They cover a third of the world’s landmass, help to regulate the atmosphere, and offer shelter, sustenance and survival to millions of people, plants and animals.
But despite some progress, the planet’s woodlands continue to disappear on a dramatic scale.
Since 1990, the world has lost the equivalent of 1,000 football fields of forests every hour, according to World Bank development indicators from last year. That’s more than 800,000 square miles of forest, an area larger than South Africa, according to the international financial institution.
With the observance of Earth Day, conservationists seek to drive home the message that protection of forests is more critical than ever.
“The situation is dire,” said Orion Cruz, deputy director of forest and climate policy for Earth Day Network, an organization that grew out of the first Earth Day in 1970. “Forests are being eliminated at a very rapid rate and collectively we need to address this problem as quickly as possible. There’s still time to do this, but that time is quickly running out.”
Tropical regions are seeing the fastest loss of forests.
Indonesia, with its thriving paper and palm oil industries, is losing more forest than any other country. Despite a forest development moratorium, the Southeast Asian nation has lost at least 39 million acres since the last century, according to research from the University of Maryland and the World Resources Institute.
Brazil, Thailand, Congo and parts of Eastern Europe also have significant deforestation, according to United Nations data.
Brazil managed to reduce deforestation in the Amazon by at least 70 percent between 2004 and 2014 and was widely considered a success story in forest conservation, according to the World Resources Institute’s Global Forest Watch initiative.
But last year, a report by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research, which monitors deforestation, found that between July 2015 and August 2016 about 2 million acres of rain forest was depleted. Experts attributed the destruction to the Brazilian government’s relaxation of environmental laws, among other reasons.
“Many people around the world are concerned about whether Brazil is going to remain dedicated to protecting its forests,” said Cruz. “I think what we’re seeing now is a backsliding.”
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