New report says planned Brazilian development could destroy Amazon

A $40 billion development plan could reduce the size of pristine forest to less than 5%, with 42% of the region either totally deforested or heavily degraded by the year 2020.

A new report compiled by scientists from four research centres, and published in 19 January’s edition of the journal Science, has painted a grimmer picture of the Brazilian lions share of the world’s largest rainforest ecosystem, containing about 40% of world tropical forest. The report’s authors say that it is one of the first to look at the wider range of causes of devastation, ranging from population growth to economic policies, pipeline construction, roads, power lines, an influx of multi-national timber companies, slash-and-burn farming, ranching, mining and oil exploration.

Researchers from Oregan State University, the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, Michigan State University, and National Institute for Amazonian Research projected the real impact of these causes on the Amazon landscape 20 years into the future, taking into account the Brazilian government’s $40 billion ‘Advance Brazil’ development plan. The plan is predicted to lead to “an onslaught of highways, railroads, hydroelectric projects and burgeoning population”. Two models, one more optimistic, and the other less so, were developed to assess the future impacts of current trends.

Under the less optimistic scenario, less than 5% of the land will survive as pristine forest, and 42% of the region will either be totally deforested or heavily degraded by the year 2020. The rate of forest destruction is now almost 7,800 square miles (20,000 sq km) per year, the highest in the world, says the report. As a result of the planned highways and infrastructure projects during the next 20 years, that rate is expected to increase more than 25% per year under the least optimistic scenario, and about 14% even under the most favourable scenario.

The researchers found that non-indigenous populations in the Brazilian Amazon have increased about 10-fold since the 1960s, from two million people to 20 million. Roads that once were more confined to the perimeter of the forest are now penetrating the heart of the basin, and the many land uses made possible by these roads are destroying the forests. Key environmental agencies in Brazil are largely excluded from involvement in planning the seven-year $40 billion programme. The research team came to its conclusions after studying development patterns in Brazil in recent decades via satellite data and then projecting these trends to assess the future impacts of current plans.

“Part of what’s important about this report is we tried to tie together a lot of different components that often are not considered, but have long-term impacts on land use,” said Scott Bergen, a forest scientist at Oregon State University and co-author of the report. “The ultimate conclusion is that despite the best efforts of many people and hundreds of millions of dollars being spent on conservation, the rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon has not decreased and in some places in still increasing.”

However, it is not too late to pursue a solution, the researchers say. One possible option is cash payments for ‘carbon credits’ available under the Kyoto Protocol, which might provide up to $2 billion per year to Brazil while keeping the Amazon forests intact. Moreover, Brazil must also consider the benefits of intact forests for reducing floods, conserving soils, maintaining stable regional climates, preserving biodiversity and supporting both local populations and ecotourism, the report says. Agricultural land in Brazil could also be used intensively rather than extensively, favouring high-value agroforestry and perennial crops over fire-maintained cattle pastures and slash-and-burn farming plots.

“Such a model is very unlikely to develop, however,” the report says. “When land is cheap, destructive wildfires are common, and vast new frontiers are being continually opened for colonisation.”

“Unfortunately, there is little government control in the Amazonian frontier,” said William Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama. “Illegal logging and land-clearing are rampant. New roads that cut into the frontier almost always initiate a process of spontaneous colonisation, logging, hunting and land speculation that is almost impossible to stop. The only way to control these processes is to control where the roads are located.”

The report comes just as the Brazilian government was begging to inspire some confidence in its efforts to protect the rainforest. It has enforced massive fines for illegal logging, begun construction of a new radar surveillance system able to track deforestation (see related story) and has started to take taken control of land totalling the size of France and Spain, which is illegally occupied or sold (see related story).

In response to the report, the Brazilian Ministry of Science and Technology said that its National Institute for Amazonian Research did not participate in the research and called the report’s projections “not credible under any form of consistent methodology”. The Ministry says that even assuming no further progress in deforestation were made, the maximum rate of loss would correspond to the study’s most optimistic scenario, and that the pessimistic one is fabricated. It affirms that government efforts will further lower current levels of deforestation.

A new UN report has confirmed that the rate of global deforestation is declining (see story in this week’s bulletin.)

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