Deforestation Claims 160k Square Miles from 2004-17, WWF Report Reveals

Humans need forests for our survival, from the air we breathe to the wood we use. These ecosystems also provide livelihoods for people, offer watershed protection, prevent soil erosion, and mitigate climate change.

Unfortunately, a new report from World Wildlife Fund (WWF) titled “Deforestation Fronts: Drivers and Responses in a Changing World” reveals that 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.  Once again, agriculture was identified as the leading driver of deforestation.

Why This Matters: Nearly two-thirds of the total forest loss identified in the report (almost 104,000 square miles) occurred in Latin America. The Amazon rainforest is in dire condition while Brazilian President Bolsonaro has utterly failed to protect it from deforestation. It’s imperative that nations work to secure the rights of Indigenous peoples and local communities to their lands and territories and strengthen local control of forests. Additionally, stopping deforestation is an important tool to prevent future pandemics.

As the report further stated, deforestation tends to oscillate over time. Yet recent trends indicate that deforestation will persist in its current capacity unless swift global action is taken to address it. As 2019 and 2020 saw an abundance of corporate and government commitments to tree planting, companies and lawmakers should now be pressured to take these commitments to the next step and actively combat the loss of living forests.

Kerry Cesareo, senior vice president, forests at WWF, explained that there’s no better time to take action against deforestation than now:

“The COVID-19 pandemic actually provides us with an opportunity to reverse these devastating trends. 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.”

Causes of Deforestation: Commercial agriculture, particularly large-scale agriculture, as the main driver of deforestation in Latin America including the Amazon.

  • 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.

Cesareo also told Our Daily Planet that “when we are talking about agriculture as a driver of deforestation, it includes large-scale, commercial agriculture for the production of global commodities such as soy, beef and palm oil. To be clear, it is possible to feed a growing population without unnecessary deforestation and conversion. And the reality is that successful agriculture needs forests. The loss of forest can decrease soil productivity, slowing the yields of the very crops that have displaced forests.”

A New Day in DC: In the last Congress, Democrats in both the House of Representatives and the Senate introduced bills that sought to protect 30% of nature by 2030. This was a goal that President-elect Biden also pledged to achieve once he’s sworn into office which can help set a precedent for the rest of the world to follow.


WWF looks forward to collaborating with the new Congress and administration to maintain significant bipartisan support for global conservation. The next decade will be critical to confront the biodiversity crisis we’re facing both at home and around the world. Specifically, the United States has an opportunity to rebuild our leadership in this space by making global conservation goals an important component when addressing foreign policy and trade. With strong leadership and by fully embracing international partnerships, WWF sees a road to recovery and an opportunity to turn the tide against the destruction of nature on an international scale.

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