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The state of the Amazon: Chapter 1 of “A Perfect Storm”

Meeting of the Waters. Credit: George Amaro.

  • Mongabay has begun publishing a new edition of the book, “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon,” in short installments and in three languages: Spanish, English and Portuguese.
  • Author Timothy J. Killeen is an academic and expert who, since the 1980s, has studied the rainforests of Brazil and Bolivia, where he lived for more than 35 years.
  • Chronicling the efforts of nine Amazonian countries to curb deforestation, this edition provides an overview of the topics most relevant to the conservation of the region’s biodiversity, ecosystem services and Indigenous cultures, as well as a description of the conventional and sustainable development models that are vying for space within the regional economy.
  • Click the “Perfect Storm in the Amazon” link atop this page to see chapters 1-13 as they are published during 2023.

The Amazon, home to the largest tropical forest on the planet, is an irreplaceable natural asset with enormous biodiversity and a critically important component in global carbon and water cycles. The Pan Amazon, which includes the full watershed and the rainforests of the Guiana Shield, is a geopolitical territory spanning nine nations that have been entrusted with the stewardship of its natural resources.

Fifteen years ago, the prospects for conserving this globally important natural asset were very much in doubt. Rampant deforestation driven by multiple social and economic phenomena threatened to transform its landscapes, degrade its aquatic resources and overwhelm its Indigenous communities. Governments pursued construction of large-scale infrastructure projects as they sought to leverage unprecedented demand for global commodities with increased access to international financial markets. The resultant boom in economic activity motivated individuals and corporations to invest in business opportunities in the Amazon that progressively expanded the footprint of modern society. Climate scientists showed how a warmer planet would impact ecosystem function, as well as how a deforested landscape might disrupt moisture flows over the continent. The panorama was grim, and the combination of threats was referred to as A Perfect Storm in the Amazon Wilderness, borrowing a phrase from popular culture that described the destructive synergies between multiple forces of change.

The Pan Amazon includes both the Amazon Ecoregion (green) and the Amazon Basin (blue). The southern boundary reflects Brazilian legislation governing fiscal and regulatory policy referred to as the Legal Amazon (tan). Data source: Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization.

Fortunately, the citizens of the Amazonian nations were aware of the risk from uncontrolled development and demanded that their governments intervene to halt, or at the very least slow, the destruction. Concerned individuals from across the planet, in support of public and private conservation initiatives, joined them. The Pan Amazonian nations now boast the most extensive network of protected areas of any geographic region on Earth and have recognized the legal rights of Indigenous communities by formalizing their claims to ancestral lands. These two parallel efforts were implemented in a remarkably short span of time, reflecting the support of the area’s constituent populations and the capacity of global society to mobilize financial resources for environmental action and social justice. Simultaneously, a dramatic reduction in deforestation rates gave hope to advocates seeking systemic changes in development paradigms, particularly in Brazil, where the agribusiness sector reformed its production systems after recognizing that its commercial interests were best served by improving its environmental performance.

The success of conservation initiatives and the decline in deforestation are essential for the long-term survival of the Amazon, but they have not changed the long-term trajectory of the Pan Amazon. Fully 60% of the region remains open to non-sustainable activities, including logging, artisanal gold mining and settlement by small-scale farmers. Deforestation rates have crept upward across the region and registered historical highs in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia. Worse still, the predicted impacts of climate change have manifested, in part due to increasing temperatures but, more ominously, by modifying precipitation regimes that threaten to tip the region – or at least its southern half – into a cataclysmic shift in ecosystem function that could lead to widespread forest dieback.

Recent events, particularly the increase in forest fires and an election in Brazil, have placed Amazonian conservation once again in the forefront of the global media, which is now dominated by social networks that have succeeded in dramatizing the issue at the local, national and international levels. Societies are demanding solutions, but these will be neither easy nor simple because the causes of environmental degradation in the Amazon are complex and span infrastructure, agriculture, minerals, finance and governance. Meaningful reform is impeded by the predominance of conventional business models, reinforced by deeply ingrained cultural attitudes, corruption, and inequality. The response to the COVID-19 pandemic exposed the inability of governments to safeguard their populations, particularly Indigenous communities whose fear of disease is rooted in centuries of experience, as well as the rural and urban poor whose endemic exposure to infectious diseases and parasites increases the risk of mortality and morbidity.

Changing the development pathway of the Pan Amazon is like turning an ocean liner; steady pressure must be applied to the rudder of state over a long period in order to drive incremental change across multiple sectors of the regional economy. Regulation and market incentives that influence human behavior and corporate decisions must be aligned with conservation outcomes so that sustainable development is less aspirational and more operational. This will require profound reforms in financial and commercial markets, as well as real change in regulatory systems and enhanced law enforcement. With few exceptions, sustainable models in forest and fisheries management have not yielded the economic returns needed to make them competitive with conventional extractive models. Even worse, the monetization of ecosystem services has generated a mere fraction of the resources required to change human behavior on the forest frontier, much less to subsidize the reforestation efforts that climate scientists view as essential for stabilizing the hydrological regime of the southern Amazon.

An area offered for sale by Gustavo in Novo Progresso, surrounded by soy fields.
An area offered for sale in Novo Progresso, surrounded by soy fields. Image by Bruno Kelly.

This second edition of A Perfect Storm in the Amazon Wilderness provides an overview of the topics most relevant to the conservation of the region’s biodiversity, ecosystem services and Indigenous cultures, as well as a description of the conventional and sustainable development models that are vying for space within the regional economy. Events of the last 10 years are discussed in detail because future events will have to build upon – or modify – the cultural and economic forces driving events in the Pan Amazon. The text provides a longer historical perspective to show how policies create legacies that reverberate over decades, long after they have been recognized as being fundamentally flawed.

“A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” is a book by Timothy Killeen and contains the author’s viewpoints and analysis. The second edition was published by The White Horse in 2021, under the terms of a Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0 license). See this excerpt in Spanish here and in Portuguese here.

Banner image: A meeting of the waters, image courtesy of George Amaro.

Use the links below to view further excerpts of chapter 1:


Killeen T.J., 2007. A Perfect Storm in Amazon Wilderness, Conservation and Development in the Context of the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA). Washington, D.C.: Conservation International.

Lovejoy, Thomas E. y Carlos Nobre. 2018. ‘Amazon tipping point.’ Science Advances 4 (2): eaat2340.

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