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.

 

Global gold rush is killing the world's rainforests

After a short holiday-season hiatus, ALERT is now back in action.  Here, we examine the alarming impact that illegal gold-mining is having on rainforest environments around the world.

Moonscape... aftermath of illegal gold mining in Sumatra, Indonesia (photo by William Laurance)

Moonscape... aftermath of illegal gold mining in Sumatra, Indonesia (photo by William Laurance)

The rise in illegal gold mining has two main causes.  First, the price of gold is skyrocketing, in part because investors see it as a safeguard against unstable economic conditions.  Second, new roads are proliferating across the tropics, opening up once-remote areas to invasions of illegal miners.

For example, a recent study by Nora Alvarez-Berríos and Mitch Aide documents the escalation of illegal gold mining in South America.  They found that gold mining has accelerated significantly since 2OO7, following a rush by investors to find havens for their money following the global financial crisis.

Mining can have huge impacts in certain areas.  Alvarez-Berríos and Aide found that mining was especially severe in four general regions of South America: the Guianas, the Southwest Amazon, the Tapajós–Xingú area of the western Amazon, and the Magdalena Valley in the Colombian Andes.  This shocking video shows just how badly miners are decimating the Southwest Amazon in Peru following construction of the Inter-oceanic Highway there.

Around 17O,OOO hectares of forest was destroyed outright in these four regions, but even worse was the broader-scale impacts on aquatic ecosystems and water quality.  Gold miners cause enormous siltation of streams and rivers as well as water pollution by toxic mercury, which they use to separate gold from river sediments. 

Gold miners also often have conflicts with local indigenous groups and poach wildlife.  For instance, armed miners in French Guiana murdered two park guards there, who were attempting to defend the park.

The scourge of illegal gold mining is by no means limited to Latin America.  It is escalating rapidly across vast expanses of Africa, Asia, and many other regions of the tropics. 

It's become stylish to talk about 'blood diamonds', but let there be no mistake -- 'blood gold' is even more environmentally deadly and is a growing threat to the world's rainforests.

 

Roads to ruin: Southeast Asia's most environmentally destructive highways

Roads scare the bejeezus out of many scientists because they often open a Pandora's Box of environmental problems -- such as unleashing illegal deforestation, logging, hunting, mining, and land speculation. 

Far too many roads are forest killers...

Far too many roads are forest killers...

For that reason it's crucial not to put roads in the wrong places -- such as wilderness areas, places with vital environmental values, or locales with lots of endangered or endemic species.

ALERT member Gopalasamy Reuben Clements and colleagues (including ALERT director Bill Laurance) have just published a major analysis of the environmentally most damaging roads in Southeast Asia -- one of the most imperiled and biologically important areas of the planet

This analysis -- which you can download for free here -- identifies the worst roads in Southeast Asia, especially those likely to endanger native mammals and imperil surviving forests.

In total, 16 existing roads and another 8 planned roads were identified as serious 'nature killers'. 

These roads would imperil more than a fifth of all the endangered mammal species in the region, mainly by promoting forest destruction and illegal hunting and wildlife trade.  

A key element of the paper is 10 recommendations to limit road impacts in Southeast Asia.

Far too often, roads are the first step toward ecological Armageddon.  We all have to do more to educate the world about the crucial role that roads play in endangering nature. 

The paper led by Gopalasamy Reuben Clements is an important step in the right direction.


Football fields of deforestation: What does it mean?

In an effort to be more readily understood by the general public, scientists and journalists sometime resort to analogies.  A particularly common analogy, when discussing deforestation, is to say how many football fields of forest are being destroyed each minute (or hour). 

As discussed below, ALERT member Erik Meijaard has a problem with the football field analogy.  ALERT director Bill Laurance is notably guilty of this sin, but we're happy to let Erik air his concerns and then you can be the judge. 

A recent newspaper article stated that Indonesia lost 4.6 million hectares of forest between 2009 and 2013.  This was equated to an area of three football fields every minute.

I understand what journalists are trying to do with their frequent reference to football fields.  Presumably it makes that obscure, ivory-tower world of weird units like hectares and square kilometers easier to visualize by comparing it to something everyone is apparently familiar with: 22 football (soccer) players running up and down those revered green pitches.

But how helpful is this comparison, especially when it is so often inaccurate?

I searched the internet for football field–deforestation comparisons over the past few years and found that Indonesia is being deforested at a rate of:

- 300 football fields every hour

- 12 football fields every day (0.5 fields per hour)

- 10 football fields every minute (600 fields per hour)

- 6 football fields a minute (360 fields per hour)

- 7 American football fields every minute (315 fields per hour)

- 300 football fields of forest lost every hour to palm oil alone (300 fields per hour just because of oil palm)

Based on the above statements and the variation in the size of European and American football fields, deforestation rates in Indonesia vary from 0.2 hectares per hour at the lowest to 648 hectares per hour at the highest.

Or, in the more usual measurements, the rate ranges from 1752 hectares per year to 5.7 million hectares per year -- a 3,000-fold difference!

And at least one source ascribes most of that deforestation to oil palm.

The size of football pitches in the English Premier League already varies quite a bit, with the largest (Manchester City’s) being 16% larger than the smallest (West Ham). And American football fields are 25% smaller than their soccer cousins.

Humans took the wise decision to standardize their length and area measurements to get rid of the bewildering variety of Rijnland Inches, four-inch hands, and mornings (the amount of land tillable by one man behind an ox in the morning hours of a day).

Can we just stop dumbing down the public and provide people with proper scientific measurements and units?

Deforestation is a serious issue affecting everyone in this world.  Reducing clarity about its magnitude isn't helping matters.

Please take ALERT's 60-second poll!

Today, ALERT celebrates its one-year anniversary -- and it's been a year of tremendous growth and impact.

Via our Facebook, website, and Twitter platforms, ALERT now routinely reaches 35,000 to 40,000 engaged readers each week, all across the world.

To help us serve you better, please take this 60-second poll to tell us what kinds of issues, stories, and geographic regions you want to hear more about.

We promise -- it really takes just 60 seconds!  And it'll be a big help to us as we continue to grow and advance nature conservation!

Good news, bad news for the Amazon

How is the world's greatest rainforest faring?  It very much depends where you look...

The world's biologically richest rainforests (photo by William Laurance)

The world's biologically richest rainforests (photo by William Laurance)

In the Brazilian Amazon, the rate of forest destruction has plummeted to historic lows.  For example, last year the deforestation rate was only about a quarter of what it was in the 1990s and early-mid 2000s, when 2-3 million hectares of forest were being felled each year -- comparable to a country the size of Belgium.

And this year the news is even better.  The current rate of deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia is 18% lower than it was last year

Long-term Amazon watchers can scarcely believe it.  The falling deforestation rate in Brazil is being chalked up to better enforcement of environmental laws, new protected areas, a moratorium on forest clearing for soy, and an important role for indigenous lands in limiting forest loss

International carbon funds -- led by Norway's contribution of up to $1 billion to Brazil -- have also helped.

The heartening decline in forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon (from Mongabay.com)

The heartening decline in forest loss in the Brazilian Amazon (from Mongabay.com)

But elsewhere the picture is lot uglier. 

Peru is clearing large expanses of Amazon rainforest for oil palm, and gold miners are wreaking havoc in large areas, in part because of increased access to forests via the new Inter-Oceanic Highway.  And much of the Peruvian Amazon is being opened up for oil and gas leases.

The blight of illegal gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon

The blight of illegal gold mining in the Peruvian Amazon

In Bolivia, the government has announced that it intends to expand the agricultural frontier by nearly 1 million hectares per year between now and 2025.  Few believe such wildly ambitious plans are realistic but it speaks to the prevailing government's priorities -- and the environment is clearly very low on its list.

In Guyana, which has historically had low rates of deforestation, aggressive Chinese logging corporations are rapidly moving into the country.  A single Chinese corporation, Bai Shan Lin, now controls 1.4 million hectares of Guyana's forest and has been accused of widespread bribery in acquiring timber concessions.

Deforestation is also high in the Colombian Amazon, where cattle ranching and illegal coca production are major causes of forest lossMining activity is also exploding in the country.

The list goes on an on -- almost everywhere you look in the Amazon, there's more roads, more dams, more mining, more mega-projects

While the story in Brazil is heartening, there's no time for complacency elsewhere.  The threats are multiplying dramatically, and the fate of the world's greatest rainforest is hanging precariously in the balance.   

Disaster ahead for Sumatra's forests?

Alarm bells are ringing in Indonesia. 

An in-depth article just published by ALERT member Erik Meijaard in the Jakarta Globe suggests that the Leuser Ecosystem in northern Sumatra — the last place on Earth where tigers, orangutans, elephants, and rhinos still coexist — could be greatly imperiled.

Trouble ahead for tigers

Trouble ahead for tigers

The problem is the highly controversial “spatial plan” passed by the Aceh Provincial Government. 

The plan completely omits the Leuser Ecosystem — and according to Meijaard that’s because the Aceh government plans to log, clear, mine, and essentially destroy much of the Leuser environment.

That would be a tragedy wrapped in a disaster.  The IUCN lists the Leuser Ecosystem — a region of 2.26 million hectares rich in rainforests and peat-swamp forests — as one of the “World’s Most Irreplaceable Places”.

Beyond its unparalleled importance for biodiversity, the Leuser Ecosystem also provides vital environmental services for the people of Aceh — such as reducing flooding and droughts, protecting soils, and providing clean water for people, agriculture, and fisheries. 

The forests also store large quantities of carbon essential for limiting global warming.

As Meijaard argues, the natural services provided by the Leuser forests truly are vital. 

For instance, floods in December 2006 affected over 700 villages in Aceh, destroyed over 4400 homes, and killed 47 people.  Damage from the floods was estimated to total US$210 million. 

Imagine the toll from such an event if the Leuser forests — which help to limit destructive flooding — had been largely destroyed.

Meijaard and many others — including 141 scientific, environmental, and social-rights organizations — are urging Indonesia’s federal government to strike down the Aceh government’s ill-advised spatial plan, as the plan can't proceed without federal approval. 

Let’s hope common sense prevails in Indonesia, before one of Earth’s most unique and important ecosystems is lost forever.

Growing evidence that forests reduce flood risk

In 2007, ALERT member Corey Bradshaw and colleagues published a high-profile global analysis that suggested forests reduce flood risk. 

A tropical torrent -- flooding in the Amazon (photo by William Laurance)

A tropical torrent -- flooding in the Amazon (photo by William Laurance)

However, their analysis was instantly controversial -- lauded in some quarters and attacked in others -- in part because their study used complex statistical models rather than simple experiments or direct observations to draw their conclusions. 

Now a new study appears to provide key support for Bradshaw's assertions.  Working in Peninsular Malaysia, Jie-Sheng Tan Soo and colleagues have found strong evidence that areas with more native rainforest are less prone to damaging floods in the wet season.

Specifically, the authors found that conversion of native rainforest to oil palm or rubber plantations increased the number of days of downstream flooding in 31 different areas.

Collectively, these findings are important because they provide another key economic justification for conserving native forests -- including pristine forests and those that have been selectively logged but still retain much of their original tree cover

Not only do such forests harbor amazing biodiversity, store large stocks of carbon, and help to drive global climate and rainfall patterns, they also have a sizable impact on flooding -- which is vital to local communities in forested regions.

Each years, destructive floods cause billions of dollars in damage to properties, crops, and livestock.  They also kill hundreds of people and displace tens of thousands more. 

With our growing human population and increasing tendency to live, build dwellings, and farm in vulnerable floodplains, floods are becoming an ever-more serious hazard. 

The poor are often forced to live in vulnerable flood-prone areas

The poor are often forced to live in vulnerable flood-prone areas

The poor -- which are often forced to live in flood-prone areas -- are especially vulnerable.  But we all suffer from flooding via increased insurance rates and higher taxes for government disaster-aid efforts. 

With the added complications of rising sea levels and increasing extreme-weather events, flooding might cost the world $1 trillion per year by 2050, according to one analysis.

The studies by Bradshaw, Tan Soo, and colleagues show that native forests can be vital for reducing flooding in regions that receive even occasional heavy rains. 

Less native forest means more destructive flooding -- and that's not good for any of us.