“Two steps forward, two steps back” – Governments off course for forest protection target

While Brazil and Colombia saw forest loss drop, their progress was offset by rises elsewhere

A deforested area In Brazil's Para State seen by a drone during an operation to combat forest clearing. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino/File Photo


Tropical forests continued disappearing at a “stubbornly” high rate last year, putting a global goal to end deforestation by 2030 “far off track”, new research shows.

The equivalent of ten football pitches of tropical forests – 3.7 million hectares – were lost every minute in 2023 as the result of human activities and natural disasters, according to analysis carried out by Global Forest Watch.

While forest destruction slowed dramatically in Brazil and Colombia, this was offset by sharp increases in Bolivia, Nicaragua and Laos.

“The world took two steps forward, two steps back when it comes to this past year’s forest loss”, said Mikaela Weisse, Global Forest Watch Director at the World Resources Institute (WRI).

Tropical forests are one of the world’s best defenses against global warming, as they absorb greenhouse gases. But they are also where over 96% of human-made deforestation occurs worldwide, according to WRI.

Missing targets

While total tree loss in the tropics decreased slightly last year, analysts estimated human-caused deforestation driven by agriculture, commodities extraction and urban expansion continued rising. 

That’s despite a 10% reduction being needed every year to meet a pledge to “halt and reverse forest loss and land degradation by 2030” signed by 145 countries, including large forest nations like Brazil, Indonesia and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Governments off course for forest protection target

Initially introduced as part of a voluntary commitment by governments at Cop26 in Glasgow, the target was mentioned for the first time in a Cop decision at last December’s climate summit in Dubai.

Weisse said the goal “has always been an ambitious one” and “it will certainly be difficult” to ensure enough progress from all countries to meet the target.

“I still find a lot of hope in the fact that Brazil, Colombia, and Indonesia have managed to massively curb their rates of forest loss in recent years”, she added. “Those countries have demonstrated how critical it is to have strong political will to combat deforestation”.

Lula’s deforestation busting

Brazil continued to be the country that lost the most tropical forest in 2023 because of the size of its immense rainforests. But its losses dropped by more than a third last year, reaching the lowest level since 2015.

Progress in Brazil coincided with the return to office of President Luiz Lula da Silva. In his first full year in the post, he strengthened law enforcement against illegal loggers, revoked anti-environmental measures introduced by his predecessor, Jair Bolsonaro, and extended Indigenous rights.

Brazil is planning to put the protection of forests at the heart of its climate summit in 2025, which is set to take place in Belém, known as the gateway to the Amazon rainforest.

“Holding Cop30 in the heart of the forest is a powerful reminder of our responsibility to keep the planet within our 1.5°C target”, said Marina Silva, Minister for the Environment and Climate Change, last December.

In neighbouring Colombia, the rate of tree loss dropped by half in 2023, primarily as a result of policies introduced by President Gustavo Petro.

Forest protection is among the goals being negotiated by the leftist government with armed groups as part of wider efforts to bring “total peace” and end decades of violence.

Experts have also suggested that criminal groups have taken it upon themselves to rein in illegal logging as a way to strengthen their hand in the discussions.

Progress lost

But positive developments in forest conservation in Brazil and Colombia have been all but cancelled out by tree losses spiralling out of control elsewhere.

In Bolivia, forest losses remained at record-breaking levels for a third year in a row, driven by uncontrolled expansion of soybean and beef production and exacerbated by exceptional wildfires.

The government, which has prioritised development and agricultural exports over forest protection, has not joined the 2030 pledge.

It was at loggerheads with Brazil at the Amazon Summit last year, when it opposed the inclusion of any references to the target in an outcome document signed by the leaders of eight countries.

Dramatic upticks in deforestation were also seen in Nicaragua, in Central America, and Laos, in South-East Asia, last year.

Expectations mount as loss and damage fund staggers to its feet

Nicaragua lost over 4% of its standing forest in 2023 alone, as the authoritarian regime of Daniel Ortega continued to turn a blind eye to illegal logging.

Disregard for the preservation of forests, and the respect of the rights of Indigenous people living there, is also shutting the country’s access to international financial support.

The UN’s Green Climate Fund pulled out of a forest conservation project last month after local community groups complained about a lack of protection in the face of escalating human rights violations in the area.

In Laos, forest loss nearly doubled last year reaching an all-time high. Rapid expansion of farming, primarily driven by Chinese investments, is believed to be the main cause.

Financial incentives

WRI’s Weisse said that, while the cases of Brazil and Colombia demonstrate the importance of political will in reversing deforestation, that alone will not be enough.

“Political winds continuously change”, she added. “In order for progress to endure in any of the above countries will likely take making it more valuable to keep forests standing than to cut them down”.

Carbon credits have long been touted as a primary way to achieve that. But their credibility has come under fire over the last few years as numerous schemes faced allegations of exaggerating climate claims and failing to safeguard local communities. Various efforts to strengthen their rules are underway.

Regulations are also being introduced on the demand side, blocking access to markets for goods produced on deforested land.

In the European Union, firms will soon have to demonstrate that seven commodities, including beef and soy, are not linked to deforestation. Commodities-producing countries, such as Indonesia, have attacked the regulations which they have branded as protectionist.

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