Longest-running Amazon rainforest experiment imperiled by colonization
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
July 25, 2007
The Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project, an experiment launched outside the Brazilian city of Manaus more than 25 years, has helped researchers understand the impacts of deforestation and fragmentation on the complex ecology of the world's largest and most biodiverse rainforest: the Amazon. But now a colonization scheme sanctioned by the Brazilian federal agency SUFRAMA threatens to undermine the basis for decades of critical research.
"The stakes are very high," said William Laurance [interview with Laurance] of the Smithsonian Tropical Research (STRI) and a co-author of the paper. "It's not just the fragmentation project that's threatened but also other scientific sites operated by Brazilian and other organizations, as well as critical conservation areas in the region."
Laurance and his colleague Regina Luiz„o of Brazil's National Institute for Amazonian Research warn that hunters have already invaded the area and research camps have been raided and equipment has been stolen. Several study sites were burned by colonists last year.
"There is really not much to be gained economically from these colonization projects, and there is so much to lose," said Thomas Lovejoy, President of the Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment in Washington, D.C., who conceived and helped to establish the fragmentation project more than 25 years ago. "In fact, the results of the science we're doing could be more profitable for Brazil. Intact forests could have great economic value in the long term for the purpose of stabilizing global climate and for conserving biodiversity."
"We appreciate that SUFRAMA is mainly concerned with economic development," said Laurance, "but the economic benefit of the colonization projects is very low. The forest is just being burned to make charcoal or low-quality cattle pasture. And it's a notoriously hard life for the colonists, who struggle to eke out a living in an area with many diseases but far from any medical services."
"We are hoping that SUFRAMA can partner with us to help promote a real vision for sustainable development in the central Amazon," added Luiz„o. "We believe that economic progress can proceed without causing irreversible harm to science and the environment. Our goal is not to confront SUFRAMA, but we are desperate. This is a cry for help."
The Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project
During the late 1970s the Brazilian government was encouraging widespread clearing of rainforest by offering tax incentives to landowners. However, in an area known as the Manaus Free Zone, just north of the Amazonian city of Manaus, the government required that 50 percent of the forest on a developed area must be saved. Lovejoy used this stipulation for his experiment, convincing landowners to leave their required forest patches in neatly cut squares, ranging in size from 2.5 acres (1 hectare) to 2,500 acres (1,000 hectares).
In global studies, larger forest patches lost fewer of their species. Diversity declined but at a rate and to a degree inversely proportional to the size of the patch. In other words, the larger the patch, the more organisms survived and were successful in reproducing. Thus these experiments demonstrated that the area of an ecosystem directly affects biodiversity.
Researchers have used experiments like the Biological Dynamics of Forest Fragments Project to help plan protected areas and conservation strategies. The loss of this Amazon project will be seen by scientists as a significant set back to tropical forest research efforts around the world.
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