking uptick in tree cover loss that the University of Maryland research did. As the forest monitoring group Global Forest Watch explains, the fact that the government data don’t include forest loss from fires or track degradation in addition to deforestation could explain this discrepancy.

A soy plantation in the Brazilian Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.

In contrast, the group revealed that the fires in Bolivia, where deforestation surged to consume 1,350 km2 (521 mi2), probably breached the boundaries of farmers’ fields where they were being used to prepare the land for planting into standing forest. In other words, Finer said, the situation in Bolivia was “much more of what the public had in mind, which was uncontrolled escaped fires.”

MAAP and other groups have been closely watching the skyrocketing deforestation in the Colombian Amazon since the government signed a peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) in 2016. The early 2019 numbers suggest that forest loss in Colombia has come back down to about a third of the record-high 1,538 km2 (594 mi2) that occurred there in 2018, which may have resulted from international pressure to curb it.

“There was a pretty big backlash against this deforestation,” Finer said.

In Ecuador’s slice of the Amazon, deforestation dropped a bit from its high of 188 km2 (73 mi2) in 2017 to 114 km2 (44 mi2) in 2019. But in December, MAAP was able to track small areas of forest clearance for oil-drilling platforms in the species-rich Yasuni National Park and near the long-standing territory of the indigenous Waorani peoples. Though the patches show up on maps as mere flecks in a sea of surrounding forest, the team calculated that the “edge effects” creeping into the surrounding forest from these incursions would, in reality, impact a much wider 6.55-km2 (2.53-mi2) swath of forest.

The base map showing forest loss hotspots across the Amazon in 2019. Image courtesy of MAAP with data from UMD/GLAD, Hansen/UMD/Google/USGS/NASA and MAAP.

The situation in Peru in 2019 reflected a “good news-bad news scenario,” Finer said. “Deforestation is decreasing, but it is still historically high if you look back to 2011.”

The area of primary forest lost in the Peruvian Amazon in 2019 dropped slightly from 2018 to 1,400 km2 (540 mi2). MAAP tracked several instances of deforestation in 2019 that pockmarked the blanket of rainforest in the northern and eastern parts of the country. The causes ranged from the establishment of a new Mennonite community to cattle ranching.

In August 2019, MAAP also published an analysis tracking the decline of deforestation around a gold-mining hotspot referred to as La Pampa stemming from the government’s campaign to end illegal mining-related forest destruction. That effort, known as Operation Mercury, led to a drop in deforestation driven by mining from 900 hectares (2,200 acres) between February and June in 2018 to 67 ha (166 acres) over the same period in 2019.

Concerns were raised that the push from the operation may have just displaced miners and that they would deforest other areas. But a subsequent MAAP report in January 2020 hints that those fears may be misplaced so far, as there’s little indication of spikes in mining-related deforestation elsewhere.

That suggests that, for an area once considered the poster child of mining’s ill effects on rainforests, Finer said, “Operation Mercury [is] working in La Pampa.”

Banner image deforestation in the Colombian Amazon by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay. 

John Cannon is Mongabay’s staff features writer. Find him on Twitter: @johnccannon


Finer, M., & Mamani, N. (2020). MAAP Synthesis: 2019 Amazon Deforestation Trends and Hotspots. MAAP Synthesis #4.

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