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.

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.

 

Neotropical rainforests under assault from infrastructure & mining

Everywhere you look across Central and South America, native ecosystems are being imperiled by an avalanche of new mining and infrastructure projects. 

Forests under assault in Panama  (photo by William Laurance)

Forests under assault in Panama (photo by William Laurance)

Consider just three examples:

- In Nicaragua, a massive interoceanic canal project threatens vast expanses of rainforest and other ecosystems.  It will imperil 4,000 square kilometers of forest and wetlands, slice across several key nature reserves, and cut through the MesoAmerican Biological Corridor.  This issue is so worrisome that the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation, the world's leading scientific organization devoted to tropical research, issued a special resolution of concern.

- In Brazil, many protected areas are under assault from mining.  A paper just published in the leading journal Science shows that at least 20% of all Brazil´s strictly protected areas and indigenous reserves -- an area larger than the UK and Switzerland combined -- are under consideration for mining projects.  More than 44,000 square kilometers of Brazil's protected areas have been lost to mining and other developments since 2008.

- Across the Amazon basin and Andes, at least 150 major hydroelectric dams have been proposed or are under construction.  These projects will not only flood large expanses of forest but their associated road projects will imperil some of the basin's most remote and biologically important areas.  For instance, it is estimated that 12 dams proposed for the Tapajós River in Brazil would result in nearly 1 million hectares of additional forest loss by 2032.

Who is responsible for this tsunami of forest-destroying projects?  There is no single cause, but China's unquenchable thirst for natural resources, the aggressive Brazilian development bank BNDES, and ambitious regional development schemes such as IIRSA are all leading contributors.

No one wants to halt responsible economic development, but this is a feeding frenzy.  Unless scientists and conservationists have a louder voice, some of the world's most important environments could be lost forever.

 

Agriculture will massively impact the tropics

In a review article that has just appeared in the leading journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, I teamed up with Jeff Sayer and Ken Cassman to assess the impacts of agriculture this century on tropical ecosystems and biodiversity.  It's quite a sweeping review with many important conclusions.

Oil palm: highly profitable and often deadly for tropical forests (photo by Niels Anten).

Oil palm: highly profitable and often deadly for tropical forests (photo by Niels Anten).

Among the biggest concerns are:

- Prospects for dramatic expansion of agriculture in Sub-Saharan Africa and South America

- Great uncertainty in the amount of land that will be converted to agriculture, in order to meet growing global food demands

-The prospects that biofuel production could also impact greatly on native ecosystems and also compete with agriculture

- The likelihood of massive environmental impacts on freshwater ecosystems and water supplies

- Profound challenges ahead in producing enough food to feed the world

Those who wish to have a PDF of the paper can email me directly (bill.laurance@jcu.edu.au).

-Bill Laurance