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.




Debate about forest conservation scheme in India

Things are heating up in India.  ALERT member Priya Davidar and her colleague Jean-Philippe Puyravaud provide this perspective on a key conservation issue there.  Their focus is a plan to reconnect fragmented rainforests in the Western Ghats--some of the most biologically important real estate in India.

Prime real estate... rainforests of the Western Ghats (photo by William Laurance)

Prime real estate... rainforests of the Western Ghats (photo by William Laurance)

Davidar and Puyravaud's comments follow:

The BBC article How India is building Asia’s largest secure forest network (20 March 2014) asserts that since 2012, the state of Karnataka has declared nearly 2,600 square kilometers of forests as protected areas, linking a series of national parks in the Western Ghats, a global biodiversity hotspot.  These forests would connect with adjoining forest areas in neighboring states.

We congratulate the Karnataka Forest Department for this initiative, but this information has not been made public in India.  Where there have been initiatives to add forests to the protected-area network, it is not at the scale indicated in the article.  Given the high price of land in India, the suggested plan would cost billions of dollars, far more than the entire budget of India's Ministry of Environment and Forests.

At present, the protected-area “network” in Karnataka is chopped up by highways, pipelines, dams, railroad tracks, and human settlements.  Wild elephants are dying there because they can't access water in the dry season.  Parks and reserves are under enormous pressure from fuelwood harvesting, cattle grazing, pollution, plant invasion, violent fires, poaching, and unmanaged tourism.  In some national parks, the tourism pressure is so high that connectivity within the protected areas themselves is threatened.

Parks under pressure...  fuelwood harvesting in India (photo by William Laurance)

Parks under pressure...  fuelwood harvesting in India (photo by William Laurance)

The BBC article comes at the same time that a proposed high-tension power line would slice through forests in the heart of the “secure forest network”, from Mysore to Kozhikode.  This project would be followed by a four-lane highway and railway line.  Funds have been sanctioned for surveys on these projects without considering alternative routes or proper environmental impact assessments.

The bottom line: Optimism about the proposed Karnataka Corridor needs to be tempered with caution.  These vital forests are far from secure and there are many challenges ahead.

ALERT's efforts to protect rhino reserve gaining traction

ALERT is helping to lead international efforts to protect Chitwan National Park in Nepal from large-scale railroad and roading projects (see 'Heart of the Jungle' blog below).  Chitwan is a global wonder--a World Heritage site that harbors over 700 wildlife species, including a fifth of the world's one-horned rhinoceros.

Chitwan--where the rhinos roam (photo by Grzegorz Mikusinski)

Chitwan--where the rhinos roam (photo by Grzegorz Mikusinski)

We are happy to report our efforts are beginning to gain some momentum:

-ALERT's recent press release on Chitwan was circulated to hundreds of media outlets globally, a number of which published the release or wrote brief stories about it.

- The Ecologist has just published an excellent article on this issue, using information we helped to provide.

- Members of the European Commission we briefed are showing strong interest in the issue, and are considering contacting the Nepalese delegation about it. 

- An online petition to protect Chitwan has just been started at Avaaz.  Please sign the petition and ask your friends and colleagues to do likewise!

This is still very early days and your help is needed.  Please circulate the Avaaz petition and the link for The Ecologist story widely.

ALERT helps lead efforts to protect 'Heart of the Jungle'

In just a two-month period last year, poachers in northern India slaughtered 13 one-horned rhinos--one of the world's most critically endangered species.  It's for this reason that ALERT is helping to lead efforts to protect the most important refuge for one-horned rhinos anywhere--Chitwan National Park in Nepal (see our press release on this issue).

Chitwan: A haven for rhinos--for now.

Chitwan: A haven for rhinos--for now.

In Nepalese, 'Chitwan' means 'Heart of the Jungle', and its name reflects the astonish variety and abundance of wildlife there--over 700 species, including many of the Indian subcontinent's most spectacular animals. 

As a refuge for impressive wildlife, Chitwan really is the Serengeti of Nepal, despite being far smaller than Tanzania's iconic park.  Among its denizens are a fifth of the world's one-horned rhinos.  These animals are highly vulnerable to poachers, who slaughter the animals for their single horn--prized for traditional medicines and as a putative aphrodisiac in parts of Asia.

Unfortunately, the Nepalese and Indian governments are planning to push a major leg of the East-West Railway right through Chitwan, as well as eight feeder roads.  This is despite there being viable alternative routes for the railroad along the park's margins.  It is likely that these projects will increase access to the park for poachers, and might fragment and disrupt the park ecosystem.

Beyond its stunning natural values, Chitwan is important for people too.  It attracts upward of 100,000 tourists each year and helps to sustain around 400 hotels and nature lodges--an important foundation of the regional economy.

ALERT members urge the Nepalese government to take all steps to protect the 'Heart of the Jungle'.