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Amazon rainforest in big trouble, says UN

Economic development could doom the Amazon warns a comprehensive new report from the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

The report — titled GEO Amazonia [PDF-21.3MB | ZIP] — is largely a synthesis of previously published research, drawing upon studies by more than 150 experts in the eight countries that share the Amazon.

GEO Amazonia notes that by 2005, accumulated deforestation in Amazonia was 857,666 square kilometers or 17 percent of the region’s original forest cover. Most of the loss has been driven by conversion for cattle pasture, but industrial agriculture and plantations have become increasingly important forms of land use in the region, especially in the Brazilian Amazon. Development has been facilitated by government policies that promote colonization of forest lands as well as infrastructure projects — including a 10-fold increase in roads in the Brazilian Amazon between 1975 and 2005.

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The report warns that deforestation, degradation, and fragmentation are already having ecological impacts, including air pollution, increased incidence of fire, and reduced availability of water and forest resources in some areas. It says that lack of coordinated management has made it difficult to address these problems.

The report devotes an extensive section to the future of Amazonia, including the potential impact of climate change. It appears to rely heavily on a series of studies led by Daniel Nepstad, an ecologist formerly of the Woods Hole Research Institute but now with the Moore Foundation. Nepstad has warned that the interacting impacts of deforestation and climate change could destroy half the Amazon within 20 years.

“Climate change is putting pressure on the Amazonian ecosystems making them more vulnerable,” UNEP said in a statement.

To avoid the worst outcomes from forest loss and climate change, the report calls for Amazon nations to develop a “unified Amazonian environmental vision” and define the region’s role in development.

“Countries sharing this rich yet fragile ecosystem have recently developed strategies for conservation and sustainable development, but they have yet to develop a unified Amazonian environmental vision,” write Achim Steiner, United Nations Under-Secretary General and UNEP Executive Director, and Francisco J. Ruiz, Acting Secretary General of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization in the forward of the report.

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How to save the Amazon rainforest
Environmentalists have long voiced concern over the vanishing Amazon rainforest, but they haven’t been particularly effective at slowing forest loss. In fact, despite the hundreds of millions of dollars in donor funds that have flowed into the region since 2000 and the establishment of more than 100 million hectares of protected areas since 2002, average annual deforestation rates have increased since the 1990s, peaking at 73,785 square kilometers (28,488 square miles) of forest loss between 2002 and 2004. With land prices fast appreciating, cattle ranching and industrial soy farms expanding, and billions of dollars’ worth of new infrastructure projects in the works, development pressure on the Amazon is expected to accelerate. Given these trends, it is apparent that conservation efforts alone will not determine the fate of the Amazon or other rainforests. Some argue that market measures, which value forests for the ecosystem services they provide as well as reward developers for environmental performance, will be the key to saving the Amazon from large-scale destruction. In the end it may be the very markets currently driving deforestation that save forests.

Amazon rainforest damage surges 67% in 2008
The area of rainforest in the process of being deforested — razed but not yet cleared — surged in the Brazilian Amazon during 2008, according to new figures released by Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). The announcement comes shortly after the Brazilian government reported a 4 percent increase in forest clearing for the year. Using an advanced satellite system that tracks changes in vegetation cover INPE found that 24,932 square kilometers of Amazon forest was damaged between August 2007 and July 2008, an increase of 10,017 square kilometers — 67 percent — over the prior year. The figure is in addition to the 11,968 square kilometers of forest that were completely cleared, indicating that at least 36,900 square kilometers of forest were damaged or destroyed during the year. The sum does not include areas that may have been selectively logged for commercial timber.

Future threats to the Amazon rainforest
Between June 2000 and June 2008, more than 150,000 square kilometers of rainforest were cleared in the Brazilian Amazon. While deforestation rates have slowed since 2004, forest loss is expected to continue for the foreseeable future. This is a look at past, current and potential future drivers of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

Half the Amazon rainforest will be lost within 20 years
More than half the Amazon rainforest will be damaged or destroyed within 20 years if deforestation, forest fires, and climate trends continue apace, warns a study published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B. Reviewing recent trends in economic, ecological and climatic processes in Amazonia, Daniel Nepstad and colleagues forecast that 55 percent of Amazon forests will be “cleared, logged, damaged by drought, or burned” in the next 20 years. The damage will release 15-26 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere, adding to a feedback cycle that will worsen both warming and forest degradation in the region. While the projections are bleak, the authors are hopeful that emerging trends could reduce the likelihood of a near-term die-back. These include the growing concern in commodity markets on the environmental performance of ranchers and farmers; greater investment in fire control mechanisms among owners of fire-sensitive investments; emergence of a carbon market for forest-based offsets; and the establishment of protected areas in regions where development is fast-expanding.

55% of the Amazon may be lost by 2030
Cattle ranching, industrial soy farming, and logging are three of the leading drivers of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. As commodity prices continue to rise, driven by surging demand for biofuels and grain for meat production, the economic incentives for developing the Amazon increase. Already the largest exporter of beef and the second largest producer of soy – with the largest expanse of “undeveloped” but arable land of any country – Brazil is well on its way to rivaling the U.S. as the world’s agricultural superpower. The trend towards turning the Amazon into a giant breadbasket seems unstoppable. Nevertheless the decision at the U.N. climate talks in Bali to include “Reducing Emissions From Deforestation and Degradation” (REDD) in future climate treaty negotiations may preempt this fate, says Dr. Daniel Nepstad, a scientist at the Woods Hole Research Institute.

2007 Amazon fires among worst ever
By some measures, forest fires in the Amazon are at near-record levels, according to analysis Brazilian satellite data by A surge in soy and cattle prices may be contributing to an increase in deforestation since last year. Last year environmentalists and the Brazilian government heralded a sharp fall in deforestation rates, the third consecutive annual decline after a peak in 2004. Forest loss in the 2006-2007 season was the lowest since record-keeping began in the late in 1970s. While the government tried to claim credit for the drop, analysts at the time said that commodity prices were a more likely driver of slow down: both cattle and soy prices had declined significantly over the previous months.