Explosion of illegal roads in the Amazon

The Amazon is the world's greatest rainforest.  Will it survive in perpetuity?  Those who study Amazon conservation fear one thing most of all: roads.

In wildernesses such as the Amazon, roads often open a Pandora's Box of environmental problems, such as illegal logging, colonization, hunting, and mining.  A new study shows a great deal of illegal road building in the Amazon, with loggers and ranchers likely being key culprits. 

  Road to ruin...  (photo by Rhett Butler)

Road to ruin... (photo by Rhett Butler)

A key finding of the study: For every kilometer of legal road in the Amazon, there are nearly three kilometers of illegal roads.

The study (which you can download for free here) was led by Chris Barber of South Dakota State University, a remote sensing expert, and included ALERT director Bill Laurance, who has long studied Amazon roads and their environmental impacts.

The study also found that 95% of all deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon occurs within 5.5 kilometers of roads

This startling figure shows that, of all human activities, it is roads that most directly determine just where natural environments are likely to be destroyed and degraded.

Ecologists who study roads can be a little messianic at times, arguing that new roads in wilderness areas are an overriding proximate cause of environmental devastation.  Studies like that by Chris Barber and his colleagues show just why they fret so much.