Category Description

Approximately 1.6 billion people depend on forests for their livelihoods (United Nations, 2015, p. 1). Forests are not only crucial for economic development and human well-being, but global climate regulation and other vital ecosystem services (World Wide Fund for Nature, 2017b). Finally, forests provide important habitat for more than 80% of terrestrial animals, plants, and insects (United Nations, 2015, p. 1). Understanding where changes in forest cover occur is thus essential for sustainable development (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2016a). The Forests issue category uses one indicator to measure the threats to forests worldwide: tree cover loss. We include tree cover loss as an indicator for forest health due to its significant implications for ecosystem health, habitat preservation, climate change mitigation, and other environmental services.

Indicators Included

  1. Tree cover loss: We measure the total area of tree loss in areas with greater than 30% tree canopy cover divided by the forest cover in the year 2000. We apply a 5-year rolling average to better capture trends in forest management strategies.


Forest Indicators

Tree cover loss %, 5-year

Category Overview

Forests are dynamic ecosystems vital to sustaining humans, biodiversity, and environmental services worldwide (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2016a). Covering almost one-third of the world’s land area, forests provide shelter to over 80% of all terrestrial biodiversity (United Nations, 2015). The global economic system is also heavily dependent on forests. Approximately 1.6 billion people worldwide are reliant on forest ecosystems as their source of income (United Nations, 2015). Despite their numerous benefits, forests worldwide are severely threatened. According to data published by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations (UN) in 2015, the world lost almost 130 million hectares of forest between 1990 and 2015, which is about the size of South Africa (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2016a).

There is no single, overarching definition of a forest, or a single definition for sustainable forest management (Chazdon et al., 2016). The FAO defines a ‘forest’ generally as “lands of more than 0.5 hectares, with a tree canopy cover of more than 10%, which are not primarily under agricultural or urban land use” (Davis & Holmgren, 2000, p. 7), whereas the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) defines a ‘forest’ generally as “a minimum area of land of 0.05-1.0 ha with tree crown cover (or equivalent stocking level) of more than 10-30% with trees having the potential to reach a minimum height of 2-5 m at maturity in situ.” (Chazdon et al., 2016).  There has also been debate in many regions about how to include tree crops – especially short rotation and fast growing crops such as cocoa, rubber, oil palm, and pulpwood plantations – in ‘forest’ definitions.

There are also many different types of forest, each with its own management needs. Four of the major types of forests are tropical, subtropical, temperate, and boreal forests. These categories are distinguished by their climates and locations, shown in Figure 9–1 (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2012). According to a recent UN report on progress toward achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), efforts to manage forests sustainably are unevenly distributed across world regions (United Nations Economic and Social Council, 2017). The report identifies declining land productivity as a serious concern and emphasizes sustainable forest management as a way to curb its effects while improving the lives of more than one billion people.

Map 9-1
Map 9–1. Forest ecological zones.
Note: Gray zones indicate boreal forests; Green zones indicate temperate forests; yellow zones indicate subtropical forests; and orange zones are tropical forests.
Source: Food and Agriculture Organization, 2012.

Notwithstanding efforts to combat deforestation in some regions, we have seen a substantial loss of forests worldwide (Potapov et al., 2017). Understanding the dominant threats to each type of forest has the potential to aid in sustainable forest management practices (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2016b). According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), only 15% of forests remain intact (World Resources Institute, 2017). Around 30% of global forest cover has been cleared and an additional 20% has been degraded (World Resources Institute, 2017). Table 9–1 lists some of the most prevalent threats to forest loss differentiated by the type of forest. Forests may be degraded economically or ecologically by removal of just a few trees per hectare, while from above they may seem intact.

Table 9–1. Forest loss threats by ecoregion.
Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2016; Hansen et al., 2013.


  • Clearing land for agriculture and deforestation
  • Road construction


  • Extensive forestry land used for crops and agriculture


  • Logging and strip mining
  • Road construction
  • Fire
  • The spread of invasive or non-native species
  • Storm damage
  • Climate change


  • Fire
  • Climate change

Environmental: As seen in Table 9–2, forests provide many essential ecosystem services (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2016a). At local and regional levels, forests reduce the risk of natural disasters by regulating water flows and preventing runoff (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2017). At the global level, forests mitigate climate change by storing carbon in biomass and soils  (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2017).

Table 9–2. Ecosystem services provided by forests.
Source: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2016; Hansen et al., 2013.
Air quality Forests absorb toxic pollutants such as ozone, SO2, and NO2.
Carbon sequestration Trees absorb and sequester CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis. However, the carbon that trees store is emitted into the atmosphere when they are burned or decompose.
Natural disaster Deforestation or poor management can increase flooding, landslides, and soil erosion.
Pollination Forests provide food and shelter for pollinators, such as bees, birds, and bats. Pollinators in a forest increase the levels of pollination which thus encourages the regrowth of trees.
Soil erosion Vegetation cover, such as canopy structure and tree spacing, stops soil erosion through nitrogen fixation among other processes.
Wastewater The root structures of trees aid wastewater treatment, reducing the potential risk of disease due to inadequate drinking water and sanitation (Herrera et al., 2017).
Water resources Forests protect water resources and impact the quantity of water supplied through soil erosion and runoff prevention.

Social: Forests provide numerous ecosystem benefits to humans including shelter, livelihoods, and food security. Approximately 300 million people live in forests, including 60 million indigenous people (United Nations, 2015). Agroforestry and silvopastoral practices – where combinations of trees, crops, and livestock are incorporated into one system ­– can result in higher overall yields and are important in sustaining local livelihoods (Ranjit, Singh, Valerie, & Irland, 2011). The FAO reports that agroforestry has the potential to increase income and efficient crop production in rural areas, thus removing some of the stresses on the local population (El-Lakany, 2004). Forests also provide habitat for wildlife, often economically important to the local population. The UN estimates that about 75% of the world’s poor are affected by forest degradation and deforestation (United Nations, 2015, p. 1). Forest resources are estimated to provide 1.6 billion people with livelihoods, therefore playing a vital role in efforts to reduce poverty (United Nations, 2015, p. 1).

Economic: Forests also have significant economic value and contribute to a country’s GDP in multiple ways. According to the FAO, the forest sector contributes approximately 0.9% of global GDP, and creates employment opportunities for over 50 million people worldwide (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2016b). Forest biodiversity also delivers multiple services for the global food economy. The UN estimates that three-quarters of prescription drugs contain a component derived from a forest plant extract (United Nations, 2015, p. 2). Unsustainable forest practices threaten these important services. The UN Forum on Forests Secretariat estimates that US$70-160 billion per year is needed to scale up sustainable land uses, halt deforestation, and finance restoration projects (United Nations, 2015, p. 2).

Global Impact

The UN defines sustainable forest management as “a dynamic and evolving concept, [which] is intended to maintain and enhance the economic, social and environmental value of all types of forests, for the benefit of present and future generations” (United Nations General Assembly, 2008, p. 2). In order to provide for both present and future generations, sustainably managed forest resources are necessary. Policies such as the Convention on Biological Diversity (CDB) Aichi Targets, the Bonn Challenge, and the addition of the Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program in the Paris Agreement, are driving a new focus on sustainable forest management (Chazdon et al., 2016). Forests are directly addressed through SDG 15.

Goal 15: Protect, restore and promote sustainable use of terrestrial ecosystems, sustainably manage forests, combat desertification, and halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss.

Target 15.1: By 2020, ensure the conservation, restoration and sustainable use of terrestrial and inland freshwater ecosystems and their services, in particular forests, wetlands, mountains and drylands, in line with obligations under international agreements

Target 15.2: By 2020, promote the implementation of sustainable management of all types of forests, halt deforestation, restore degraded forests and substantially increase afforestation and reforestation globally.

Target 15.b: Mobilize significant resources from all sources and at all levels to finance sustainable forest management and provide adequate incentives to developing countries to advance such management, including for conservation and reforestation.

Forests are also essential for achieving other SDGs (Seymour & Busch, 2017)The WRI notes numerous contributions from forests including:

Goal 1: End Poverty in All Its Forms Everywhere

Goal 2: End Hunger, Achieve Food Security and Improved Nutrition and Promote Sustainable Agriculture

Goal 3: Ensure Healthy Lives and Promote Well-being for all at all Ages

Goal 13: Take Urgent Action to Combat Climate Change and Its Impacts

International Organizations

Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO): FAO is an intergovernmental organization. One of FAO’s priorities is making agriculture, forestry, and fisheries more productive and sustainable.

International Tropical Timber Organization (ITTO): The ITTO is an intergovernmental organization established under the International Tropical Timber Agreement. It aims to promote sustainable management and legal harvesting of tropical forests.

International Union of Forest Research Organizations (IUFRO): IUFRO is an international network of forest scientists working to enhance the understanding of the ecological, economic, and social aspects of forests. It is comprised of more than 15,000 forest scientists from almost 700 Member Organizations based in over 110 countries.

United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP): UNEP is the agency within the United Nations coordinating and implementing environmental actions. As one of its many duties, UNEP is tasked with helping implement the SDGs.

World Resources Institute (WRI): WRI is a global, non-profit organization with a mission to promote environmental sustainability, economic opportunity, and human health and well-being. One of the core efforts of the organization is the Global Forest Watch, which is an online forest tracking and alert system. and

World Wildlife Fund (WWF): WWF’s mission centers around wildlife and endangered species conservation. Through this lens, WWF is working to increase funding and influence policies that conserve the world’s forest.

Multilateral Efforts

African Resilient Landscapes Initiative (ARLI): An initiative that promotes integrated landscape management with the goal of adapting to and mitigating climate change.

African Forest Landscape Restoration Initiative (AFR100): A country-led effort that complements ARLI and aims to bring 100 million hectares of land in Africa into restoration by 2030,

Bonn Challenge: A global commitment to restore 150 million hectares of land around the world by 2020, and 350 million hectares by 2030.

Convention on Biological Diversity Aichi Targets:

Target 5: “By 2020, the rate of loss of all natural habitats, including forests, is at least halved and where feasible brought close to zero, and degradation and fragmentation is significantly reduced.”

Target 7: “By 2020 areas under agriculture, aquaculture and forestry are managed sustainably, ensuring conservation of biodiversity.”

Target 15: “By 2020, ecosystem resilience and the contribution of biodiversity to carbon stocks have been enhanced, through conservation and restoration, including restoration of at least 15 per cent of degraded ecosystems, thereby contributing to climate change mitigation and adaptation and to combating desertification.”

Initiative 20x20: A country-led effort to bring 20 million hectares of land in Latin America and the Caribbean into restoration by 2020.

Landscape Restoration Initiative:  The goal of this initiative is to restore 150 million hectares of deforested and degraded land by 2020, as well as an additional 200 million hectares by 2030.

Millennium Ecosystem Assessment (MEA): The MEA was comprehensive assessment initiated in 2001 to evaluate human impacts on the environment. The findings demonstrate that human actions are exhausting ecosystem services, but if appropriate actions are taken, it is feasible to reverse ecosystem degradation over the next 50 years.

New York Declaration on Forests: This declaration seeks to cut natural forest loss in half by 2020, and strives to end it by 2030.

Rio+20 Land Degradation Neutrality Goal: “To secure the contribution of our planet’s land and soil sustainable development, including food security and poverty eradication.”

United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCC) REDD+: REDD+ is a mechanism that creates incentives for forest preservation by having wealthy nations – which often have high emissions intensities – invest in forests conservation in developing country.

United Nations Forum on Forests (UNFF): The UNFF, composed of all Member States of the UN, is an intergovernmental body that was established by the UN Economic and Social Council to promote “management, conservation and sustainable development to all types of forests and to strengthen long-term political commitment to this end.”

World Forestry Congress (WFC): Held every six years since 1926 under the FAO, the WFC is the largest meeting of the world’s forestry sector aimed at sharing information on forestry conservation and management.


The variation among and across forest types makes the application of universal indicators challenging. Despite vast improvements in the quality and quantity of forest data over the past 25 years, more information is needed on a more granular level to measure forests accurately at the global scale (Chazdon et al., 2016). Chazdon et al. present seven criteria for precise forest measurement: the value for timber, the value for carbon storage, the impact on the livelihoods of forest-dependent people, whether forests are natural or planted, whether forests are pre-existing or newly established, whether forests are continuous or fragmented, and whether forests are comprised of native or non-native species (Chazdon et al., 2016). Unfortunately, there are no existing data measurement systems that collect and report data on these metrics at the global scale.

Forest change is measured in two ways: through bottom-up or top-down techniques. The Global Forest Resources Assessment published by the FAO applies a bottom-up approach. Countries submit reports through national forest inventories or government registries (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2016a). This approach benefits from obtaining local knowledge of forests. Bottom-up approaches, however, such as self-reporting, can lead to potentially incomplete or inaccurate data. In contrast, the Global Forest Watch (GFW) uses top-down methods that apply satellite technology to remotely monitor tree cover loss worldwide. These methods provide more consistent geographic and temporal comparisons, but data are limited to what can be observed from satellites. As with all remote sensing, data are ideally verified by on-the-ground observations, which can often prove to be a time- and labor-intensive process.

While both top-down and bottom-up methods provide valuable insight into the status of forests globally, they differ substantially in terms of scope and approach. Lack of a universal definition for a forest (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, 2016a)and little information on wood consumption in many regions further complicates monitoring efforts (L. C. Irland, 2010a). Many forest managers think of sustainability in terms of capacity to maintain a forest in the long-term. Forest management thus requires a maintaining large inventory of "growing stock" to ensure sustainable regeneration. Simply measuring forest cover within a given land area thus glosses over many of the nuances that shape modern forestry.

Acknowledging the existing barriers to obtaining quality forest data, the 2018 EPI uses tree cover loss to measure how forests change over time. Despite its many flaws, tree cover loss can capture many of the ecosystem services that forests provide by tracking changes across geographic and temporal coverage consistently. Using the best data available, we aim to both assess the state of forest ecosystems and identify trends or differences among and between geographic regions.

Tree Cover Loss

Indicator Background

We quantify tree cover loss by constructing a 5-year moving average of forest loss, which is calculated for each year based on that year’s percent tree cover loss and the four previous years. This is compared with the forest cover in the reference year 2000. We define a forest as any land area with over 30% canopy cover. While tree cover generally refers to any wooded area, tree cover loss refers to “stand replacement disturbance,” which can be due to both human and natural causes (Goldman & Weisse, 2017).

Data Description

The data on tree cover loss come from Global Forest Watch (GFW), available at GFW ranks countries by total tree cover loss in order to quantify the change in global forest coverage. The GFW is an open-source platform organized by the World Resources Institute in collaboration with other partner organizations. Tree cover loss data are available from 2001-2016 for 210 countries. Data are obtained through satellite images provided by the Global Land Analysis and Discovery laboratory, a collaboration between the University of Maryland, Google, United States Geological Survey (USGS), and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). The data gathered measure the death or removal of trees at least 5 meters tall within 30x30 meter resolution pixels. Comparing pixels over the years gives us an idea of tree cover loss in that area. Tree cover loss provides a snapshot of the current state of global forest resources, as well as changes over the last 15 years. GFW works continuously to improve the accuracy of data. The 2018 EPI incorporates the most recent changes. We include data through 2016 with updated calculations of values for previous years’ tree cover loss from newly available satellite images.


While the EPI uses the best available data, the GFW dataset and the 2018 EPI tree cover loss indicator have several limitations. Foremost is the fact that no global data measurement system yet exists to collect all of the information necessary to conduct a comprehensive assessment of forests (Chazdon et al., 2016). Given the global scope and lack of information on a significant number of countries, forest cover is the only practical method to obtain information on the status of forest worldwide, but admittedly is only a partial indicator. While the best available, the GFW data only go back to 2000, and we cannot obtain historic data on forest cover before this year. Thus, the 2000 baseline is somewhat arbitrary. As a result, we lack information about historical forest extent on longer time scales. The GFW also uses two different calculations – one from 2001-2010 and the other from 2011-2016 – to compile the tree cover loss dataset. The calculation for the latter period provides a more comprehensive picture of forests globally, but is only available for that period. The EPI uses a 5-year average for each year based on that year’s percent tree cover loss and the four previous years, so the data from 2011-2016 will not be impacted by this change in the algorithm, but policymakers should be cautious when comparing results across the time periods. The GFW is working with the University of Maryland to back-process the data to include data to 2001, but this information is not currently available.

We identify three primary limitations to the GFR dataset. First, the dataset also cannot distinguish which forest cover losses are due to natural causes from losses due to human causes (Weisse & Goldman, 2017). Second, current technology cannot distinguish between different forests types. The area that satellite images capture can represent many possible activities, and loss in one type of forest, such as an old growth or primary forest, may be more harmful, longer-lasting, or require different policy responses than loss in another type. Third, the dataset cannot distinguish how much forest retained is truly wild preserved land. GFW data shows gross tree cover loss, not net of any afforestation. For example, Zhai et al. analyzed rubber and pulp plantations in Hainan, China and found that from 1988 to 2005 the area of natural forests decreased by 22%, but the total forest cover remained relatively unchanged (Zhai, Cannon, Slik, Zhang, & Dai, 2012). 

Further limitations stem from top-down approaches using satellite data to obtain information about realities on the ground. In the GFW dataset, satellite-generated pixels representing tree loss only register loss of canopy cover. If a tree’s leaves are lost in a fire or new forest growth is still too small to be detected by satellite imagery, that forest cover may likely be excluded from the GFW dataset (Goldman & Weisse, 2017).  Our definition of a forest – a land area containing 30% canopy cover – may potentially bias tree cover loss estimates. Due to differing definitions for “forests” globally, many satellite measurements do not generate forest data for the gradient between shrub lands, woodlands, and open, dry savannah. Examples of these forests include sagebrush, pinyon-juniper, and low elevation ponderosa pine, respectively. Ecologically important trees, especially in drylands, are sometimes missed altogether (L. C. Irland, 2010a, p. 10). Despite these limitations, we believe that the GFW data on tree cover loss provides meaningful indication of countries’ trends in forest management and the health of their ecosystem services.

Box 9-1. Tree cover loss in Brazil

Brazil is one of the most biodiverse countries in the world, encompassing about one-third of the world’s remaining rainforests (Lewinsohn & Prado, 2004; World Wide Fund for Nature, 2017a). Local communities depend on the resources provided by rainforests, including fuel, food,  and medicines (L. C. Irland, 2010b, p. 400). Recent evidence suggests that rainforest ecosystems are most threatened by forest fires. In September 2017, Brazil witnessed more forest fires than any other month since record keeping began in 1998 (Weisse & Goldman, 2017). An increase in fires makes it difficult for humans and wildlife to survive by altering their habitats.

The vast tree cover of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest also plays a vital role in global carbon storage. However, the carbon sequestered in trees is emitted back into the atmosphere when the trees are burned. Brazil emits significant amounts of carbon from tropical deforestation, accounting for about 20% of the emissions worldwide (Zarin et al., 2016, p. 1336). The forests of the Amazon therefore have the potential to significantly contribute to global climate change if not appropriately managed (World Wide Fund for Nature, 2017a).

According to the most recent data from GFW, Brazil’s Amazon region lost 3.7 million hectares of trees in 2016 due to an increase in forest fires, nearly three times greater than losses observed in 2015 – see Figure 9–3 (Weisse & Goldman, 2017). Natural fires in tropical rainforests are exceedingly rare. Most fires in tropical rainforests are a result of human activity, typically slash and burn land clearing for agricultural conversion (Weisse & Goldman, 2017). One contributor to the increase in fires in 2016 was the lack of rainfall due to El Niño, which altered global temperatures and impacted the incidence of rain (Goldman & Weisse, 2017). The spike in tree cover loss emphasizes the need to implement more effective sustainable forestry management policies. Brazil has already implemented several policies aimed at limiting slash-and-burn agricultural practices during the dry season, but ineffective enforcement and lack of funding impede successful results (Goldman & Weisse, 2017; Weisse & Goldman, 2017).

Figure 9-3

Figure 9–3 Yearly tree cover loss in Brazil’s forest regions.
Source: Global Forest Watch.


Global Trends

Over the past decade, we have seen a substantial loss of the planet’s forests. Our data show a 0.16% increase in tree cover loss globally, from 0.43% to 0.59% – shown in Table 9–3. As a result, global tree cover loss scores have decreased by 5.37 points, from 99.41 in 2006. Global trends are troubling given the work required to meet global development goals and protect the essential services forests provide.

Since 2000, the world has lost approximately 18.1 million hectares annually (Hansen et al., 2013). In 2016 alone, however, the world lost almost 30 million hectares of forests (Weisse & Goldman, 2017). The GFW estimates that more than one quarter of the recent global tree cover loss occurred in Indonesia and Brazil (Weisse & Goldman, 2017). Forest loss in these countries may help explain global trends. For example, the increase in forest fires in Indonesia and Brazil may significantly contributed to the large increase in tree cover loss observed in 2016 (Weisse & Goldman, 2017).

Table 9–3. Global trends in tree cover loss.
Note: Metrics are in percent loss over a 5-year moving average. Current refers to data from 2016, and Baseline reflects to historic data from 2006.
Indicator Metric Score
  Baseline Current Baseline Current
Tree cover loss 0.43% 0.59% 99.41 94.04

Data for tree cover loss show that forests are decreasing globally, however, certain countries have successfully implemented effective policies targeting deforestation nationally. In reporting progress towards achieving the SDGs, the UN notes that sustainable forest management practices are unevenly distributed across global regions (United Nations Economic and Social Council, 2017). Increasing our knowledge of changes in tree cover loss over time allows policymakers to implement more effective sustainable forestry management practices within their countries. If well-implemented at scale across multiple countries, these changes may influence global trends and translate into higher scores on future iterations of the EPI.

Leaders & Laggards

Table 9-4. Leaders in retaining Forests
Rank Country Score





Saint Vincent and the Grenadines


























2016 data show that certain countries with limited forest resources are successfully preventing further tree cover loss. 2018 leaders Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan – see Table 9–4 ­– have the highest increases in scores over the past decade, collectively averaging a score increase of 41.3. Notwithstanding the importance of these improvements, we acknowledge score increases may be influenced by the relative small areas of forests within these countries and declining performing elsewhere. According to data from the World Bank only about 2% of land in Afghanistan is covered with forests, 2% of land in Pakistan, 3% of land in Kyrgyzstan, and 3% of land in Tajikistan (World Bank, 2017). Given the small amount of forest resources that are reported left in each these four countries, deforestation of even a minor amount could have substantial effects on their overall score (Akhmadov & Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN, 2008). Scores among these leaders are also potentially increasing because environmental performance in other countries is declining. For example, prior to Tajikistan’s independence in 1991, large amounts of forested areas were destroyed to make more land available for agricultural production. Beginning in 1992, the Tajikistan government recognized the importance of managing forests to protect the environment, allotting all forests as State property (British Broadcasting Corporation News, 2017; Convention on Biological Diversity, n.d.). After the five-year civil war ended in 1997, Tajikistan has experienced increases in economic growth and a renewed focus on sustainability (British Broadcasting Corporation News, 2017). By prohibiting logging in all Tajikistan forests, along with other state policy measures, Tajikistan has been able to retain the limited amount of forest resources they have left (Convention on Biological Diversity, n.d.).

Table 9-5. Laggards in retaining Forests.
Rank Country Score
136 Cambodia 0
136 Côte d’Ivoire 0
136 Ghana 0
136 Guinea 0
136 Guinea-Bissau 0
136 Laos 0
136 Liberia 0
136 Madagascar 0
136 Malaysia 0
136 Paraguay 0
136 Portugal 0
136 Sierra Leone 0
136 South Africa 0
136 Uruguay 0
136 Vietnam 0

Countries in the Mekong region of Southeast Asia have seen a significant increase in tree cover loss. Vietnam (rank: 136), Cambodia (rank: 136), and Laos (rank: 136) all place at the bottom of the 2018 rankings – see Table 9–5. Myanmar (dropped in score from 33.46 to 9.69, a change of 23.77) and Thailand (dropped in score from 22.44 to 11.07, a change of 11.37) also saw significant increases in tree cover loss over the past decade. Tree cover loss in the Mekong region has increased for a number of significant reasons, with development and logging often listed as top causes. In 2006 only 3% of Myanmar’s natural forests were managed sustainably (L. Irland & Robert, 2008). In Laos, recent reports suggest illegal logging efforts account for the massive increases in tree cover loss (Harfenist, 2015; Prentice-Dunn, 2015). Part of the reason for this increase in illicit exports is the high export value of Laos timber. In 2014, for example, China’s importation of timber from Laos accounted for 63% of national exports. Timber exports increased in value from US$44.7 million in 2008 to over US$1 billion in 2014 (Harfenist, 2015). Forest loss in the region has also been shown to be correlated with global demand for estate crops, such as rubber. This suggests that as estate crop prices increase, deforestation for estate crop plantations will continue (Grogan, Pflugmacher, Hostert, Kennedy, & Fensholt, 2015; Petersen, Sizer, Hansen, Potapov, & Thau, 2015).

Similar to countries in the Mekong region, Indonesia has witnessed considerable declines in its forest cover over the past decade. Our data show a substantial decrease in Indonesia’s tree cover loss score, dropping from 12.73 in 2006 to 0.01 in 2016. Indonesia fell 11 places in our rankings. The increase in tree cover loss can be explained by fires that decimated areas across the country in 2015. Forest fires are an annual problem during the dry season, but palm oil producers also use slash-and-burn agricultural practices which send large quantities of smoke across Indonesia every year. Fires in 2015 occurred in areas containing peat soil, which is extremely flammable, produces substantial amounts of GHG emissions (Davies, Gray, Rein, & Legg, 2013), and allows fire to spread quickly throughout the region (Weisse & Goldman, 2017).

Western African countries, such as Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, and Sierra Leone, also face complicated challenges in sustainable forest management. This is partly due to an increase in palm oil production throughout western Africa over the last several years, which has been associated with high rates of tree removal and deforestation (Vijay, Pimm, Jenkins, & Smith, 2016). To address the environmental consequences of palm oil production, the Governments of the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Liberia, the Republic of Congo, and Sierra Leone signed the Marrakesh Declaration for the Sustainable Development of the Oil Palm Sector in Africa at COP22 in 2016. The Declaration allows for palm oil production only if production complies with the principles of sustainability, transparency, and the protection of human rights (Tropical Forest Alliance 2020, 2018). These seven countries comprise 13% of the world’s total forests – over 250 million hectares of tropical forests (Gaworecki, 2016). With global demand for palm oil increasing, the Marrakesh Declaration sends a signal to the world that governments are beginning to recognize the benefits of sustainable management practices to reduce deforestation loss. We anticipate that future EPI scores will reflect the implementation of this declaration in the region.


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