Malaysia lost 193,000 hectares of natural forest last year, ranking sixth among 10 tropical countries that lost the most primary forest that year. Photo: Reuters

SPECIAL REPORT

KUCHING: Malaysia has lost 193,000 hectares of natural forest in 2019, and it ranked sixth among 10 tropical countries that lost the most primary forest last year.

The loss recorded by Malaysia is equivalent to 97.1 metric tonnes of carbon dioxide (Co2) emission, according to data from University of Maryland released by Global Forest Watch (GFW) earlier this month.

GFW was established by the World Resources Institute (WRI) in 1997 as part of the Forest Frontiers Initiatives.

Brazil tops the list with the loss of 2.6 million ha of natural forest, equivalent to 9.52 tonnes of Co2 emissions last year.

Indonesia came in third (324,000 ha) and Cambodia finished bottom (140,000 ha) in 2019.

“From 2002 to 2019, Malaysia lost 2.65 million ha of humid forest, making up 34 percent of its total tree cover loss in the same time period. The total area of human primary forest in Malaysia decreased by 17 percent in this time period.

“From 2001 to 2019, Malaysia lost 8.12 million ha of tree cover, equivalent to a 28 per cent decrease in tree cover since 2000 and 3.55GT of Co2 emissions,” said WRI in its latest report.

According to the report, in Malaysia, the top two regions responsible for 56 percent of all tree cover loss between 2001 and 2019 were Sabah and Sarawak.

Sarawak has the most tree cover loss at 2.96 million ha compared to Sabah’s 1.6 million ha.

In Malaysia as of 2010, the top two regions represent 63 percent of all tree cover. Sarawak has the most tree cover at 11.3 million ha, followed by Sabah with 6.67 million ha.

According to WRI, tree cover loss is not the same as deforestation.

‘Tree cover’ can refer to trees in plantations as well as natural forests, and ‘tree cover loss’ is the removal of tree canopy due to human or natural causes, including fire.

Its data does not take tree restoration or regeneration into account and are not an indication of net change.

The University of Maryland data revealed that the tropics lost 11.9 million ha of tree cover in 2019, with nearly a third of the loss (3.8 million ha) occurring within humid tropical primary forests, areas of mature rainforest that are especially important for biodiversity and carbon storage.

The loss is equivalent to losing a football pitch of primary forest every six seconds for the entire year.

“Primary forest loss was 2.8 percent higher in 2019 than the year before and has remained stubbornly high for the last two decades despite efforts to halt deforestation.

“At least 1.8 gigatonnes (GT) of carbon dioxide emissions are associated with 2019 primary forest loss, equivalent to the annual emission of 400 million cars.

“Though the rate of primary forest loss was lower in 2019 than record years of 2016 and 2017, it was still the third-highest since the turn of the century,” said WRI.

The 2019 data revealed that several countries suffered record losses, and fires created astonishing impacts in primary forests and beyond.

“Though the situation remains bleak at the global level, some countries showed signs of improvement, offering lessons for other nations,” said the report. 

Brazil single-handedly accounted for over a third of all loss of humid tropical primary forests worldwide, with more primary forest lost than any other tropical country in 2019.

Outside of 2016 and 2017 when forest fires resulted in unprecedented forest loss, 2019 was Brazil’s worst year for primary forests in 13 years.

The primary forest loss data in GFW detected a wide range of forest disturbances — from deforestation for agriculture to understory fires to selective logging.

“While the increase in primary forest loss from 2018 to 2019 was modest, government data indicated one particular form of forest loss – clear-cut deforestation for agriculture and other new land uses – has rapidly increased in the Brazilian Amazon over the past year.

“Unlike in neighbouring Bolivia, forest fires in Brazil were not a major contributor to primary forest loss in 2019. The Brazil Amazon did have unusually high fire counts in August 2019, but many of these occurred on already-deforested areas as farmers prepared land for agriculture and cattle pastures.  

“The lack of drought, public attention early in the fire season, and subsequent preventative action may have averted further burning in Brazil’s primary forests.”

WRI said spatial analyses of the pattern of primary forest loss in Brazil also indicated troubling new hot spots within indigenous territories in the state of Para. 

The report said several countries in the Congo Basin experienced sustained or worsening primary forest loss in 2019, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Although primary forest loss slightly decreased from 2018, 2019 recorded the third highest total annual loss on record.

 Indonesia however produced the positive news as the country’s primary forest loss decreased by five per cent compared to 2018, marking the third year in a row of lower level of loss.

The loss came down from 929,000 ha in 2016 to 324,000 ha in 2019.

“Indonesia has not seen such low level of primary forest loss since the beginning of the century. The decrease comes despite an intense fire season which in previous years resulted in large areas of primary forest loss.

“Several Indonesian policies have likely contributed to this decline, including increased law enforcement to prevent forest fires and land clearing and now the permanent forest moratorium on clearing for oil palm plantations and logging.

“Papua and West Papua, which together contain over a third of Indonesia’s remaining primary forest, also continued to experience low levels of loss in 2019, coinciding with their governors declaring the sustainable provinces.

“Loss within protected forest and protected peat areas in Indonesia was still very low but ticked up slightly from 2018, primarily due to natural causes such as storm damage,” said the WRI report.