Native vegetation loss in South America and Indonesia in the last two decades reached an area larger than Somalia

Between 1985 and 2020, the Amazon forest lost more native vegetation than in the last 500 years since European colonization. If present deforestation trends are kept, the Amazon forest could reach its tipping point in this decade, changing from a carbon sink to a carbon emitter

A new report launched today (Nov 11) at COP27 shows that an area of native vegetation larger than Somalia was lost in the last two decades in South America and Indonesia. Using AI and satellite images, researchers found that important biomes in South America and Indonesia lost 68 Mha of native vegetation in the last two decades, representing 5.8% of their native vegetation. These changes led to the combined emissions of over 27.4 giga ton CO2, half of the entire world’s emission in 2020. Most of the native vegetation conversion was due to pasture and agriculture. The survey of the most threatened biomes of South America, as well as Indonesia, was done by MapBiomas – a collaborative network of local institutions that annually map land use and land cover making knowledge about land use accessible to seek conservation and combat changes in climate. 

Large-scale conversions, mainly from natural vegetation to anthropic areas, are increasing the GHG emissions due to land use changes, affecting ecosystems climate resilience and depleting carbon stocks, which is concerning in a climate change scenario”, says Tasso Azevedo, head of MapBiomas. “This trend, that can be observed in two of the greener regions in the world – South America and Indonesia – highlight the importance of restoration and maintenance of protected areas to mitigate the effects of climate change”. 

Covering 47% of South America, the Amazon biome ranks high in conservation priorities: it lost more native vegetation (9.6%) between 1985 and 2020 than in the last 500 years since European colonization (8%). The remaining native vegetation of 83% is close to the tipping point (20-25% of forest loss) for Amazon’s ecosystem services provision. "If we keep with this deforestation trend, the tipping point could be reached in this decade, transforming the Earth’s largest tropical forest into a GHG emitter", says Julia Shimbo, Scientific Coordinator of MapBiomas.  

In 35 years, between 1985 and 2020, the Amazon forest lost 74.6 Mha of native vegetation, an area equivalent to Zambia. More than 45 giga ton CO2 were emitted since 1985 due to deforestation., "Deforestation and fire, threaten the forest’s resilience to climate change, as well as its role as one of the most important carbon sinks in the world" explains Sandra Rios, Co-coordinator of MapBiomas Amazonia. 

The Brazilian Amazon forest is the most deforested one, representing 81% of the Amazon native vegetation loss, or 60.6 Mha between 19985-2020. In Brazil, the Amazon forest lost 12.9% of native vegetation, while French Guiana, Guyana and Suriname lost less than 1% of their native vegetation cover in the same period.

But the most deforested biome in South America – and a tropical biodiversity hotspot – is the Atlantic Forest. It occupies 142.3 Mha, or 8% of the region, and lost 6.6 Mha, or 11.3%, of its native vegetation between 1985 and 2021 resulting in 3 Gton CO2e of GHG emissions, equivalent to almost  one year of all CO2 emissions of South America. Native vegetation now covers only 37% of the biome's extent, with the highest rate of secondary vegetation and fragmented landscapes. Thus, primary forest protection and restoration is critical in the context of climate mitigation. 

The Brazilian Atlantic Forest showed the largest area of the biome’s native vegetation loss (3.8 Mha). In Brazil, the biome hosts 70% of the human population and 80% of the economy. However, in recent years, Paraguay proportionally lost more, almost 40% of its native vegetation (2.5 Mha). Argentina saw a 17.1% loss, or 0.3Mha.

The Chaco - a semi-arid lowland covered by mixed dry forests, grasslands and wetlands in Argentina, Paraguay and Bolivia – covers 6.1% of South America, or 107.8 Mha. With slightly less than 80% of its native vegetation still preserved, it has nonetheless one of the world's highest conversion rates, due to large scale cattle and soy expansion. A total of 9.5 Mha of nativevegetation were lost between 2000 and 2021, or 10% compared to 2000, which corresponds to 3.8 giga ton CO2 emitted since 2000 due to deforestation. 

Argentina has the larger portion of Chaco: 60.3%, or 65.1 Mha, but it is in Bolivia that we find 90% of the Chaco native vegetation. Paraguayan and Argentine Chaco native vegetation lost more than 8 Mha in the last two decades to farming expansion. Paraguay lost 16.3% (4.4 Mha); Argentina, 8% (4.4 Mha); and Bolívia, 5.2% (0.6 Mha).  

Between Brazil, Argentina and Uruguay we have the Pampa, a vast region formerly dominated by natural grasslands. Nearly half of it has already been converted to farming, mostly to large-scale crop production, which grew 17.4% in the last two decades. At the same time, protected areas are less than 0.5% of the biome. Between 2000 and 2019, the Pampa saw 8.5 Mha of native vegetation disappear – a loss of 16.3% compared to 2000, equivalent to 0.7 Gton CO2.

While Brazil had the greatest proportional loss of Pampa’s native vegetation (19.6%, or 2.1 Mha), mainly due to soy plantation expansion, Argentina suffered the greatest loss of native vegetation in absolute terms (5.1 Mha, or 17.6%). Native vegetation loss in the Uruguayan part of the Pampa reached 1.2Mha (10.1%, compared to 2000).

Cerrado, the most biodiverse savanna in the planet, located most part in Brazil, has already lost half of its original vegetation extension mostly because of agriculture expansion, mainly to pasture and soy. Almost 28 Mha were lost between 1985 e 2021, which corresponds to 4.2 giga ton CO2. The agricultural frontier region Matopiba (in the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia) concentrated 60% of the native vegetation loss in the period. 

In Asia, the Indonesian archipelago comprises more than 17 thousand islands with many different types of habitats, encompassing two of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. Of the 12.9 Mha of forest lost in the last two decades, 60.4% has been converted to agriculture, oil palm, timber plantation and most recently to mining expansion. Native vegetation loss between 2000 and 2019 was 10.2%, or 13 Mha. Considering just the above ground biomass, over 5.9 giga ton CO2 emitted since 2000 due to deforestation.

Sumatra is the region with the greatest native vegetation loss in the last two decades (6.1 Mha), mainly converted to farming. This loss made it the region with the highest coverage of farming lands in 2019 (65%), surpassing the Jawa-Bali-Nusa region (59% of farming). In the latter, native vegetation loss was 5.5%, or 0.4 Mha – well below Borneo, where 13.9% of native vegetation was lost between 2000 and 2019, or 5.4 Mha. 

Protection

One of the strategies for conservation, the implementation of national parks and Indigenous lands, is still weak in some biomes, or not enough to restrain the native vegetation loss. Only the Amazon presents 63% of its native vegetation under some sort of protection level; in the other biomes, less than 20% of the native vegetation is protected. 

The success of this strategy is translated in numbers: in the Amazon, 90% of the deforestation happened outside Indigenous lands or other protected areas between 1985 and 2020. Indigenous lands are the most protected areas in the  Amazon, 1.2% (2.9 Mha) of their  native vegetation has been lost since 1985.    

The MapBiomas network’ approach allows efficient and rapidly monitoring information where needed, including forest and non-forest natural ecosystems. All MapBiomas data is freely available and transparent and has the potential to be taken into account for building legislation, public policy and decision making to evaluate the impacts on these biomes for their long-term protection.