We're losing rainforests at the rate of a football pitch every 6 sec

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KUALA LUMPUR : Tropical rainforests disappeared at a rate of one football pitch every six seconds last year, researchers said yesterday, urging countries to include forest protection in post-pandemic plans.

The loss in 2019 of 3.8 million ha of tropical primary forest - which means intact areas of old-growth trees - was the third biggest decline since the turn of the century, according to data from Global Forest Watch (GFW).

"Primary forests are the areas we are the most concerned about - they have the biggest implications for carbon and biodiversity," said Ms Mikaela Weisse, a project manager at the GFW forest monitoring service, run by the World Resources Institute. "The fact that we are losing them so rapidly is really concerning."

Loss of primary forest, which hit a record high in 2016 and 2017, was 2.8 per cent higher in 2019 than the year before.

Agricultural expansion, wildfires, logging, mining and population growth all contribute to deforestation, according to GFW researchers.

Cutting down forests has major implications for global goals to curb climate change, as trees absorb about a third of greenhouse gas emissions produced worldwide.

Governments preparing post-coronavirus economic stimulus plans should include measures to protect forests, said Ms Weisse.

In the short term, the virus may weaken enforcement of forest laws, with people taking advantage of that to commit environmental crimes, she warned.

In the medium term, economic stress could hike pressure for more extractive industries in forests or larger-scale agriculture, she added.

Workers coming home from cities after losing jobs could also turn to forests to help feed their families, increasing the risk of deforestation, she said.

"The situation has changed," Ms Weisse said of the Covid-19 pandemic. "What we need to do has also changed."

The top three countries for primary forest loss last year - Brazil, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Indonesia - have remained largely the same this century, GFW researchers said.

Brazil accounted for more than a third of all primary forest loss in 2019 at 1.36 million ha. - REUTERS