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.


ALERT confronts US Ambassador about roads

U.S. Ambassador Kenneth M. Quinn loves roads.  He sees them as the salvation for many of the world's ills.

If only we had more roads, he argues in a recent essay in National Geographic Online, then rural communities worldwide would be happier, healthier, and wealthier -- and even less likely to be harassed by extremist groups that prey on isolated communities.

In truth, Ambassador Quinn has a point -- but he is only telling half of the story.  Roads are often good for people but can also be devastating for the environment.  The trick is to decide when roads are environmentally 'good' or 'bad'.

ALERT director Bill Laurance has written an opposing essay in National Geographic Online -- one that tries to bring a bit more balance to the issue of roads.  It's worth two minutes to read this rebuttal.

Laurance argues that roads should generally be avoided in wilderness areas, parks and other protected areas, and places with concentrations of endangered or locally endemic species.

Sadly, roads are expanding explosively today, and far too many roads are 'bad' -- opening a Pandora's Box of environmental problems, such as poaching, illegal deforestation and forest burning, illicit gold mining, and predatory land speculation.

We are living in the most dramatic era of road expansion in human history.  It is estimated that, by 2050, we will have another 25 million kilometers of roads -- enough to encircle the Earth more than 600 times.  Nearly every surviving wilderness area on Earth -- from the Amazon to Siberia, and New Guinea to the Congo Basin -- is under assault from roads. 

From an environmental perspective, we are blazing along a road to ruin

Let's hope that road enthusiasts like Ambassador Quinn start to get the message.  Roads are, at best, a double-edged sword. 

And far too often, the sharp edge of the sword is pointed at nature's throat.

Where should roads go and not go?

Mongabay.com is highlighting our current efforts to devise a 'global road-map' that identifies where on Earth new roads should and should not go.

Roads in intact forests or other frontier areas often open a Pandora's Box of environmental problems, such as increasing deforestation, logging, fires, hunting and illegal mining.

Roads can bring big environmental problems--a logging truck in Borneo (photo by Rhett Butler).

Roads can bring big environmental problems--a logging truck in Borneo (photo by Rhett Butler).

In our analysis, areas that should remain road free have high values for wilderness, biodiversity, carbon storage, and climate regulation.  Protected areas are also priority road-free zones.

Areas that would benefit from new or improved roads include regions that have already been settled but have low agricultural productivity.  In such areas, road improvements can increase access to markets, fertilizers, and farming technologies, raising agricultural production.  As farm production rises, these areas can act as 'magnets' for settlers, drawing them away from vulnerable frontier areas and thereby reducing pressures on native ecosystems.

The global road-map is seen as an urgent priority, as highlighted in a recent Nature paper by myself and Andrew Balmford.  The International Energy Agency estimates that 25 million kilometers of new roads will be added to the Earth by 2050.  Around 90% of these will be in developing nations, which harbor much of Earth's imperiled biodiversity.

-Bill Laurance