Eastern-Australian forests projected to be global hotspot of deforestation

The following is a synopsis of an article published today in The Conversation by Martine Marone of the University of Queensland and ALERT director Bill Laurance.

When we think about global deforestation, certain hotspots spring to mind.  The Amazon.  The Congo.  Borneo and Sumatra.  And… eastern Australia?

Forests continue to fall in Australia (photo (c) Martin Taylor, WWF)

Forests continue to fall in Australia (photo (c) Martin Taylor, WWF)

Yes, eastern Australia is one of 11 regions highlighted in a new chapter of the WWF Living Forests report, “Saving forests at risk”, which identifies the world’s greatest deforestation fronts –- where forests are most at risk –- between now and 2030.

So why is WWF putting Australia in the naughty corner?

The report uses projections of recent rates of forest loss to estimate how much we are on track to lose over the next 15 years.  The estimates for eastern Australia range from 3 million to 6 million hectares.  In particular, it points the finger of blame at recent and foreshadowed changes to environmental legislation.  These changes have already removed protections for well over a million hectares of Queensland’s native vegetation.

Australia’s rate of vegetation clearing still dwarfs our efforts to replant and restore bushland by much more than 100,000 hectares every year.  This is mostly driven by vegetation loss in Queensland.  And although these rates of loss were, until recently, slowing, recent reports suggest they have rebounded sharply.

In a recent article in The Conversation, we wrote of the alarming figures suggesting large increases in land clearing, which coincided with the changes to vegetation protections under the former Newman Government in Queensland.  The state’s new Labor government is currently considering whether or not to revoke these changes.  There have been suggestions that they may not reinstate the previous protections for native vegetation.

Most of the nations highlighted in the WWF report, such as Papua New Guinea and the Democratic Republic of Congo, are in a starkly different economic situation to Australia.  At least some deforestation will be an inevitable part of their economic and social development.

Arguably, it is the responsibility of wealthier countries to help such nations to follow more-sustainable development pathways -- though we will face many challenges in doing so.  But should Australia, as a wealthy, developed economy, continue to rely on deforestation for our own development, we can hardly ask differently of others.

It is time to think about the end-game of land clearing in Australia, and what we are willing lose along the way.  If we genuinely want to achieve a reversal of deforestation by 2020, then we need to see significant policy changes.  And they need to happen now—sooner rather than later.

So which future for us?  Will we choose the path of forest sustainability, with the tradeoffs it requires, but also the lasting rewards it will bring?

Or will we sacrifice sustainability for short-term gains, as underscored in the alarming projections of the WWF report?  These are vital decisions with starkly different futures, and we can only hope that our state and federal governments make the right choices.

Could tropical species be intensively vulnerable to global warming?

On 12 January 2002, Cambridge University doctoral student Justin Welbergen was studying the behavior of a large colony of flying foxes in subtropical eastern Australia.  What he witnessed that day shocked him.

Doesn't like the heat... a grey-headed flying fox.

Doesn't like the heat... a grey-headed flying fox.

It was a hot afternoon, and as the thermostat climbed above 40 degrees Centigrade, the giant bats became obviously distressed.  They began fighting over shady spots in the canopy.  Then they began licking their wrists and flapping their wings in a desperate effort to cool themselves.  

Finally, as the temperature hit 42 degrees C, they began to die -- in the thousands.  On that day at least 3,500 bats died, in nine different nearby colonies.  Females and juveniles were especially vulnerable.

What Welbergen observed was a phenomenon that has now been seen elsewhere -- from mass disappearances of lizards in Mexico to the dramatic population collapse of the white lemuroid possum in north Queensland rainforests.

Possum in peril... the white lemuroid ringtail (photo (c) Michael Trenerry)

Possum in peril... the white lemuroid ringtail (photo (c) Michael Trenerry)

There are two striking conclusions from these observations.  First, to the surprise of many, tropical species may be the most vulnerable of all organisms on the planet to global warming.  Second, it isn't a steadily rising thermostat that endangers most species, but short, intense pulses of unusually warm conditions -- heat waves.

Why are tropical species so vulnerable?  In short, many are thermal specialists.  Think, for instance, about a polar bear -- our traditional icon for global warming.  It has to deal with temperatures ranging from, say, minus 50 degrees C in winter to plus 35 degrees C in summer -- a huge range of temperatures.

But tropical species are different.  Lowland tropical species, for instance, might see temperatures ranging from just 25 to 35 degrees during the course of a normal year -- a far narrower range.  As a result, they can become much more thermally specialized.

Where temperatures vary the most in the tropics is as a function of elevation.  On average, for every thousand meters that one goes up in elevation, the temperature drops by 6 degrees C.  

What that means is that tropical species are not just thermal specialists, they also tend to be elevational specialists.  Species tend to be adapted for the very warm lowlands, or for the cooler mid-elevations, or for the wet, cloudy high elevations, where conditions are almost chilly.

And it's the high-elevation specialists -- such as the white lemuroid possum -- that a lot of scientists are really worried about.   

Many tend to be locally endemic species, because their populations are genetically isolated from other populations on different mountaintops.  Hence, they have small geographic ranges and, often, small population sizes.

And they may be intensely vulnerable to global warming.  As temperatures rise, the geographic ranges of many high-elevation species in the tropics are predicted to shrink and fragment -- potentially disappearing altogether.  For instance, in the Australian wet tropics, most upland-endemic species of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians are predicted to disappear entirely if temperatures should rise by more than 4-6 degrees C.

It's a frightening prospect, and it suggests that global warming could have far wider-reaching impacts than many might suspect -- especially in the tropics, the world's biologically richest real estate.

ALERT member Pierre-Michel Forget has just given a wonderful 30-minute interview on this topic.  Forget is a highly authoritative scientist -- a former president of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation and now Vice-President of the Society for Tropical Ecology.  He asks, what would just a 1 degree C increase in temperature do to tropical forests and their species?

It's definitely worth a half-hour to hear this enlightening lecture -- and to share it with your colleagues and students. 

The bottom line is this: Given that tropical ecosystems are so rich in species and thermal specialists, the best icon for global warming might not be a polar bear -- but a tropical white possum or flying fox.

 

Heated debate over boreal forests

ALERT is achieving a new milestone today by hosting its first scientific debate.  This focuses on the fate and condition of the world's vast boreal forests.

Clearcut logging in a Canadian boreal forest

Clearcut logging in a Canadian boreal forest

The debate arose over a recent paper led by Nick Haddad and colleagues (of which ALERT members Tom Lovejoy and Bill Laurance were coauthors).  Haddad and colleagues asserted in their paper -- and also conspicuously in their various press coverage -- that the only two remaining areas of large, intact forest on Earth were the Amazon and Congo Basin.

Boreal forest researcher Jeff Wells takes serious issue with this contention.  Below is Wells' complaint, followed by a response from Nick Haddad and another of his coauthors, Joe Sexton, who actually conducted the analyses at the heart of this scientific tussle.

All this is then followed by a synopsis of the debate by boreal forest expert Corey Bradshaw, an ALERT member and professor and senior researcher from the University of Adelaide in Australia.  Bradshaw was not involved in either study. 

Read away!

THE COMPLAINT BY JEFF WELLS

The paper “Habitat fragmentation and its lasting impact on Earth’s ecosystems” by Nick Haddad and 23 co-authors published in the 20 March, 2015 issue of Science Advances provided an incredibly important documentation of the many and varied negative impacts to biodiversity that result from human-caused large-scale fragmentation of intact forest habitats.  Although there are regional differences in the ways in which fragmentation impacts various biodiversity features, the effects are largely generalizable across the world’s forests.

There are a few regions of the globe where there remains large tracts of forest that are not fragmented by human activities—so-called primary forests.  These areas have been mapped in a number of ways over recent decades and all show five large areas of remaining primary forest.

The largest are the North American Boreal Forest, the Siberian Boreal Forest, the Amazon Forest followed by the Congo Basin Forest and the forests of New Guinea and other parts of Indonesia. In fact, some analyses indicate that the world’s largest single intact blocks of forest habitat are now found in the Amazon and in Canada’s Boreal Forest.

Given these facts it was astonishing and disappointing to see in the paper, a map purporting to show forested areas of the globe that are most impacted by fragmentation (defined in the paper as “the division of habitat into smaller and more isolated fragments separated by a matrix of human-transformed land cover”) that portrayed the North American boreal forest as heavily fragmented rather than intact as it truly is.  In the paper the authors write that they are presenting “a global analysis of the fragmentation of forest ecosystems, quantifying for the first time the global hotspots of intensive historical fragmentation.”

They go on to say that their analysis showed that “nearly 20% of the world’s remaining forest is within 100 m of an edge — in close proximity to agriculture, urban, or other modified environments…”

Clearly the implication in this statements and others in the paper is that the mapping analyses presented in the paper intends to portray the world’s forest ecosystems that are most impacted by anthropogenic fragmentation.  In fact, the map in the paper shockingly indicates that the most northern portions of the Boreal Forest region of North America are among the most fragmented in the world.

Anyone with knowledge of northern and Arctic regions would likely be rather astonished by this portrayal given the incredible lack of human industrial fragmentation in this remote and generally inaccessible part of the world. The inaccurate and misleading map and analysis is the result of a mischaracterized data set that labels natural fires, intact peatland and tundra (far from any human industrial footprint) as the same as clearcuts, areas cleared for agriculture or mines, roads, powerlines and other human caused fragmentation.

While as a scientific issue this mischaracterization is serious enough, more troubling is the fact that media stories about the paper included quotes attributed to the first author like this one in a story in The New Yorker:

“There are really only two big patches of intact forest left on Earth — the Amazon and the Congo — and they shine out like eyes from the center of the map.”

Or this statement in Climate Progress:

“Haddad was surprised by the degree that Boreal forest in Canada and Siberia has already been sliced up.”

These statements are fundamentally incorrect and are a serious blow to conservation initiatives in the massively large, truly intact Boreal Forest region of North America where incredible efforts are underway that are succeeding in achieving some of the world’s largest forest conservation gains.

Canada’s Boreal Forest region (an area of approximately 5.6 million square kilometers) is estimated to contain 25% of the world’s remaining primary forest within its Boreal Forest region, storing a minimum of 208 billion tonnes of carbon, supporting some of the world’s largest populations of northern large mammals including some that undertake the world’s last large-scale annual migrations and hosting 1-3 three billion nesting birds, most of which migrate south to populate temperate and tropical forests.

This vast intact forest region continues to be inhabited by to hundreds of indigenous communities that maintain their cultural traditions including harvesting native fish and wildlife for subsistence.

Over 870,000 square kilometers of new protected areas have been established across Canada’s Boreal Forest region in the last 15 years and the governments of Ontario and Quebec are pursuing conservation visions that together would strictly protect (IUCN categories I-IV) an additional 858,000 square kilometers of intact, primary forest. 

In the Northwest Territories, over 425,000 square kilometers of new protected areas and interim protected areas are the result of leadership of indigenous governments that have developed sophisticated land-use plans combining traditional knowledge and Western science approaches.

What is particularly tragic is the portrayal of North America's Boreal Forest as one of the parts of the world that is most highly fragmented by human industrial activities.  Scientists and conservationists working in the world's last wildernesses should become more familiar with the threats across ecosystems and regions, in order to accurately portray reality on the ground.  This will allow us to protect these ecosystems while there is still time to do so.

A boreal forest in flames

A boreal forest in flames

THE RESPONSE BY NICK HADDAD AND JOE SEXTON

Dr. Wells’ comments regarding the ecological importance of boreal forests are valuable.  The boreal forest houses enormous stocks of carbon; is the origin of many major rivers transporting nutrients to and from the Arctic Ocean; and its trophic system provides essential ecosystem services to human communities.  Dr. Wells confirms what is shown in our Figure 1 when pointing out that the boreal forest is one of the greatest remaining expanses of forest on Earth.

We agree with Dr. Wells’ assertion of the conservation value of boreal forest, and our global forest analysis in no way contradicts it.  Compared to temperate and tropical forests, the boreal forest is much less impacted by human land-use change. 

Whereas the forests of temperate and tropical biomes (except the interior forests of the Amazon and Congo Basins) are heavily fragmented by human land use, edges of the boreal forest are primarily natural.  Boreal-forest edges arise predominantly from climatological and edaphic features (i.e., the taiga-tundra ecotone), from hydrological features (the prevalence of rivers and small water bodies), and from acute disturbances such as fires and insect outbreaks (see a recent comparison of natural and human created edge effects in boreal forest).

Whereas logging impacts some regions — including much of British Columbia and Scandinavi— these areas are a comparatively small portion of the total area.  Yet even this distinction is increasingly eroded by human impacts, as recent fires in the Siberian boreal forest have been found to be largely human in origin.

It is currently impossible to discriminate natural from human-induced edges, and so our global analysis did not attempt to do so. This contrasts with our experimental analyses which comprise the bulk of our paper, and which are focused on effects of human-caused fragmentation.

In retrospect, we should have emphasized this distinction; we regret the confusion it created.  Our Figure 1 does not “portray the world’s forest ecosystems that are most impacted by anthropogenic fragmentation,” (Wells’ assertion) but instead simply maps globally the distance of each forest pixel to the forest’s edge.  Regardless, Wells’ assertion that the boreal forest is not fragmented raises an important distinction between natural and human-created edges.

Many of the effects of natural and anthropogenic fragmentation are identical — sunlight and wind penetrate a forest edge regardless of its origin. However, many edge effects — including species invasions, especially by species associated with humans — are not.

As is often the case with the conveyance of scientific findings to the public, the popular media focuses on one or two key points and disregards complexities.  The primary objective of our paper was to synthesize long-term experiments documenting the effects of habitat fragmentation. The spatial analysis of forests was included to alert our audience to its global footprint, whether natural or anthropogenic. 

Given one figure and two short paragraphs, we could only portray this complexity from one aspect — namely habitat edges.  The popular media focused on the Amazon and the Congo forests, the two areas with the least areas of edge, but did not cover the distinction between natural and anthropogenic disturbance.

We share Dr. Wells’ eagerness to overcome the current technical inability to discriminate natural from human-induced vegetation change in the satellite record.  We and a large community of researchers are working on precisely this problem.  We look forward to specifying the agency of habitat fragmentation in the years to come.

To reiterate, we agree with Dr. Wells about the great need to conserve boreal forest.  We are at the same time pleased that Dr. Wells recognizes our study’s central finding: that human-induced habitat fragmentation threatens forests across the globe, leading to long-term decline in the diversity and function of ecosystems.

Long-term experiments and global analysis of the extent, pattern, and dynamics of forest change will continue to advance understanding of the impact of and conservation prospects for landscapes fragmented by people.

Massive stockpile of boreal timber

Massive stockpile of boreal timber

A PERSPECTIVE FROM AN INDEPENDENT EXPERT, COREY BRADSHAW

Missing the forest despite its trees

Despite its immense size, there is little doubt that the ugly second cousin of forest conservation is the boreal region covering much of Alaska, Canada, Fennoscandia, and Russia.  Indeed, extending some 1.4 billion hectares, of which well over 60% is found in Russia alone, the entirety of the boreal forest is more than double the area of the Amazon forest.

Yet despite this massive expanse, the impressive biota it shelters, and its important contribution to the global carbon, nitrogen and oxygen cycles, the boreal is an oft-overlooked region in terms of global conservation priorities and possibilities.

The exchange between Haddad & Sexton and Wells regarding the former researchers’ recent paper highlights this problem, of which even many expert ecologists are often only vaguely aware.  Wells takes particular issue with Haddad and colleagues’ assertion that the boreal forest is highly fragmented, claiming to the contrary that the (North America) boreal forest is “… truly intact … ”.  While Haddad and Sexton respond that they did not differentiate between ‘natural’ and human-caused fragmentation, my view is that the exchange misses some important concerns about the state of the boreal forest.

Wells correctly points out that the boreal zone in North America is “massive”, but can his other claim -- that it is “truly intact” -- stand up to scrutiny?  Citing one of my own papers from 2009 to demonstrate (correctly) that the boreal forest of North America holds a stunning array of species, Wells neglects to highlight that in that same paper we also identified the extensive, artificial fragmentation that has occurred there and in other parts of the boreal zone over the last few decades.

For example, we showed clearly that only 44% of the entire biome is considered to be ‘intact’, defining the term precisely as “areas over 500 square kilometers, internally undivided by infrastructure (e.g., roads) and with linear dimensions greater than 10 kilometers”. 

Satellite imagery has also confirmed that between 2000 and 2005, the boreal biome experienced the largest area of gross forest cover loss compared to any other.  Despite recent evidence that so-called edge effects (characteristics of a disturbed matrix that penetrate some distance into habitat fragments) are probably of a smaller spatial magnitude in boreal compared to other biomes, it is disingenuous to claim that North America’s boreal forests are “truly intact”.

Wells' perspective also ignores the intense historical and current fragmentation to the largest boreal forest region in Russia.  Between 1988 and 1993, Russia lost an average of 1.1 million hectares of forest per year due principally to logging.  An increase in fire and insect outbreaks due to direct (fire) and indirect (climate-driven insect outbreaks) human pressures has eroded the area even further.

Add these observations to mounting evidence that the boreal forest has already or is about to become a net carbon source due to direct (logging, fire) and indirect (climate change, insect outbreaks) human influences, and it is counter-productive in any conservation sense to purport that the boreal zone is anything but a highly modified and increasingly disturbed biome.

I can understand that anyone used to the images of forest devastation from South East Asia, the Amazon, or many parts of Central Africa might be convinced that the boreal forest is comparatively intact -- for it is indeed relatively more contiguous.  However, the extent of the boreal fracturing can be easily missed if not observed from broader spatial scales.

From my own personal experience in northern Alberta over 20 years ago, the sight of a vast expanses of boreal forest criss-crossed with seismic exploration lines and clearcuts from logging testify viscerally to our capacity to modify even the seemingly infinite spans of remote boreal wilderness.  While the boreal forest might not have the same human population densities or experience the same degree of legal and illegal forest conversion as the tropics, it is nonetheless a highly and increasingly stressed ecosystem.

Fortunately, we still do have the opportunity to limit the worst ravages that deforestation, climate change and fire could wreak there, but we have to get a lot more serious about measuring, recognizing, and limiting the damage that we as a society seem so desperate to render.

 

Roads to ruin: The devastating impacts of the global infrastructure explosion

From an environmental perspective, we may be living in the most frightening times since a giant meteor wiped out the dinosaurs and many other species some 65 million years ago.

New roads everywhere you look...  (photo (c) Rhett Butler, Mongabay.com)

New roads everywhere you look...  (photo (c) Rhett Butler, Mongabay.com)

But rather than extraterrestrial devastation, today's tsunami of change is entirely of our own making.  And perhaps no change is of greater importance than the astonishingly rapid explosion of roads and other infrastructure globally. 

As ALERT director Bill Laurance highlights in two hard-hitting editorials this week -- one in the International New York Times and another in New Scientist -- the pace and magnitude of change is truly unprecedented.

For example, in the next few decades, we can expect to see some 25 million kilometers of new paved roads, some 3,700 additional hydroelectric dams, and tens of thousands of new mining and fossil-fuel projects.

In just the next 15 years, investments in new infrastructure projects could approach 70 trillion US dollars -- more than doubling infrastructure investments globally.

Many of these projects will penetrate into the world's last surviving wilderness areas, opening them up like a flayed fish.  Since 2000, for instance, the Congo Basin has been crisscrossed by over 50,000 kilometers of new logging roads.  This has opened up the Basin to poachers armed with rifles and cable snares, who in turn have killed off two-thirds of the global population of forest elephants.

We urge you to read the two brief editorials above, and share them with your friends and colleagues.  There is still time to avoid a global calamity -- but only if we act with a true sense of urgency.

Rate of tropical rainforest destruction leaps by 62 percent

Globally, tropical rainforests are getting hammered even faster than we thought.  This is grim news indeed for the planet's biologically richest real estate.

Pardon me, thou bleeding piece of Earth... forest loss in Cambodia (photo by William Laurance)

Pardon me, thou bleeding piece of Earth... forest loss in Cambodia (photo by William Laurance)

That's the conclusion of an important new analysis that used detailed Landsat data to assess deforestation rates from 1990 to 2010, in tropical nations that contain about 80% of the world's remaining rainforests.

The study, led by Do-Hyung Kim of the University of Maryland, USA, contrasted average rates of tropical deforestation between 1990 and 2000, and between 2000 and 2010. 

The authors found that the net rate of forest loss (the deforestation rate minus the rate of forest regeneration and afforestation) jumped from 4 million hectares per year in the 1990s to 6.5 million hectares per year in the 2000s -- a 62 percent increase overall.

In the 2000s, Brazil was the fastest forest-destroying nation worldwide, according to the authors.  However, its deforestation rate in Amazonia began falling in the mid-2000s and is now just 25% or so of its former rate.

Southeast Asia is the major tropical region in the worst shape, with less forest than either the New World or African tropics and the highest relative rate of forest loss.

Deforestation rates are relatively modest in Africa but are accelerating in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Madagascar -- both vital hotspots for biodiversity.

Notably, the University of Maryland study differs in its conclusions from a major analysis by the FAO (United Nations Food & Agricultural Organization). 

The FAO study concluded that deforestation had fallen in the 2000s, relative to the 1990s, but the University of Maryland researchers say the FAO missed important centers of deforestation that were obvious in their satellite analyses.

Clearly, it's time to redouble our conservation efforts in the tropics -- or we may be remembered as the generation that stood by and watched the rainforests die.

 

 

 

Scientific group worries about future of Cambodian and S.E. Asian environments

The largest-ever gathering of tropical biologists and environmental scientists to meet in Cambodia has expressed strong concerns about several development trends in the country, and in Southeast Asia generally. 

Perils ahead for leopards and lots of other Asian wildlife

Perils ahead for leopards and lots of other Asian wildlife

Over 300 scientists from 29 nations met in Phnom Penh this week, representing the Asia-Pacific Chapter of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC). 

The scientists expressed their concerns in a document entitled the "Phnom Penh Declaration" (which you can download here).

“We have a number of worries, but our most immediate concern is a proposed road that would slice through vitally important forest in Mondulkuri Province in eastern Cambodia, from Srea Ampos to Kbal Damrei,” said Seng Teak, Conservation Director, WWF Greater Mekong.

“This road would clearly imperil one of the biologically richest forests in Indochina, an area that provides critical habitat for rare wildlife such as Elephants, Leopards, and Banteng, as well as over 230 bird species,” said Mr Teak.

“Unfortunately, roads that cut into wilderness areas like that in Mondulkuri almost always open a Pandora’s box of environmental problems, such as illegal logging, poaching, and land clearing,” said William Laurance, a former ATBC president and director of ALERT.  Laurance has studied the environmental impacts of roads and infrastructure across the tropics.

“This is a critical time for decisions impacting wildlife and natural resources in Cambodia and throughout Southeast Asia,” said Teak.  “There are huge plans ahead for new roads, dams, mining projects, and other infrastructure that could have severe environmental impacts.”

“It’s absolutely vital that there be rigorous environmental impact assessments done before any major project is undertaken,” said Teak.  “And we need a precautionary approach to projects—to look at them very carefully to ensure that they really are essential.”

“If we don’t, we could lose a lot of the wildlife and natural ecosystems that make Cambodia unique, and that form the basis of our thriving and highly profitable tourism industry,” said Teak.

Wildlife poaching: Conservation on the borders

Dr Alice Hughes, a researcher at the Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden in southern China, tells us about an important conference that was recently held there.

Pangolins in peril (photo by William Laurance)

Pangolins in peril (photo by William Laurance)

A recent conference on transboundary conservation held at Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanic Garden drew international attention following an inspiring closing address by Britain's Prince William.  The event focused on the massive illegal cross-national trade in wildlife.

The closing of the conference highlighted the threats to Southeast Asian biodiversity, driven by the illegal trade of species of all sizes -- not just big species such as Elephants and Rhinos.

One animal at particular risk is the world's most trafficked animal, the Pangolin, with all six species in Asia now globally threatened with extinction.  The trafficking along one particular route is now so prevalent that it has been labeled “the Pangolin express”.

The legal trade of certified products from CITES -- the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species -- lists species such as the Pangolin as a key priority. 

Another concern is ivory, which has led to the widespread slaughter of Elephant species in Africa and Asia.  Legally traded ivory has provided a loophole for its illegal trade, with studies showing that almost 60% of certified traders violate regulations and these loopholes prevent and weaken enforcement efforts.

Bushmeat has changed from being a subsistence activity to provide food for the poor, to an internationally commercialized industry to serve the demands of the rich.  As a result hunters, using lethal technologies such as high-powered rifles and cable snares, go to increasing lengths to procure valuable bushmeat.

These transnational issues in the trade in endangered species and the lack of enforcement in their trade threaten the future existence of many vulnerable species on regional and global scales.

Better education to limit demand, and increased enforcement to restrict trade -- including a complete ban in the trade of CITES-listed species -- will likely be needed to change trade patterns and save imperiled wildlife.

 

Habitat fragmentation is having "terrifying" effects on ecosystems

A global surge in habitat fragmentation is simply "terrifying", according to two dozen of the world's top ecologists. 

A forest elephant... not many places to hide anymore.

A forest elephant... not many places to hide anymore.

The authors make this assertion in a paper (which you can download free here) in the leading journal Science Express
 
The paper was led by Nick Haddad from North Carolina State University, and includes ALERT members Thomas Lovejoy and Bill Laurance as coauthors.

The study contrasts all of the major experimental studies of habitat fragmentation that have ever been conducted -- including the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project in central Amazonia, which was founded by Lovejoy in 1979 and is the largest and longest-running of all the experiments.

The study concludes that, almost inevitably, fragmentation has a severe effect on species diversity and ecological functioning -- in ecosystems ranging from rainforests to woodlands to isolated patches of moss.

One of the key drivers of change in ecosystems is edge effects -- physical and biological changes associated with the abrupt, artificial edges of habitat fragments.  For instance, you often see more tree mortality, fires, microclimatic stresses, and invasive species near edges.

The study concluded that 70 percent of all the world’s forests are now within one kilometer of a forest edge, and 20 percent is within a football field of an edge.
 
“There’s really only two big blocks of forest surviving on Earth today,” said Professor Haddad.  “That’s the Amazon and Africa’s Congo Basin.”
 
And even those great forests are under assault.  For example, loggers have bulldozed more than 50,000 kilometers of new roads into the Congo since the year 2000.  As a result, the forests have been invaded by poachers with modern weapons, who have killed off two-thirds of the world’s forest elephants for their valuable ivory tusks.
 
The study was highlighted in an excellent article in the famous New Yorker magazine.  It underscores that fact that roads really are the biggest danger.

Once a road cuts into a forest, we often see an influx of illegal colonists, loggers, poachers and miners, especially in developing nations where the rule of law is often limited.
 
In the Amazon, for instance, 95 percent of all deforestation occurs within five kilometers of a road

The take-home message is obvious: If we’re going to preserve parts of wild nature for future generations, we simply must keep the roads out.
 

Can the alarming resurgence in Australian land clearing be halted?

In recent decades Australia has been among the worst forest- and woodland-destroying nations in the world, ranking right up with top forest-killing nations such as Brazil and Indonesia.

No habitat, no wildlife... (photo by William Laurance)

No habitat, no wildlife... (photo by William Laurance)

Thankfully, forest and woodland destruction in Australia fell into sharp decline beginning in the mid-2000s, with the advent of new legislation designed to reduce clearing of old-growth forest and mature woodland.

But with the emergence of an arch-conservative federal government led by Tony Abbott, and highly conservative state governments in Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria, we began to see a significant return to the "bad old days" of egregious habitat loss. 

In Queensland -- the biggest destroyer of wildlife habitat in Australia -- rates of native-vegetation loss tripled in just two years.

Recent rsurgence of forest clearing in Queensland -- thanks to conservative state and federal governments.

Recent rsurgence of forest clearing in Queensland -- thanks to conservative state and federal governments.

Now, the Queensland conservatives have been largely thrown out of office, and federal leader Tony Abbott appears to be on shaky ground.  Could this mean that Australia's forest-destroying ways are going to decline?

A recent article led by Martine Maron of the University of Queensland, and coauthored by several leading scientists including ALERT director Bill Laurance, decries the resurgence of native-vegetation clearing, especially in Queensland, and hopes that these alarming trends can be halted and even reversed.

Read the article here.  It's informative and definitely worth three minutes of your time -- especially if you care about nature and wildlife conservation in Australia.

 

Why biodiversity is declining even as protected areas increase

Why is biodiversity around the world in so much trouble, even though we keep adding new protected areas?  A new paper led by Australian researcher Ro Hill provides a compelling explanation.  Here, Ro summarizes her and her colleagues' key findings:

We’ve expanded the protected area coverage around the globe, to around 15% of the land surface -- with more than a quarter of all countries already exceeding the agreed global target of 17% by 2020.  But biodiversity loss continues apace.

Biodiversity in trouble...

Biodiversity in trouble...

Why?   Our new paper models how this paradox arises in tropical forests, from competition between governance regimes, and makes four important points:

1. The forces that drive forest protection do not necessarily oppose those that drive forest clearance for development. 

The diagram above says it all: we can keep expanding the developed area of the planet AND expanding protected areas as long as there are still some remaining forested habitats.
 
The power of the “develop” and “protect” governance regimes determines the strength of the forces that move the boundaries between areas under protection, areas of remaining forest habitat, and areas under development.

The leaders of the G20 nations recently gave a huge boost to the power of development regimes by promising to invest 60-70 trillion U.S. dollars on new infrastructure projects by the year 2030.  There is no such investment for conservation -- nothing even close!

2.   The power of the “protect” governance regime can actually be lowered as protected areas increase.
 
People may believe that when new protected areas are created, there are more natural areas –- whereas the reality is that every day there are less.  This lowers public concerns about risks from biodiversity loss, decreasing pressure on politicians and weakening the power of the “protect” governance regime.
 
3.  Prioritizing protected area placement by proximity to active agricultural frontiers would make them more effective.

Targets should include both the desired Area under protection AND the absolute limits on Area under development through habitat conversion.

4.  Strengthening the forces that maintain and restore habitat (and oppose its development) is vital to halt biodiversity loss.

This means we must generally favor land-sharing as a conservation strategy rather than land-sparing.  The governance forces that drive land sparing don’t necessarily oppose the governance forces that drive forest clearance for development, so you still get net loss.
 
Hence, strengthening the relative power of land-sharing governance regimes (i.e. those that maintain traditional, sustainable land use, alternative sustainable land use, or restore degraded habitat) is likely, we argue, to have a greater long-term benefit for biodiversity conservation.

Unraveling how governance and power affect biodiversity conservation is a new frontier in conservation science -– but this paper makes an important start and shows where we need to focus our attention.

 

PNG Forestry: weak governance & corruption hurts local people and the environment

Andrew Lang is a farmer and forester, and Vice-President of the World Bioenergy Association.  He's had a great deal of experience in the Asia-Pacific region and weighs in here on his concerns about forest issues in Papua New Guinea:

Traditional landowners worried about PNG's future (photo by William Laurance)

Traditional landowners worried about PNG's future (photo by William Laurance)

Around the world tropical forest are being cleared at an appalling rate.  In Papua New Guinea, sections of the 1996 Land Act facilitated much forest clearance (adding to the previously mostly illegal logging) supposedly to help customary landowners convert their forested land into agriculture, in partnership with investors.  But logging companies mainly from Malaysia and Australia saw it as a potential bonanza.

According to a 2012 Greenpeace report, between 2003 and 2011 over 5 million hectares of land, mainly along the Papuan coast and the islands of New Britain and New Ireland, was leased under Special Agricultural and Business Leases (SABLs).

This equates to over 11% of the country’s land area and over 16% of its accessible forests.  Exports of logs grew by 20% in 2011 alone, mostly from within these SABLs and mostly heading to China.  Up to 50% of the cleared land was to be planted to oil palm under the 55- and 99-year leases of the SABLs. 

Because of growing international concern over the improper processes in leasing of customary lands, the PNG government in early 2011 issued a moratorium on issuance of SABLs and ordered a Commission of Inquiry.  This Inquiry made recommendations but left existing SABLs in place.

The improper leasing of customary land -- referred to by many in PNG as 'land grabs' -- is still playing out.  One example is the 200,000 hectares of Musa Pongani land in eastern Papua.  This area was gazetted as Special Agriculture Land in 2010, so opening it to initiation of an SABL.

While the legal SABL process required full and informed consent by all customary landowners, this was not done in this area.  Two customary landowner-incorporated bodies and their Asian development partners are now wrangling for control of the title to the whole area in the courts. 

A third group called the Iris Cooperation has surveyed 100,000 hectares of land within the overall area and is reported to have mortgaged it on the Malaysian Stock Exchange for ~US$300 million.

The majority of the customary owners in PNG are illiterate or nearly so and have no understanding of the future impacts of an impending multimillion dollar 'development'.  Many can be pressured into signing papers in light of glib promises of good roads, education, health services, and cash in hand.  

In short, the prognosis for these lands and their customary owners is bleak.  The world needs to pay close attention to the dodgy dealings going on in PNG.

 

ALERT scientists tell G20 leaders to stop the 'infrastructure insanity'!

This has been a big week for ALERT. 

In the Amazon, 95% of all deforestation occurs within 5 kilometers of a road (Google Earth).

In the Amazon, 95% of all deforestation occurs within 5 kilometers of a road (Google Earth).

On March 5, the top-ranked journal Current Biology published a hard-hitting paper -- led by ALERT director Bill Laurance and including ALERT member Tom Lovejoy, former environmental advisor to three U.S. presidents -- that the G20's plan for infrastructure expansion bordered on ecological insanity.

In case you haven't been following this story, during its meeting late last year in Australia, the G20 leaders -- who lead the world's 20 biggest economies -- pledged to invest $60-70 trillion US dollars globally in new roads, hydroelectric dams, power lines, gas lines, mines, fossil-fuel projects, and other infrastructure over the next 15 years.

To put that number in perspective, the current value of all infrastructure across the entire planet today is roughly $50 trillion

So, we're talking about more than doubling the amount of global infrastructure in a very short period of time.

Road kill.  Roads and other infrastructure in wilderness areas often have fatal impacts on nature (©WWF-Malaysia/Lau Ching Fong).

Road kill.  Roads and other infrastructure in wilderness areas often have fatal impacts on nature (©WWF-Malaysia/Lau Ching Fong).

Nobody is denying that the world needs better and more infrastructure -- especially developing nations trying to improve their economic and social conditions.

But to subject the planet to an unprecedented tsunami like this is almost unfathomable.  The environmental consequences -- the impacts on nature and native ecosystems -- simply boggle the mind

One bit of good news is that the Current Biology paper is being used as the scientific foundation -- by scores of the world's top scientists, environmental leaders, and other luminaries -- to lobby the G20 leaders to back down from their pledge to hyper-drive global infrastructure

The paper lays out nine specific recommendations to help make infrastructure projects environmentally safer and more sustainable.  It's no magic bullet, but if taken seriously these recommendations could make a real difference.

Let's hope the G20 listens.  If they don't, they'll be guilty -- and this is no exaggeration -- of promulgating the worst environmental calamity in human history.

 

Australia’s ‘Ecological Axis of Evil’ triggers native mammal collapse

Dr Mark Ziembicki of James Cook University in Australia has spent much of the last several years chasing an environmental mystery -- the cause of the dramatic collapse of mammal populations in northern Australia.  Here he gives us an update on an emerging biodiversity crisis:

Across the world, biodiversity is being battered by familiar foes.  Habitat loss, overexploitation, invasive species, and impacts of human development are leading us to what many believe may be the sixth great extinction.

A northern quoll.  This native marsupial 'cat' is suffering greatly in northern Australia.

A northern quoll.  This native marsupial 'cat' is suffering greatly in northern Australia.

In contrast to the environmental pressures on other continents, large parts of Australia have undergone only limited modification, and are sparsely settled and remote.  Many areas have substantial nature reserves.

Yet, nonetheless, Australia has the world’s worst record for contemporary mammal extinctions.  One in ten species have disappeared in the last 200 years -- and of those that persist, over a third are now threatened or near threatened.  What’s more, recent analyses suggest the problem is even worse than previously thought.

Greater recent recognition of Australia’s ‘extinction calamity’ and its spread to the tropical north (see here, here and here) has provoked intense interest and stimulated a series of research and management initiatives to study the declines, their causes, and what can be done to halt them.

A new paper I published with a team of coauthors summarizes the research efforts, and assesses the effectiveness of recent conservation-management interventions.

In our view, the loss of Australia’s mammals has been driven primarily by what has been dubbed Australia’s Ecological Axis of Evil -- an unholy trinity comprising the feral cat, altered fire regimes, and grazing impacts.

Just ask George... a conceptual model for an 'Ecological Axis of Evil'

Just ask George... a conceptual model for an 'Ecological Axis of Evil'

Alone, these threats do not explain the declines but there is now some compelling evidence that, when operating in concert, predation by feral cats exacerbated by frequent, intense fires, reduced ground cover from overgrazing, and, in some areas, the control of dingoes are driving the declines.

So what’s to be done?  The demonstration of interacting factors gives conservation managers some options for reducing their impacts.  There are now some examples of rapid recovery of species following threat management.

Priority actions include intensively managing fires, reducing feral livestock in conservation reserves, establishing exclosures to keep feral predators out, enhancing biosecurity for important islands where rare species still persist, and acquiring grazing lands in important mammal areas for conservation purposes.

Despite some progress, we still have much to learn and even more to do, to stop and reverse the devastating declines. 

Equally worrying is that Australia's federal and state governments are planning an ambitious expansion of agriculture, grazing, roads, energy, and irrigation projects in northern Australia.  These developments are likely to intensify threats that have so far been limited in the region, but that have caused much biodiversity loss in other parts of the world.

This is a dangerous time for Australia's biodiversity.  Without effective planning and management actions, a significant component of northern Australia’s mammal fauna could collapse -- contributing further to the continent’s already-woeful record for mammal extinctions.

India's growing environmental crisis

A longstanding ALERT fan, Dr Shaju Thomas from the Tropical Institute of Ecological Sciences in India, weighs in here with worries about the future of India's environment:

Indian environments in peril (photo by William Laurance)

Indian environments in peril (photo by William Laurance)

Environmental governance in India has evolved over the last 60 years, via a bevy of Acts, Rules, Bills, Ordinances, and other such legal measures.  Despite growing pressures from various vested interests, these legal acts have clearly helped to save India's environment from even worse deterioration than it has so far suffered.

But the opening up of India to global market forces in the 1990s, and the policies that accompanied it, have created severe challenges for the environment.

A striking example is the appointment of a High Level Committee (HLC) in 2014 by the Ministry of Environment, Forest & Climate Change.  The HLC was charged with reviewing major environmental laws in the country, including:

- The Environment Protection Act, 1986

- The Forest Conservation Act, 1980

- The Wildlife Protection Act, 1972

- The Water (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1974

- The Air (Prevention and Control of Pollution) Act, 1981

- The Indian Forests Act, 1927

The HLC submitted its report in November 2014 -- without giving enough time for public discourse. 

The biggest problem with the report that it oversteps its mandate.  The HLC wants to get rid of time-consuming procedures for approval of development projects.  It wants to introduce "speed" in project approvals, which it says are the "engines of the nation's growth". 

Further, the HLC is proposing an "Environment Law (Management) Act", as well as more centralized federal and state environmental authorities, which can be more easily controlled.  And the HLC's report has no provision at all to deal with climate change and related issues.

These are all dangerous developments.  The HLC report is a deliberate attempt to derail the legal and policy framework that has evolved over time to protect India's environment. 

Indians need to stand up and be heard.  If its recommendations are adopted, the HLC report will pose great perils for India's environmental future.

The world's two most dangerous environmental trends

What are the two biggest direct threats to our natural world?  One could debate this question endlessly but here are my personal candidates for two recent developments that are especially environmentally perilous:

Growing perils for nature...

Growing perils for nature...

1) The G20's stunning plans for infrastructure expansion

Believe it or not, the leaders of the G20 nations -- the world's 20 largest economies -- committed during their recent global summit in Brisbane, Australia to spend an astonishing 60-70 trillion U.S. dollars on new infrastructure projects by the year 2030

This staggering sum will come from a variety of sources, such as public-private partnerships, pension funds, bilateral aid, and the major development banks.  This will be the single biggest financial transaction in human history -- and the environmental impacts will be Earth-shaking

Expect massive increases in roads, hydroelectric dams, mining projects, gas lines, and power lines, all across the planet.  Such projects will open up many of the world's last surviving wild areas and lead to an avalanche of new development pressures.

2) The rise of the Chinese and Brazilian development banks

An equally alarming trend is that the nature of infrastructure funding is changing. 

Large funding bodies such as the World Bank and the African, Asian, and Inter-American Development banks -- which, after many years of bearing criticism, have worked to develop and implement some environmental safeguards -- are increasingly being supplanted by the heavily funded and far more aggressive Chinese (AIIB) and Brazilian (BNDES) development banks. 

We've previously critiqued BNDES, but the Chinese-dominated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is, arguably, even worse.

The Chinese and Brazilian banks are funding massive numbers of developments worldwide, and generally place a much lower priority on environmental concerns than do many other infrastructure funders and donors.      

Conservationists and scientists will have to redouble their efforts to meet the challenges posed by these two landmark -- and alarming -- trends.

-Bill Laurance

 

Amazon update: 'Sustainable' corporation under fire, appears to plan huge increase in forest destruction

Here are three recent news items about United Cacao, the corporation that claims to be producing 'sustainable' cacao -- the main ingredient in chocolate -- but has been accused by ALERT of destroying over 2,000 hectares of biodiversity-rich rainforest in Peru.

A rainforest dies in Peru

A rainforest dies in Peru

1)  In recent days the share price of United Cacao has fallen by around $25, a 14% drop in its share value.

2) We have just learned that on 9 December 2014, the Peruvian subsidiary of United Cacao -- known as Cacao del Peru Norte -- was ordered by the Peruvian Agricultural Ministry to halt agricultural operations on one of its key properties, named Fundo Tamshivacu, which is located in Mavnas Province.

3) Alarmingly, we have also learned -- via recent reports in the Peruvian newspaper La Region (see here, here, and here) -- that at least 45,000 hectares of forested land in the Peruvian Amazon has been sold to subsidiary companies controlled by Dennis Melka, the owner of United Cacao. 

This suggests that much larger forest-clearing operations could be planned for the near future -- although whether this would be for cacao, or for another crop such as oil palm, is unknown. 

As can be seen below, these five properties adjoin the 2,000-hectare block (in orange) that was recently cleared by Cacao del Peru Norte:

The five newly purchased properties -- all dominated by old-growth rainforest -- that have been purchased by subsidiaries of United Cacao in Peru (courtesy of Save America's Forests and the Amazon Conservation Association).

The five newly purchased properties -- all dominated by old-growth rainforest -- that have been purchased by subsidiaries of United Cacao in Peru (courtesy of Save America's Forests and the Amazon Conservation Association).

Please pass the word: Be strongly advised that investments in United Cacao or any of its Peruvian subsidiaries are likely to promote large-scale forest destruction.  It is the opinion of ALERT scientists that this corporation should be shunned by any investor who cares about the environment.

Our continued thanks to scientists and journalists working in the region for these updates, especially John C. Cannon and the leading environmental website, Mongabay.com.

 

ALERT's latest campaign: 'Sustainable' corporation blasted for destroying Amazon rainforest

A corporation that aims to be the world’s biggest supplier of ‘sustainable’ cacao -- the main ingredient in chocolate -- is being accused by ALERT scientists of destroying large expanses of biodiversity-rich forest in Peru.  ALERT issued this press release today.

Rainforest destruction in the Peruvian Amazon...

Rainforest destruction in the Peruvian Amazon...

The Company, United Cacao, previously raised 10 million pounds on the London Stock Exchange, and is now hoping to raise additional funds on the Lima Stock Exchange in Peru to expand its operations in the Peruvian Amazon. 

ALERT scientists caution investors that United Cacao’s products may be far from environmentally sustainable, and that they should exercise exceptional caution before investing in the company or its Peruvian subsidiary, Cacao del Peru Norte.

“This company has its roots in Southeast Asia’s palm oil industry, which has been a huge driver of forest destruction,” said ALERT director William Laurance.  Laurance has conducted research in the Amazon region for nearly 20 years.

“World-class scientists at the Carnegie Institution at Stanford University and the Amazon Conservation Association have used satellite data and cutting-edge laser technology to show that United Cacao has recently cleared more than 2,000 hectares of mostly old-growth rainforest in Peru,” said ALERT member Thomas Lovejoy, a long-term Amazon expert and former environmental advisor to three U.S. presidents.

A small fraction of the cleared land evidently was farmed in the past, and parts of the forest were likely selectively logged in the 1980s, according to a detailed report in the leading environmental website Mongabay.com, based on thorough investigative research by John C. Cannon.

However, the laser technology -- known as LIDAR -- has shown that the carbon stocks contained in the destroyed forests were among the highest known for the Peruvian Amazon, according to Carnegie researcher Greg Asner.  This clearly indicates that the cleared block was formerly dominated by mature or old-growth rainforest.

“There’s no way you can clear old-growth rainforest and then claim to produce sustainable cacao,” said Lovejoy. 

“Not only that,” said Lovejoy, “but the corporation did so very quietly and without conducting an environmental impact study.  That sets a very dangerous precedent.”

“We see a lot of green-washing among corporations today -- where firms try to appear sustainable but really aren’t,” said ALERT member Lian Pin Koh, an associate professor at the University of Adelaide in Australia. 

“My fear, based on these recent findings of large-scale forest destruction, is that United Cacao is one of these green-washing corporations,” said Koh. 

“The forests of the Peruvian Amazon are just about the biologically richest real estate on the planet,” said Laurance.  “And unfortunately there’s a feeding frenzy happening, with large-scale expansion of oil palm and cacao plantations, as well as a great deal of legal and illegal mining and logging.”

“Investors need to be sure that they’re putting their money into projects and corporations that are truly sustainable,” said Laurance.  “Right now we have a lot of doubts about United Cacao.”

What's the biggest killer of people in developing nations? The answer will surprise you.

If you had to guess the biggest killer of people in the developing world, what would you say?

A funeral pyre in India...

A funeral pyre in India...

HIV/AIDS?  Malaria?  Influenza?  Malnutrition? 

Nope.  Pollution.

According to a recent essay in Ensia magazine, in 2012, air, water, and other forms of pollutants killed some 8.4 million people in developing nations.  That's more people than died from HIV, tuberculosis, and malaria combined.

And by these measures, mortality from Ebola is a mere drop in the bucket.

Pollution not only kills people directly.  It often worsens or increases the incidence of other diseases, such as heart disease, cancers, respiratory diseases, chest infections, and diarrhea. 

Scientists are increasingly warning people with health concerns -- such as obesity, diabetes, and respiratory problems -- to stay indoors during periods of rush-hour traffic, when air pollution is heaviest.

Globally, some 9 million people die from pollution annually, according to the World Health Organization.  Given that over nine-tenths of these deaths occur in developing nations, it is apparent that deadly pollution is increasingly a problem concentrated in the developing world.

As Southeast Asia continues to see heavy smoke palls from forest burning that send thousands of people to hospitals, and as plumes from forest fires stretch for thousands of kilometers across the Amazon, we have to remember that environmental destruction doesn't just kill nature.

It kills lots of people too.

 

GM crops: Good or bad for nature?

One of the more heated controversies in conservation science concerns genetically modified crops.  Are GM crops a boon for conservation or a serious danger?

On the one hard are those who believe GM crops are vital to increase agricultural production (and in some cases to reduce pesticide use), thereby allowing us produce more food on less land and spare more land for nature conservation.  The followers of this view often see the anti-GM crowd as hopelessly misguided or naive.

On the other hand are those who see potential dangers in GM crops -- ones that might outweigh their benefits in some if not many cases.  The term "Frankenfoods" has sometimes been applied to GM crops, reflecting the fear that these genetically modified foods might have a darker side.

ALERT member Jean-Philippe Puyravaud from India counts himself among those who worry about GM crops.  Here he tells us about his fears about one crop in particular.

A genetically modified crop is produced by introducing genes from another species, and the Bt. brinjal (a type of modified eggplant) was developing by introducing genes from a bacterium (Bacillus thuringensis) that is resistant to borers and caterpillars. 

However, GM organisms pose potential risks such as creating more vigorous pests, and could harm non-target species and disrupt biotic communities.

A recent study concludes that hybridization is possible between wild and cultivated brinjal in southern India, and another study showed there is a clear potential for transgenes to spread to wild brinjal populations.

Hence, the risk of transgene escape to wild or domesticated plants cannot be ignored.  Before introducing a GM crop, it is vital to check whether its genes can be transferred to wild relatives via pollinators.

Yes, we need to feed a hungry world.  But GM crops are not a panacea.  We have to study each one, on a case-by-case basis, before deciding whether or not its benefits will outweigh its risks. 

 

The good and bad news about Brazil's soy moratorium

A new study has shown that Brazil's Soy Moratorium -- an industry-led pledge not to clear Amazon rainforest for soy production -- has had incredible benefits.  But there's also bad news.

In the Amazon, soy farming was a major rainforest killer.

In the Amazon, soy farming was a major rainforest killer.

The study, undertaken by U.S. and Brazilian researchers and published in the leading journal Science, was led by Holly Gibbs of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  The team found that, prior to the Moratorium's commencement in 2006, about 30% of the soy planted in the Amazon directly replaced rainforest. 

That's a huge impact because Brazil will soon be the world's biggest soy producer.  Much of Brazil's soy is exported to China and Europe.

In fact, the impact of soy on the Amazon was even greater than Gibbs and colleagues suggest, because a lot of soy farmers bought up Amazon cattle ranches to expand their farms, pushing the ranchers deeper into the rainforest and thereby promoting more deforestation for ranching.

But after the Moratorium, the impact on the Amazon from soy fell sharply.  By 2014, less than 1% of soy replaced rainforest, according to Gibbs and colleagues. 

While this is a tremendous accomplishment, the Moratorium doesn't apply to Brazil's biodiversity-rich Cerrado, a vast but imperiled savanna-woodland that's a global biodiversity hotspot.  There, soy expansion continues to be a major driver of habitat loss.

Some in Brazil -- particularly elements of the powerful soy lobby -- are arguing that the Soy Moratorium should be dropped, because Brazil's government is effective enough, they say, to limit soy expansion into environmentally important areas.

But the study by Gibbs and colleagues suggests exactly the opposite.  They found abundant evidence of illegal deforestation in the Amazon, in areas such as Legal Reserves.  This suggests that the government alone can't halt illegal deforestation without help from major land-using industries such as soy producers. 

Hence, rather than being canceled, the Soy Moratorium should remain in force and should even be expanded -- to include the rapidly vanishing Cerrado as well.

Let's hope that sanity prevails in Brazil.  Those combating the Soy Moratorium will find themselves facing major boycotts and public shaming if they kill off one of the best industry-led environmental initiatives in the world.