Dramatic spike in Amazon deforestation

For a quarter century, Brazil had the dubious distinction of being the 'world leader' in tropical deforestation.  Each year, an area of Amazon forest approaching the size of Belgium -- up to 3 million hectares -- was being destroyed.

Amazon rainforest under assault

Amazon rainforest under assault

Deforestation in the vast Brazilian Amazon finally began to decline around 2005.  That was about the time that the Catholic nun Dorothy Stang -- who fought to defend indigenous peoples and the Amazon rainforest -- was brutally murdered by a wealthy Brazilian cattle baron.

Most Brazilians, of course, were outraged.  President Lula sent the Brazilian army into the Amazon, and that seemed to mark the beginning of a dramatic decline in Amazon deforestation. 

There was a crackdown on illegal deforestation and burning.  Long-existing environmental laws were finally being enforced.  New protected areas and indigenous lands helped to stave off massive forest clearing.  And moratoria on forest clearing by big soy and cattle producers helped.

As a result. annual deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon fell by at least 75 percent.  Many in the world -- including ALERT scientists and the leading environmental website Mongabay -- heralded this as an example of improving forest governance in Brazil.

Well, the sad news is that the era of rampant Amazon deforestation may be returning.

According to a recent letter in the world-leading journal Nature by ALERT member Philip Fearnside -- arguably the world's greatest authority on the Amazon environment -- the battle to slow Amazonian deforestation is far from over. 

According to Fearnside, the Brazilian currency, the Real, has plummeted in value, making foreign exports such as soy, beef, and timber much more profitable.  This, of course, promotes additional forest clearing.

Further, many new legal and illegal roads continue to expand apace in the Amazon -- opening a Pandora's box of environmental problems -- and the designation of new protected areas has effectively been frozen.

Roads to ruin in the Brazilian Amazon

Roads to ruin in the Brazilian Amazon

In addition to all this, Brazil's annual expenditures on environmental enforcement have fallen by 72 percent, according to Fearnside.

As a result, deforestation rates, compared to last year, have spiked dramatically

Does this herald a return to the 'bad old days' of slash and ruin in the Amazon?

According to Fearnside, "The forces that speed or slow Amazon deforestation are continually shifting, and downturns in clearing like the one we had from 2005 to 2014 can’t be counted as a victory in the 'battle for the Amazon'". 

And just last week, China announced a plan to punch a 5,300-kilometer railroad across the Amazon -- impacting some of the most vulnerable and biologically rich areas of the basin.

"In the long term, the basic forces driving deforestation continue to grow," says Fearnside. "These include the building of ever more roads, the arrival of more and more people seeking land and more and more investment in agriculture, ranching and logging."

Clearly, we can't take anything for granted.  The battle to save the Amazon is far from over.




Bizarre story in the Washington Post

Sometimes truth is weirder than fiction.

Loggers in the Congo... timber harvest in Gabon  (photo by Bill Laurance)

Loggers in the Congo... timber harvest in Gabon (photo by Bill Laurance)

Two days ago (21 November 2014) the Washington Post ran a story entitled "Deforestation vs. daily life: The logging industry in Nigeria is fueling both", by Nicole Crowder, a staff photo editor.

The story was odd for two reasons.  First, via a tapestry of photos shot by Akintunde Akinleye of Reuters, it portrayed Nigeria's rainforest loggers in a remarkably sympathetic manner. 

This is understandable and forgivable.  Loggers are human beings, and like all of us are struggling to survive in an increasingly populous, hard-edged world.  While readily conceding that much forest harvesting in Nigeria is illegal, the images portrayed the loggers as humble battlers, scrabbling to make a living by carving great trees into sawn timber.

Second, and far more remarkably, the story grossly misstated the impact of logging and deforestation in Nigeria.  It claimed that Nigeria lost "just over 2 million hectares of forest annually between 2005-2010 due to agricultural expansion, logging and infrastructure development". 

That figure is massively wrong.  According to data compiled by Professor Matt Hansen from the University of Maryland and Global Forest Watch, forest loss in Nigeria from 2001 to 2012 ranged from a low of around 40,000 hectares per year to a peak of about 150,000 hectares per year.  

One doesn't have to be a math whiz to see that the actual deforestation figures -- or at least the best-available scientific estimates -- are a tiny fraction of those reported in the Washington Post

I was initially bemused by the story because the reported deforestation numbers, if true, would have put Nigeria on par with the Brazilian Amazon in the mid-late 1990s and early 2000s, when that region had the dubious distinction of being the overwhelming epicenter of global forest destruction

I lived and worked in the Amazon for much of that period, and it was a time of catastrophic forest loss and burning -- with palls of smoke from massive fires forcing airports to close and causing sharp spikes in cases of respiratory distress.

If forest destruction in Nigeria was happening as fast as the Post reported -- at a pace that rivaled that in the Amazon -- Nigeria's forests would have vanished in a heartbeat.

At ALERT we pride ourselves on our scientific stripes, but even we make mistakes from time to time.  However, we are not professional journalists.  When a legendary newspaper like the Washington Post gets its reporting so badly wrong, it does give one pause. 

-Bill Laurance

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.