The plight of tropical migratory species

So much remains unknown about the tropics, including the extent to which species living in these environments migrate seasonally.  Dr Lisa Davenport has worked for many years in the tropics, especially the Peruvian Amazon.  Here she tells us about her intriguing work on a particular migrator, and its broader implications for nature conservation:

A foraging Black Skimmer

A foraging Black Skimmer

An unknown number of tropical species, such as certain birds, bats, and moths, migrate up and down elevational gradients over the year, tracking seasonal changes in the abundance of fruits, nectar, or insect prey. 

Others, notably birds such as warblers and some raptors, undertake much longer-distance migrations, wintering in the tropics while breeding in far-away temperate regions.

Manu National Park in Peru, where I have long worked, also has its share of migrators, along with being one of the most biologically stunning places on Earth.  Certain fish, birds, and mammals at Manu appear to move large distances during the course of the year. 

But as we begin to learn more about these migratory species, we increasingly suspect they could be vulnerable to escalating human pressures in this region.

Growing pressures

For instance, just downstream of Manu, on the Madre de Dios River, huge areas of river and riparian forest are being devastated by illegal gold mining.  Among these impacts is contamination of the rivers by toxic mercury, which is used by miners to separate gold from river sediments.

An illegal gold miner scours the forest soil  (photo by William Laurance)

An illegal gold miner scours the forest soil (photo by William Laurance)

Since 2010, biologists at Cocha Cashu Biological Station at Manu have used cutting-edge satellite telemetry to track some of the park’s rare and endangered birds -- many of which are very poorly known.  One key reason to do this is to learn where these species go when they move outside the park, where they may be highly vulnerable.

In a new study, I and my colleagues report our research on Black Skimmers (Rynchops niger), an elegant bird that skims over water surfaces while flying, in order to catch unwary fish.  To do this it uses its uniquely elongated lower beak, which it drags through the water and which instantly snaps shut when it contacts a fish. 

We found that Skimmers tagged in Manu move extremely long distances both during and outside their breeding season. 

A Black Skimmer feeds its chick

A Black Skimmer feeds its chick

'Albatrosses of the Amazon'

I would liken our Black Skimmers to “Albatrosses of the Amazon" -- they fly surprisingly long distances, even in the breeding season, and seem to soar effortlessly. 

We found that some Black Skimmers move not only to other watersheds in Peru but even to other nations, including Brazil and Bolivia, during their breeding season.  Unfortunately, some of these areas are being severely degraded by illegal gold mining. 

Remarkably, some of the birds tagged inside Manu even crossed the Peruvian Andes -- flying above 5,000 meters in altitude to cross the towering Andes mountains -- in order to spend their non-breeding season along the Pacific coasts of Peru and Chile. 

But the Skimmers face hazards on the Pacific coast as well.  Many of the natural wetlands they need for feeding are being severely depleted by the extraction of freshwater for agriculture

Some Skimmers may go even farther afield.  One bird radio-tagged in Manu moved not to the Pacific but southeast to Bolivia and then even further to Paraguay.  Its transmitter stopped at that point but it may have been heading to Argentina’s Atlantic coast, where large numbers of Skimmers are known to summer.

New threats on the horizon

With rising development pressures, threats to large-distance migrators like Black Skimmers will only increase.  Both Peru and Brazil plan to dramatically increasing the damming of wild rivers in the Amazon and Andean headwaters.   Agriculture and mining activities are also expanding apace.

Scores of new dams are being planned (yellow) in the Amazon-Andes region (blue symbols indicate existing dams).

Scores of new dams are being planned (yellow) in the Amazon-Andes region (blue symbols indicate existing dams).

Species that need freshwater for survival and migration, and the ecological processes that sustain such species, will be intensely vulnerable

The recent collapse of a poorly constructed mining dam on the Doce River in Brazil devastated aquatic wildlife across a vast area that stretched for more than 500 kilometers to the sea. 

The lax environmental standards that allowed this catastrophe to occur should give us all pause, as we consider the avalanche of new development projects slated for the greater Amazon region.

Especially alarming is how little we know about the ecology of the Amazon and its many natural denizens -- some of which evidently traverse and require vast areas of habitat for survival.

 

Growing blight on the Amazon rainforest

Moonscape. 

That's the term that springs to mind when one sees this growing scourge across the Amazon.

Death knell to rainforests  (image by Greg Asner)

Death knell to rainforests (image by Greg Asner)

In Peru.  In the Guianas.  In Brazil's Amazonian states of Amapá and Pará.

The blight is illegal gold mining, and it's imperiling ever-greater swaths of the world's greatest rainforest.

ALERT has reported on illegal gold mining in the world's rainforests before -- see here, here, and here -- but it is a story worth repeating, because it is an environmental crisis that continues to escalate.  In Peru, for example, the pace of forest destruction from illegal mining has tripled since 2008.

In the Amazon, as elsewhere, gold mining doesn't just threaten rainforests.  It is a severe threat to aquatic ecosystems, drowning streams and rivers with dense sediments and toxic mercury. 

The mercury builds up in aquatic food chains -- increasing from aquatic plants to small animals to fish to larger predators -- with some Amazonian people now having 14 times the accepted level of mercury in their bloodstreams. 

As gold mining expands, so does its threat to indigenous peoples -- such as the Yanomami tribes in northern Brazil, the Kayapo people in the southern Brazilian Amazon, and many other remote tribes in Peruvian Amazonia.

Amazon moonscape

Amazon moonscape

Few areas are safe.  Miners have invaded many Amazonian parks and indigenous reserves, poached wildlife, corrupted indigenous peoples, spread infectious diseases such as AIDS and malaria, and murdered park guards

There are some who characterize small-scale illegal gold mining as 'artisanal' and relatively benign environmentally -- but don't be fooled.  It's impacts on rainforests and native peoples like those in the Amazon are severe and growing rapidly.

 

New technologies allow real-time monitoring of rampant forest destruction

New high-tech methods are giving scientists and conservationists a fighting chance to detect illegal deforestation -- before it's too late to save imperiled forests.  Here, Matt Finer, a researcher who's long worked in the western Amazon and Andes, tells us about his efforts to map the array of growing threats to the forests of Peru.

Imperiled primates in Peru

Imperiled primates in Peru

The Andean Amazon still has large tracts of mega-diverse, carbon-rich, and relatively intact tropical forest, making it one of the top conservation priorities in the world. However, the array of threats facing the region is rapidly growing.

A key problem hindering conservation and management efforts in the Andean Amazon is a lack of near real-time deforestation information. In recent years, we've seen major advances in tracking deforestation, but this information is often given to authorities far too late for enforcement action.

Two new satellite-based monitoring systems, Global Forest Watch and Terra-i, have made major strides towards real-time deforestation monitoring.

However, these systems, which are global-scale and based on moderate-resolution (250-500 meter) satellite data, often need further analysis to be relevant for Amazonian conservation.

The organization I work with, the Amazon Conservation Association (ACA), is using Landsat imagery (with 30-meter resolution) and special software (known as CLASlite) to rapidly detect forest loss.

ACA recently launched a new web portal, known as MAAP -- the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project -- to make our results widely available. We're focusing initially on the Peruvian Amazon, with plans to expand to Bolivia and Ecuador.

Three of our reports (Images #1, #5, and #6) focus on the spread of illegal gold mining in the Madre de Dios region of Peru. Notably, we found deforestation encroaching into the buffer zone of Tambopata National Reserve and entering the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve.

Red, black, and yellow areas show the growing threat of illegal gold mining

Red, black, and yellow areas show the growing threat of illegal gold mining

Images #2 and #9 map a so-called “sustainable” cacao operation that is actually clearing expanses of primary forest. The focus of an ALERT campaign, the legality of this deforestation is highly questionable.

Images #3 and #7 show that we can detect new logging roads. This is vital because illegal logging is challenging to detect with satellite imagery. But now we can readily find logging roads and point authorities to where illegal loggers are likely active.

Image #8 shows how Landsat and high-resolution imagery can be combined to map a new illegal coca plantation, in this case deep within the proposed Sierra del Divisor National Park.

Finally, Image #4 reveals a rapidly emerging threat, oil palm. Oil palm has caused major impacts in Southeast Asia and is quickly expanding in central and northern Peru.

In the near future, MAAP will continue tracking deforestation in the Andean Amazon while aiming to promote better law enforcement and policies to reduce illegal forest loss.

To receive our reports, just email us (maap@amazonconservation.org) with the word "Subscribe" in the subject line.

MAAP is a groundbreaking effort to shine a light on environmentally irreplaceable areas where illegal loggers, miners, and forest destroyers are running rampant.  Please help us to save some of the world's most biologically rich and imperiled ecosystems!

China to punch 5,000-kilometer railroad through the Amazon

Environmentalists are howling about China's US$30 billion plan to drive a major railroad right across South America -- cutting through imperiled environments such as the Brazilian Atlantic rainforest, the Cerrado, the southwestern Amazon, and the Andes Mountain Range.

Train trouble dead ahead

Train trouble dead ahead

The railroad, which will be 5,300 kilometers long in total, will begin at Rio de Janeiro on Brazil's Atlantic coast and terminate at the Pacific Ocean.

The trans-Amazonian railway was announced by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who is expected to unveil billions in other investments and trade deals during an eight-day South American tour.  In addition to Brazil, China is targeting Peru, Colombia, and Chile during this trip.

The rail line will be designed to increase exports such as soy, iron ore, and timber to China.  Conservationists and scientists are expressing fears about its potential to open up large swaths of virgin forest and indigenous peoples to large-scale development pressures.

"This massive project could be the death knell for a significant fraction of South American biodiversity and a knife to the heart of the Amazon’s hydrological cycle," said ALERT member Thomas Lovejoy, a former environmental advisor to three U.S. presidents.

The route will cut across South America's most biologically diverse environments.

The route will cut across South America's most biologically diverse environments.

China is also promoting other major infrastructure projects in Latin America, including a massive canal through Nicaragua and a railway across Colombia. 

Informed observers expect heated resistance to the Trans-Amazon Railroad from environmental and indigenous-rights advocates. 

Fortunately, not all mega-projects like this come to pass, though many do.  Let's fervently hope this is one that never gets off the drawing board.

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.”

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.

 

Illegal loggers murder Peruvian forest campaigner

Illegal logging isn't just an environmental crime; sometimes it's a crime against people too.

Pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth...

Pardon me, thou bleeding piece of earth...

In Peru, authorities say prominent forest campaigner Edwin Chota was murdered by illegal loggers, along with three other men.  They were shot in front of their fellow villagers.

The murdered men were all members of the indigenous Asheninka tribe, which lives in the remote Peruvian Amazon near its border with Brazil.  

Chota, a community leader in the Ucayali region, fought to expel illegal loggers who raided their forests.  He was well known internationally, having been featured in reports by National Geographic and the New York Times

Chota had received a number of death threats from the loggers he fought, and had repeatedly asked for protection from the Peruvian authorities.

A local indigenous leader told a newspaper that illegal loggers bound and shot Chota and his companions in their village in front of its inhabitants.  He said the loggers were seeking revenge after having been reported to the authorities.

According to The Guardian, Chota's widow and other villagers had to travel for six days by river to report the crime to authorities. 

A leader with Peru’s largest indigenous federation, Aidesep, called on the Peruvian government to do more to protect indigenous people from criminal mafias.  “These logging mafias can kill our brothers with impunity,” he told The Guardian.

A 2012 World Bank report -- which you can download free here -- estimated that as much as 80% of Peru’s logging exports are harvested illegally. 

Globally, illegal logging is thought to cost developing nations around $15 billion in direly needed revenues annually.  This figure approaches $60 billion annually if the environmental costs of illegal logging are included.

Illegal logging is increasingly dominated by large criminal gangs or mafias, some of which do not hesitate to assassinate those who stand in their way. 

In recent years scores of forest guards, campaigners, and concerned citizens have fallen. 

 

'Blood gold': Illegal miners devastating rainforests

How bad a threat is illegal gold mining to the world's rainforests? 

Mining moonscape in Sumatra, Indonesia  (photo by William Laurance)

Mining moonscape in Sumatra, Indonesia (photo by William Laurance)

Have a look at these four short videos of illegal mining in the Brazilian Amazon, Peru, Ghana, and Indonesia.  They clearly show the devastation wrought by illegal miners.

Alarming videos like these raise several issues:

- Widespread invasions of the world's shrinking wildernesses illustrate how rapid population growth and poverty conspire to imperil natural environments and indigenous peoples

- A key impetus for rampant illegal (and legal) mining is the rising price of gold

- Illegal mining is often an organized criminal activity that has much wider corrupting influences on societies

- Increased enforcement is direly needed to protect parks, wilderness areas, and indigenous lands from illegal mining 

- Government officials can be pressured to focus effort on enforcement if the public knows about -- and decries -- the illegal mining crisis

In recent years we've heard often about the severe social and environmental costs of 'blood diamonds' and 'blood ivory'.  Clearly, it's time we started talking about 'blood gold' as well.

 

Illegal logging still a scourge for forests globally

Some people with very loud voices are trying to play down the importance of illegal logging.

There's really nothing to worry about...

There's really nothing to worry about...

Among these are the lobbyist Alan Oxley, who's on the payroll of big international timber companies; and the Tony Abbott government, which is trying to sink Australia's hard-won illegal logging legislation

But even a cursory look shows that illegal logging is still at appalling levels in many developing nations: 

- Nearly 90 percent of the timber extracted from the Democratic Republic of Congo is illegal, according to a report from the respected UK think-tank Chatham House, a recognized authority on the illegal logging issue.

- In the Peruvian Amazon, illegal logging has been described as a "crisis" in a recent scientific analysis led by Matt Finer and Clinton Jenkins.  They found evidence of major violations in 68 percent of the timber concessions they assessed.  The Peruvian government has already cancelled 30 percent of its concessions because of rampant illegal activities. 

- In Indonesia, the Anti Forest-Mafia Coalition, an alliance of local environmental groups, has decried the ease with which anti-illegal-logging rules are being circumvented.  Indonesia's timber-certification system is so loose, the group declared, that it is "nearly impossible" for companies to fail to be certified. 

These are merely a sampling of stories that have appeared in the last ten days. 

In reality, illegal logging imperils forests, promotes criminal activities, and steals market share from legitimate timber producers.  It also defrauds developing nations of around $15 billion annually in direly needed revenues, and its toll approaches $100 billion annually if its environmental impacts are included.

The bottom line: Don't let anyone tell you illegal logging isn't a massive problem, or that we shouldn't be working hard to combat it. 

The blight of illegal gold mining

If you want a shock, take 30 seconds to watch this video--filmed from a airplane flying over the Peruvian Amazon.  The narration is in Spanish but it won't matter...

Gouging the earth for gold... illegal miner in Suriname (photo by William Laurance)

Gouging the earth for gold... illegal miner in Suriname (photo by William Laurance)

if this were just happening in Peru it'd be one thing, but 'blood gold' has turned into a global crisis.  Especially in developing nations, the combination of high gold prices and too many poor people is creating almost unstoppable pressures for miners to invade parks, wildernesses, and anywhere else that alluvial gold occurs.

Mining moonscape... illegal gold mining in Sumatra, Indonesia (photo by William Laurance)

Mining moonscape... illegal gold mining in Sumatra, Indonesia (photo by William Laurance)

Completely unregulated, the environmental impacts of illegal mining are many--destruction of riparian habitats, massive increases in river sediment loads, and toxic mercury pollution among them. 

And that's not to mention the human toll that the miners take on indigenous groups and rural communities trying to survive in areas ravaged by mining, when the fish are gone and the only source of drinking water is now tainted.

The take-home lesson: Too much of the gold we buy comes with a big, hidden price tag...