Amazon rainforest lost area the size of Israel in 2020

NEIL GIARDINO
·4 min read

The Amazon rainforest lost an estimated 5 million acres in 2020, an area roughly the size of Israel, according to a recent report on the region. Experts warn that unchecked deforestation in the Amazon basin, which encompasses nine countries in South America, could trigger a tipping point in the world's largest tropical rainforest within decades.

Using satellite imagery, the report by Amazon Conservation Association and Monitoring the Andean Amazon Project, or MAAP, provides an early glimpse of deforestation in the Amazon throughout 2020. Troubling data points are highlighted, including largescale deforestation in Brazil and Bolivia, where primary forests were obliterated at rates even higher than in 2019, a year that saw prolific and highly publicized fires raging in the Amazon.

MORE: Deforestation of Amazon rainforest accelerates amid COVID-19 pandemic

"Both in terms of deforestation and fire, the data indicate that 2020 was actually worse than 2019 across the Amazon. Over 2 million hectares (8,000 square miles) of primary forest were lost in 2020, which was much more than 2019," said Dr. Matt Finer, a researcher with Amazon Conservation and the director of MAAP.

Finer cautioned that the 2020 data are an early estimate, but added that finalized 2019 data surpassed early estimates that year.

PHOTO: Massive fires in the Bolivian Amazon burned over 600,000 acres of the Chiquitano tropical forest between April and November, according to the Amazon Conservation’s report. (Photo by Planet/MAAP)
PHOTO: Massive fires in the Bolivian Amazon burned over 600,000 acres of the Chiquitano tropical forest between April and November, according to the Amazon Conservation’s report. (Photo by Planet/MAAP)

Deforestation, spread across the vastness of the Amazonian landscape, is accelerating -- consuming ecosystems and concentrating in hotspots where hundreds of thousands of acres of forest are swallowed up for agricultural and extractive purposes by small and large actors.

"There's no smoking gun. Deforestation is not a linear wave, it's death by a thousand cuts," said Finer.

PHOTO: Small scale agriculture, mining, and cattle ranching caused increased deforestation in Peru’s central Amazon.  (Photo by Planet/MAAP)
PHOTO: Small scale agriculture, mining, and cattle ranching caused increased deforestation in Peru’s central Amazon. (Photo by Planet/MAAP)

The majority of last year's deforestation occurred in the Brazilian Amazon, where over 50,000 acres of forest were lost, much of it to fires. Despite the devastation of the 2019 fires in Brazil, the ones in 2020 were worse, according to Amazon Conservation.

Of the roughly 2,500 large fires that scorched huge swathes of the Amazon last year, around 88% occurred in Brazil. A large number of those were human-caused fires created for pasture and croplands.

PHOTO: A Kakataibo woman and her pet bird in Peru’s Ucayali region. Over 30 million people, including scores of indigenous tribes, rely on the forests and rivers of the Amazon rainforest. (Neil Giardino/ABC News)
PHOTO: A Kakataibo woman and her pet bird in Peru’s Ucayali region. Over 30 million people, including scores of indigenous tribes, rely on the forests and rivers of the Amazon rainforest. (Neil Giardino/ABC News)

The report also notes massive destruction of the Bolivian Amazon. Around 205 large fires burned in Bolivia last year, engulfing over 600,000 acres of the Chiquitano tropical forest between April and November, according to the report.

MORE: Fires in Amazon rainforest up more than 80% this year, scientists warn

Other areas of concern were in Peru, where small scale agriculture, mining and cattle ranching caused increased deforestation in the country's central Amazon. In Colombia, the illicit cultivation of coca leaf -- the raw ingredient for cocaine -- has invaded several protected forest areas.

Often described as the "lungs of the planet," the Amazon basin is twice the size of India, covering around 40% of the South American continent. Its watersheds are relied on by over 30 million, including indigenous peoples living in isolation.

PHOTO: Over 50,000 acres of forest were lost in the Brazilian Amazon. In this satellite imagery of Para state, 9,000 hectares burned between March, left, and October, right, 2020.  (Photo by Planet/MAAP)
PHOTO: Over 50,000 acres of forest were lost in the Brazilian Amazon. In this satellite imagery of Para state, 9,000 hectares burned between March, left, and October, right, 2020. (Photo by Planet/MAAP)

Some scientists warn that the Amazon biome could soon reach a dangerous tipping point in which it no longer produces enough rainfall to support its ecosystems, eventually converting into dry savanna.

"The short answer is, the tipping point is already here," said Enrique Ortiz, tropical ecologist and co-founder of Amazon Conservation. "Not throughout the entire Amazon, but in parts."

PHOTO: An indigenous Kakataibo grandmother and her grandchild in Peru’s Ucayali region. Last year saw an uptick in deforestation in this dense jungle area. (Neil Giardino/ABC News)
PHOTO: An indigenous Kakataibo grandmother and her grandchild in Peru’s Ucayali region. Last year saw an uptick in deforestation in this dense jungle area. (Neil Giardino/ABC News)

Despite the level of destruction, Ortiz pushed back against doomsday scenarios for the Amazon.

"Deforestation is in the area of 20 or 21%," he said. "There is still probably 80% of the Amazon intact, so we have room to maneuver."

Environmental groups have placed high hope in President Joe Biden's commitment to protecting the Amazon. During a 2020 presidential debate last September, then-candidate Biden weighed in on the deforestation:

"I would be gathering up and making sure we had the countries of the world coming up with $20 billion, and say, 'Here's $20 billion, stop tearing down the forest. And if you don't then you are going to have significant economic consequences,'" Biden said.

PHOTO: A young member of Peru’s Wachiperi indigenous group lights a match during a ceremony in the Amazon village of Santa Rosa de Huacaria. (Neil Giardino/ABC News)
PHOTO: A young member of Peru’s Wachiperi indigenous group lights a match during a ceremony in the Amazon village of Santa Rosa de Huacaria. (Neil Giardino/ABC News)

Beyond severe mitigation of deforestation in the region, Ortiz sees political consensus and leadership among wealthy nations as another tool to help save the Amazon.

"There has been confrontation between the West and Amazonian countries. If Biden is smart and able to reverse that confrontation, then we can work together," he said.

Amazon rainforest lost area the size of Israel in 2020 originally appeared on abcnews.go.com