Tree loss slows, but covers area twice size of Portugal in 2014: study

An area deforested by illegal gold mining is seen in a zone known as Mega 14, in the southern Amazon region of Madre de Dios in this July 13, 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Janine Costa (Reuters)

By Michael Taylor JAKARTA (Reuters) - The rate at which trees were cut down slowed globally for a third year in a row in 2014, but tree loss still covered an area twice the size of Portugal, an environmental research group said. Losses also accelerated in some previously overlooked regions as land was cleared to grow rubber, soy or palm oil, or for beef production, according to U.S.-based think-tank World Resources Institute (WRI). Trees absorb carbon dioxide, the main greenhouse gas blamed for causing global warming, as they grow and release it when they are burnt or rot. The world lost 18.8 million hectares (46 million acres) of tree cover in 2014, down from 20.64 million hectares in 2013 and 23.53 million hectares in 2012, according to satellite data obtained by the University of Maryland and Google and published by the WRI. "This analysis identifies a truly alarming surge in forest loss in previously overlooked hotspots," Nigel Sizer, a WRI director, said in a statement, pointing to West Africa, Asia's Mekong River Basin, South America's Gran Chaco region and Madagascar. Tree cover loss also rose in Brazil and Indonesia, home to some of the world's biggest tropical forests. The Brazilian Amazon, the world's largest rainforest, faces incursions from illegal logging and the invasion of public lands near big infrastructure projects such as roads and hydroelectric dams. The government recently called for a zero deforestation rate between now and 2030. Brazil, a major soybean grower and cattle rancher, lost 2.3 million hectares of tree cover in 2014, the WRI said, from 1.9 million hectares the year before, although the rate had been slowing in previous years. Indonesia, home to the world's third-largest tropical forests and also the world's biggest palm oil producer, lost 1.5 million hectares of tree cover last year, from 1.1 million hectares in 2013. Southeast Asia's biggest economy imposed a moratorium on forest clearance in 2011, partly to slow habitat losses for orangutans, Sumatran tigers and other wildlife. Brazil and Indonesia will have key roles at the United Nation's Paris climate conference late this year, which aims to reach a plan to reduce global warming. Countries with the fastest acceleration of tree cover loss were Cambodia, Sierra Leone, Madagascar, Uruguay, Paraguay, Liberia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Vietnam and Malaysia. El Salavador experienced a significant decrease in the rate of tree loss in 2014, but this was mainly because the country had few forests left to clear, WRI said. The WRI data does not take account of tree cover gains. (For graphic click here: http://link.reuters.com/gyk55w) (Reporting by Michael Taylor; Editing by Richard Pullin)