The loss of the Amazon

. Jun 05, 2019
amazon forest

As today is World Environment Day, The Brazilian Report is republishing a study by the Amazonian Georeferenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG), mapping the pressures and threats faced by the Amazon forest region. This is the third part of the series, focusing on deforestation. The other parts, covering transport infrastructure and extractive industries, can be found here and here.

The Pan-Amazonia region is suffering serious impacts. With investments in infrastructure, there is degradation of forest ecosystems as a consequence of deforestation. But this is not the only parameter. Non-forest ecosystems experience loss of endemic species, replacement of their original vegetation by invasive species or by species resistant to fire. Or again, there is impoverishment caused by the establishment of unnatural savanna ecosystems, resulting from changes in the ecological processes linked to alterations in hydrological systems.

</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Indigenous territories and protected natural areas remain the main barriers that guarantee the protection of forest ecosystems and the biological and cultural diversity found in these. In all, protected areas and indigenous territories represent 390 million hectares in the Amazon. This means that 46 percent of the 847 million hectares of Amazonian territory are occupied by protected natural areas or indigenous territories. </span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Deforestation in indigenous territories and protected areas remains small in absolute terms and is concentrated in critical regions. However, there is an accelerating trend of biodiversity loss. This process is accompanied by an increase in violence against indigenous peoples. As a recent investigation of 1,356 acts of threats and killings of Latin American environmental leaders showed, 56 percent of these episodes of violence (761 records) occurred against members of minorities, demonstrating that indigenous and Afro-descendant territories are especially vulnerable to such criminal action.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">According to the latest RAISG maps, 10.3 million hectares of protected natural areas and indigenous territories were directly affected by deforestation between 2000 and 2015, amounting to 12 percent of the Amazon region.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The results are a warning for the protection of the biome, as highlighted by a study by Thomas Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre published in the journal Science in 2018. According to the authors, the sum of the impacts of deforestation, climate change and forest fires will lead to an inflection point (or point of no return) for the Amazonia system. That is, once deforestation reaches 20 to 25 percent of the biome there will be irreversible consequences for the non-forest ecosystems of southern and central Amazon. This model considered the Amazon basin without the inclusion of parts of the Orinoco, Araguaia and Tocantins basins and of the North Atlantic and coastal areas.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In the Bolivian Amazon, as has been happening for more than a decade, there is a development model based on land use conversion. That is, the country is transforming its high landscape and forestry potential into a model based on the expansion of agriculture and livestock, unsustainable because of low incomes and poor economic returns.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The analysis of the Fundación Amigos de la Naturaleza (FAN) for the period 2005–2018 shows that 88 percent of burnings and forest fires in Bolivia are concentrated in the Amazon region, affecting more than 18.7 million hectares, with the ecosystems most impacted being natural grasslands, comprising savannas and cerrados (70 percent) and, to a lesser degree (30 percent), forest areas.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The 2010 events in Bolivia, where fires associated with drought affected more than 8.5 million hectares in the Amazon Basin, were considered to have been the greatest in magnitude and impact.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Due to the lack of preventive measures, fires started to clear plots for crops or livestock tend to get out of control and affect, on average, more than 4 million hectares. In addition to human action, the intensification and spread of burning and wildfires are closely related to extreme climatic conditions, such as drought.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The overview of the Colombian Amazon reveals high deforestation, an increase in illicit crops and the presence of forest fires. In addition, in the National Development Plan, the current government has decided that there will be no change in its deforestation goal relative to the previous government&#8217;s four-year administration. That is to say, the destruction of 215,000 hectares of forest per year will be allowed at the national level, of which 72 percent will be from the Amazon region. There is thus a green light for economic development projects previously not allowed in this region of Colombia.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In Brazil, during the electoral period (August to November 2018), deforestation in the Amazon doubled compared to the same period of the previous year, reaching 1.4 million hectares of forest loss. Specifically, deforestation detected in November 2018 was four times greater than in November 2017. This scenario of threats and intensification of deforestation continued after the elections. In January 2019, the Amazon region (Amazonia Legal) lost 10,800 hectares of forest, an increase of 54 percent over the same period the previous year, according to data released by the Instituto do Homem e Meio Ambiente da Amazonia (Imazon). Of this deforestation recorded in January 2019, 12 percent occurred in indigenous territories and 5 percent in protected areas.</span></p> <h2>The search for justice</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In light of the worrying picture of the threats and pressures they face, the ancestral communities that traditionally occupy the Pan-Amazonia region are fighting for their rights to be recognized and respected.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Indigenous peoples are not immune from the polarized political reality that has developed in Venezuela since 2002. Despite this situation however, the indigenous movement has managed to position itself in a series of openings in political participation for the self-demarcation of its territories, the consolidation of a legal framework of autonomy and the defence of indigenous rights, as well as cultural self-determination. Notwithstanding these achievements, in 2018 many public policies lost their initial impulse, confirming the paralysis of processes of demarcation of indigenous lands and habitats.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In Ecuador, the exploration, transport and refining of oil represented in the past the &#8220;ethnocide of ancestral groups such as the Tetete, forced displacement and acculturation through forced assimilation of other peoples belonging to linguistic groups such as Tukano (Siona Sequoias), Barbacoa (Cofán) and Waorani.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">This year the Waorani have filed a constitutional complaint to halt a government plan to explore oil in the Amazon, by which they intend to keep around 180,000 hectares of their ancestral territory in the northern part of Pastaza free of oil-related activities. They demand recognition of their rights and compensation for damages suffered since 2012, when the State offered part of their land for oil extraction. The lawsuit resulted in a ruling favourable to the communities; one that can act as a legal precedent in favour of free and informed prior consultation and self-determination of peoples.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">Another decision in Ecuador in October 2018 withdrew support for 52 mining concessions granted by the state in the province of Sucumbios, as the Provincial Court accepted evidence of <a href="">environmental impacts</a> offered as part of a plea for protection of their resources submitted by the A&#8217;i Cofán Sinangoe community, which accuses the government of failing to consult and of endangering their rights to water, the environment and their territory.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In Peru, the Awajún-Wampis demand state intervention to stop the illegal gold mining that is devastating the Cordillera del Condor, ancestral territory of these peoples and for which they had agreed in 2005 to the creation of a National Park. By a unilateral decision of the State, part of this territory was excluded from the national park and granted for mining. Subsequently, the licenses were revoked, but miners continued to operate illegally.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In respect of the frequent oil spills that have occurred in the Peruvian Amazon in recent years, which have a direct impact on the water sources and food security of the local population, which mostly comprises indigenous communities, they are demanding that the State honour its commitment to provide environmental remediation, potable water services and specialized medical care.</span></p> <h2>Economic model</h2> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In the Amazonian countries, most foreign investments are devoted to extractive activities, thereby confirming that the integration of Amazoniaian economies into the global market will occur through trade in natural resources and high dependence on commodity price fluctuations</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">One example of this is Ecuador, where the Central Bank recorded a total of USD 1.4 billion in foreign direct investment in 2018, of which 53 percent went to large-scale mining projects. However, these extractive projects are rejected by the population. In 2018 Lenin Moreno&#8217;s government held a referendum on the expansion of protection of Yasuni National Park (which, together with the Waorani territory and the Intangible Zone, home to indigenous peoples in voluntary isolation, form part of the Yasuni Biosphere Reserve); 67.31 percent of voters agreed to increase the intangible area by at least 50,000 hectares and to reduce the area of ​​oil exploration in Yasuni National Park from the 1,030 hectares authorized by the National Assembly to 300 hectares.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The evidence provided in this report reveals that the environmental impacts of social and economic development based on extraction and ecosystem conversion are being underestimated, as in the long run the damage is more costly than the revenues that countries receive. Governments, both locally and nationally, are weakening environmental protection agencies. In addition, recent episodes of widespread corruption in the infrastructure sector in Latin America have created a situation of almost total lack of commitment by countries to an agenda for sustainable development.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">In Brazil, the proposals of the new government which took office in 2019 tend to aggravate the situation because its policies on indigenous peoples and their lands are similar to those of the military dictatorship that ruled the country between 1964 and 1985, when thousands of indigenous people were killed and thousands more were driven from their lands as a result of major infrastructure projects. These proposals imply cuts in government funding available to meet indigenous demands, policy reversals and reduced environmental control operations, freezing of demarcations by the federal government, and even several demonstrations in favour of opening up mining territories. Infrastructure projects implemented in the Amazon during the last decade, under the argument of maintaining the energy supply and stimulating the Brazilian economy, are examples of works planned in accordance with sectoral interests to the detriment of local needs.</span></p> <p><span style="font-weight: 400;">The <a href="">Amazon</a> is at a crossroads. The nine countries that comprise the region have the most biodiverse tropical forest and the largest freshwater reserves on the planet. But its rulers, government policies, and economic interests are driving it to exhaustion. The last refuges for unique species are in protected areas and indigenous territories. Scientists are already talking about the imminence of a point of no return, where the contributions of nature to human well-being—water, clean air, climate regulation, natural resources—will no longer be provided by the biome. Are we about to reach this point?

Gustavo Faleiros

Gustavo Faleiros is a journalist who specializes in geojournalism. In 2012, he launched InfoAmazonia, a digital news platform that uses satellite and other publicly available data to monitor information from nine countries of the Amazon rainforest.

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