Amazonia Deforestation to Escalate Due to Infrastructure Plans

Forest Networking a Project of Forests.org, Inc.

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May 21, 2004
OVERVIEW & COMMENTARY by Glen Barry, Ph.D., Forests.org

The future of the Amazon rainforest is critically threatened by expanded infrastructure development that dramatically increases physical access to the Amazonian frontier. Rainforest loss and diminishment in the Amazon impacts the well-being and ecological sustainability of local peoples, Brazilians and all citizens of the World. Below is an update from Science magazine regarding the threats posed by new roads and other infrastructure development plans in the heart of the Amazon. Forests.org has been instrumental in bringing these scientific findings to a wider audience, and advocating for cancellation of the ill-conceived development plans.

In 2002 and 2003, the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon climbed to nearly 2.4 million hectares per year, driven by land speculation along the routes of new roads, cattle ranching, and soybean farming. This equals 11 football fields a minute. While the Brazilian government has stepped up satellite monitoring and involved additional ministries to address deforestation, they have steadfastly refused to cancel or significantly revise the large-scale infrastructure development plans predicted to eliminate the Amazon's large, intact and unfragmented rainforest expanses.

All governments have a profound responsibility to protect, conserve and restore natural habitats sufficient to maintain ecosystems and their species. No ecology, no economy or anything else. Given its jurisdiction over the Amazon, the Brazilian government and people are sacredly obligated to safeguard this global ecological engine - stewardship they are failing to provide. I concur with the leading rainforest scientists below, that by failing to "curtail its aggressive plans for infrastructure expansion, Brazil will fail to address one of the most critical root causes of Amazonian deforestation." Loss of the Amazon as an operable, non-fragmented whole will severely biologically impoverish the Earth - and contribute significantly to the possibility of global ecological Armageddon. Brazil and the World need an intact Amazon to live well and prosper. g.b.

Deforestation in Amazonia
Source: Copyright 2004, Science, Vol 304, Issue 5674, 1109-1111 Date: May 21, 2004

In recent years, we and others have identified critical threats posed to the forests of Amazonia by the Brazilian government's plans to
dramatically expand highways and other major infrastructure projects in the region (1-6). Our conclusions have been disputed by elements of the Brazilian government (7-10), which assert that a key assumption of our spatial models--that new roads and highways will continue to promote large-scale Amazonian deforestation, as they have done in the past--no longer applies. This is so, they argue, because of improvements in frontier governance and environmental-law enforcement, as well as changes in Brazilian public attitudes toward forests (7-10). As a consequence, the Brazilian government is proceeding with the largest expansion of highways, roads, power lines, gas lines, hydroelectric reservoirs, railroads, and river-channelization projects in the history of the Amazon (1-6).

In 2002 and 2003, the rate of deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia climbed to nearly 2.4 million hectares per year (see figure)--equivalent to 11 football fields a minute. This increase mostly resulted from rapid destruction of seasonal forest types in the southern and eastern parts of the basin; relative to preceding years (1990-2001), forest loss shot up by 48% in the states of Pará, Rondônia, Mato Grosso, and Acre (11). The increase was evidently driven by rising deforestation and land speculation along new highways and planned highway routes (12), and the dramatic growth of Amazonian cattle ranching (13) and industrial soybean farming (6, 14). Soybean farms promote some forest clearing directly, but have a much greater impact on deforestation by consuming cleared land, savanna, and ecotonal forests, thereby pushing ranchers and slash-and-burn farmers ever deeper into the forest frontier. Equally important, soybean farming provides a key economic and political impetus for massive infrastructure projects, which accelerate deforestation by other actors (6, 14).

Anticipating public alarm about the new deforestation figures, the Brazilian government recently announced new measures designed to slow Amazon forest loss. These measures include increased satellite monitoring of deforestation and the involvement of additional ministries--not just the Ministry of Environment--in efforts to reduce illegal deforestation and forest burning (12). These measures, in concert with the establishment of new protected or multiple-use areas in Amapa, Amazonas, and Acre, are a move in the right direction.

The new measures do not go far enough, however. They fail to address one of the most critical drivers of forest destruction: the rapid proliferation of new highways and other infrastructure, which greatly increases physical access to the Amazonian frontier. The Brazilian government plans to create interministerial working groups to recommend ways to reduce or mitigate project impacts, but is not considering the cancellation or significant delay of any major project. Indeed, just days after announcing the new anti-deforestation package, Brazilian President Lula demanded that his federal ministers find ways to circumvent environmental and other impediments to stalled infrastructure projects throughout the country, including 18 hydroelectric dams and 10,000 km of highways (15).

In the Amazon, new transportation projects frequently lead to a dramatic rise in illegal deforestation, logging, mining, and hunting activities (1-6). If Brazil criss-crosses the basin with thousands of kilometers of such projects, the net result, our models suggest, will be not only further increases in forest destruction, but fragmentation of surviving forests on an unprecedented spatial scale (1, 5). Many of the government's recently announced measures to slow forest loss are positive steps, but if it does not curtail its aggressive plans for infrastructure expansion, Brazil will fail to address one of the most critical root causes of Amazonian deforestation.

William F. Laurance,*
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute,
Apartado 2072,

Ana K. M. Albernaz,
Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi,
Avenida Perimetral 190,
Belém, PA 66077-530,

Philip M. Fearnside,
Departamento de Ecologia,
Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia,
C.P. 478,
AM 69011-970,

Heraldo L. Vasconcelos,
Instituto de Biologia,
Universidade Federal de Uberlândia,
C.P. 593, Uberlândia,
MG 38400-902,

Leandro V. Ferreira
Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi,
Avenida Perimetral 190,
Belém, PA 66077-530,

*To whom correspondence should be addressed.
E-mail: laurancew@tivoli.si.edu

References and Notes

1. W. F. Laurance et al., Science 291, 438 (2001).

2. W. F. Laurance, A. K. M. Albernaz, C. Da Costa, Environ. Conserv. 28, 305 (2001).

3. G. Carvalho, A. C. Barros, P. Moutinho, D. C. Nepstad, Nature 409, 131(2001).

4. D. C. Nepstad et al., Forest Ecol. Manage. 154, 295 (2001).

5. W. F. Laurance et al., J. Biogeogr. 29, 737 (2002).

6. P. M. Fearnside, Environ. Manage. 30, 748 (2002).

7. D. Weber, "Ministério contesta estudo sobre devastação," O Estado de S. Paulo, 21 January 2001.

8. S. S. do Amaral, "Threat to the Amazon," The Independent, 26 January 2001.

9. R. Goidanich, Science dEbates, 26 January 2001
( http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/eletters/291/5503/438 ).

10. J. P. Silveira et al., Science 292, 1651 (2001).

11. The net deforestation rate in these four states increased from 1.43 million ha year-1 from 1990-2001 to 2.12 million ha year-1 in 2002-2003, based on data from the Brazilian National Space Agency
( http://www.inpe.br ). Deforestation data for 2003 are a preliminary estimate.

12. Grupo Permanente de Trabalho Interministerial para a Redução dos Índices de Desmatamento da Amazônia Legal, Plano de Ação para a Prevenção e Controle do Desmatamento da Amazônia Legal (Presidência da República, Casa Civil, Brasília, 2004).

13. D. Kaimowitz, B. Mertens, S. Wunder, P. Pacheco, Hamburger Connection Fuels Amazon Destruction (Tech. Rep., Center for International Forest Research, Bogor, Indonesia, 2004).

14. P. M. Fearnside, Environ. Conserv. 28, 23 (2001).

15. "Lula quer a retomada de obras paralisadas," Amazonas em Tempo (Manaus, Brazil), 21 March 2004.


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