Tropical ecosystems are large carbon stores that are vulnerable to climate change. The sparseness of ground-based measurements has precluded verification of these ecosystems being a net annual source (+ve) or sink (-ve) of atmospheric carbon. We show that two independent satellite data sets of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2), interpreted using independent models, are consistent with the land tropics being a net annual carbon emission of [Formula: see text] [Formula: see text] and [Formula: see text] petagrams (PgC) in 2015 and 2016, respectively. These pan-tropical estimates reflect unexpectedly large net emissions from tropical Africa of [Formula: see text] PgC in 2015 and [Formula: see text] PgC in 2016. The largest carbon uptake is over the Congo basin, and the two loci of carbon emissions are over western Ethiopia and western tropical Africa, where there are large soil organic carbon stores and where there has been substantial land use change. These signals are present in the space-borne CO2 record from 2009 onwards.