Smithsonian researchers show Amazonian deforestation accelerating

January 14, 2002

A research team of U.S. and Brazilian scientists has provided compelling evidence that rates of forest destruction in the Brazilian Amazon have accelerated over the last decade.

The team, led by William Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, analyzed deforestation estimates produced by Brazil's National Space Agency that were based on detailed satellite images of the Amazon since 1978.

Contrary to the claims of the Brazilian government that threats to Amazonian forests have fallen in recent years because of improved environmental laws and public attitudes, the Smithsonian team asserts that rates of deforestation have risen sharply since 1995.

"Forest destruction from 1995 to 2000 averaged almost two million hectares a year," said Laurance. "That's equivalent to seven football field a minute, and it's comparable to the bad old days in the 1970s and 1980s, when forest loss in the Amazon was catastrophic."

The research team's findings are important because the Brazilian government plans to invest over $40 billion in new highways, railroads, hydroelectric reservoirs, power lines, and gas lines in the Amazon over the next few years. About 5000 miles of highways will be paved. The government claims that these projects will have only limited effects on the Amazon.

But the research team disputes these assertions. "There's no way you can criss-cross the basin with all these giant transportation and energy projects and not have a tremendous impact on the Amazon," says Laurance. "When you build a new road in the frontier, you almost always initiate large-scale forest invasions by loggers, hunters, and slash-and-burn farmers."

Although new environmental laws in Brazil are designed to slow forest loss, the research team claims that most laws are rarely enforced. That, in concert with a rapidly growing population and dramatically expanding logging and mining industries, means that threats to Amazonian forests are growing.

"The scariest thing is that many of the highways and infrastructure projects will penetrate right into the pristine heart of the Amazon," says Laurance. "That could increase forest loss and fragmentation on an unprecedented scale."
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The team's findings are described in a paper that just appeared in the journal Environmental Conservation (William F. Laurance, Ana K. M. Albernaz, and Carlos Da Costa. 2001. Is deforestation accelerating in the Brazilian Amazon? Environmental Conservation 28:305-311).

Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute

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