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.




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.