Turbulent Times in the Amazon

Sometimes conservation controversies explode so fast in one place that it becomes almost white-hot.

That’s what’s happening right now in the Amazon—with a cyclonic mix of good and bad news.

We summarize here some of the key highlights.

GOOD NEWS

BIG NEW PARK

First, Peru has just declared an expansive new national park in the Amazon. Yaguas National Park encompasses the biologically richest ecosystems on the planet, and will span about 870,000 hectares (nearly 2.2 million acres) along the Putumayo River in northeastern Peru.

The new park sustains two-thirds of Peru’s freshwater fish species as well as thousands of plants, birds, and other fauna.

 From Mongabay.com (2018). From Mongabay.com (2018).

In addition to protecting nature, the park will benefit indigenous residents by helping to limit illegal logging and gold mining—which threaten their health and livelihoods.

ALERT’s John Terborgh, who has conducted research in Peru for over a half-century, heralds the good news but says, “Declaring a park is only the first step. The proof of the pudding will be in its implementation [by the government].”

Fingers crossed for this vital new park.

MEGA-DAMS

Second, in what could become an earth-shaking precedent, Brazil has just backed away from its intensely controversial policy of building giant hydropower dams in the Amazon Basin.

Such dams not only flood large areas of forest—seriously harming biodiversity, generating major greenhouse-gas emissions, and displacing local peoples—but also require networks of new roads for dam construction and maintenance.

By cutting into intact forests, such roads often catalyze sharp increases in forest destruction and degradation—such as fires, illegal mining, poaching, and illicit logging.

The government of Brazilian President Michel Temer—facing possible impeachment for corruption allegations and barely clinging to political power—has traditionally favored the planned mega-dams.  Why the sudden change in policy?

ALERT’s Philip Fearnside, a top Amazon expert, suggests the move has been prompted both by resistance from environmental and indigenous groups, and by the ongoing corruption allegations—particularly those involving hefty government contracts awarded to corporations for dam construction.  Brazil’s suffering economy hasn’t helped either.

Whatever the reason, the Temer government has correctly decided—at least for now—to halt one of the most environmentally dangerous and financially risky policies in the Amazon.

BAD NEWS

ROAD-BUILDING FRENZY

In terms of ‘bad news’, one need look only at the incredible spate of ongoing, planned, and proposed road projects in Amazonia.  If constructed in their entirety, these projects would massively fragment and degrade the world’s largest rainforest.

For example, there is the massive Manaus-Porto Velho Highway (BR-319), which could help to chop the Amazon in half (see this recent ALERT video).

Beyond this, Peru is funding an avalanche of new roads near its border with Brazil.  A recent study suggests these roads, if completed, would lead to the loss of over 270,000 hectares of forest (680,000 acres).

Potentially worse is a proposed highway between Iquitos and Saramiriza in northern Peru—a project that would cut a massive swath through the Peruvian Amazon, including key protected areas and indigenous reserves.

This proposal is not yet funded, but if it proceeds it would be incredibly dangerous environmentally and socially.  Peru’s president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, is formally supporting it, although his own Ministry of Transport does not.

Keep your eyes on the Iquitos-Saramiriza highway—a potential disaster for the Peruvian Amazon.

THE CLOSER ONE LOOKS…

And a final alarm bell: scientists have just learned that deforestation rates in the Brazilian Amazon are much higher than was previously thought.

The European Community’s new Sentinel satellites—which have much better spatial resolution than the U.S. Landsat satellites used for the past several decades—are finding much more destroyed or damaged forests on the ground.

With a more accurate picture, it turns out that the Amazon is in considerably worse shape than we thought before.  Many forests that were formerly assumed to be intact are actually logged or fragmented.

This is important because degraded forests are particularly vulnerable to fire—as evidenced by large areas of damaged forest that are currently aflame in the Amazon.

IN SUMMARY

One could list various other worries—a wild government plan to deforest much of Beni Province in Bolivia, or China’s massive railway scheme that would cut right across South America—but the examples above make the point.

The Amazon is boiling right now, with both good and bad news.  It’s a crucial time for conservationists to raise their game.