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The largest land set-aside in history

View of the Pini Pini River in Manu National Park. Photo: Rhett A. Butler.

  • Mongabay is 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.
  • This is part of chapter 1 of “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon,” see the bottom of this page for links to all the excerpts.

The commitment to environmental governance in the 1990s was preceded by a civil society movement to create national parks and wildlife refuges. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Amazonian nations created a dozen or so national parks, thanks largely to the efforts of farsighted and passionate individuals with political influence. In most cases, these efforts were both isolated and unsustainable because governments failed to allocate financial resources for their management and protection.

Serious efforts to create national protected area systems began in the 1970s as part of the global effort to protect nature and wildlife. International NGOs and the United Nations played prominent roles because they had public relation skills and the legitimacy to garner the attention of national governments. More importantly, domestic opinion supported their creation.

The protected area network can be roughly stratified into strict protection areas and sustainable-use areas; indigenous territories are broadly organised into community-based landholdings, which tend to be smaller in area and territorial based reserves that include multiple communities. Data source: Rede Amazônica de Informação Socioambiental Georreferenciada (RAISG),

The first cohort of protected areas was characterized by spectacular examples of biodiversity and scenic beauty: the tepuis of Venezuela, the isolated table mountains of Colombia and the snow-covered peaks of the High Andes. Academics used their knowledge, which was still rudimentary, to advocate for selected lowland landscapes that were exceptionally diverse or ecologically unique.

Brazil established reserves in different parts of the Amazon, operating on the assumption that they would be different and, therefore, complementary. Ecuador was the first nation to create a coherent national system in the early 1980s when it designated areas in all of that country’s major biogeographical formations. Brazil, Colombia and Venezuela created the core components of their national system between 1988 and 1991, and Bolivia followed suit in the mid-1990s. The growth in the protected area network proceeded at phenomenal speed, catalyzed by donations from the advanced economies and multilateral development agencies. Designations increased by about 10% annually between 1965 and 1995 and by about 5% annually until 2015; as of 2019, approximately 28% of the surface area of the Pan Amazon had been set aside into some sort of state-sponsored protected area.

Many of these new protected landscapes were home to communities whose livelihoods depended on the natural resources within reserves, which created scenarios for potential conflict and failure. The Man & Biosphere Program of the United Nations provided a philosophical framework for managing the relations between resident populations and park managers while sponsoring pilot projects in high-profile protected areas. These experiences informed a rapidly emerging consensus that protected area systems must reflect the diversity of management challenges characteristic of developing countries. Each country responded accordingly and created a plethora of categories that reflect its respective social realities and the political compromises required to set aside large areas within their Amazonian jurisdictions.

The Pan Amazonian nations have created the world’s largest network of nature reserves to protect the biodiversity and scenic beauty of places such as the Anavilhanas archipelago on the Río Negro (Amazonas, Brazil). Image by Caio Pederneiras/

The IUCN provides a classification system that offers a logical framework for comparing the multiple different categories in six groupings, which include those afforded ‘strict protection,’ such as national parks and monuments, and others to be managed for ‘sustainable use,’ such as forest reserves and buffer zones around national parks. The concept of sustainable use reserves was pioneered by Chico Mendez, a human rights activist who led the rubber tapper workers union in Rondônia and Acre in the 1970s and 1980s. His murder by land grabbers in 1988 motivated the Brazilian government to create a new category of protected area, Reserva Extrativista (RESEX), which recognized the rights of families whose livelihoods were dependent on forest and wildlife resources.

The proportion of Amazonian territories set aside as nature reserves varies between countries, ranging from a high of 75 per cent in Venezuela to a low of five per cent in Guyana. The differences are smaller than they seem, however, depending upon what is considered a protected area. For example, forest reserves that allow logging have been incorporated into protected area systems in Brazil and Venezuela but not in Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru. The two countries with the lowest designated protected area, Guyana (5%) and Suriname (15%) retain extensive areas within the forest estate (about 50%) that are being held in reserve for future timber exploitation. Some Indigenous territories have been incorporated into protected area systems, while others have not. Brazil and Peru also have large areas that have not been allocated to any management category or tenure regime.

The consolidation of the protected area system is an ongoing process. All but a few parks and reserves are understaffed, and all lack budgets adequate to the task of managing tens of millions of hectares of forest landscape. Some protected areas were created with pre-existing social conflicts linked to illegal mining, the cultivation of coca or cattle ranching. The goal of sustainable management is largely aspirational and will depend on the willingness of inhabitants to pursue livelihoods compatible with management guidelines, which in turn will depend on their ability to obtain a quality of life commensurate with their personal aspirations.

Recent trends in several RESEX reserves show that families have opted to clear land and establish small agriculture operations because the economic benefits from forest-based production models do not meet their needs for cash income. In some jurisdictions, opposition to protected areas by influential constituencies threatens to overturn or downgrade their status.

Manu National Park in Peru protects a large number of species that guarantee the biodiversity of the Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

In spite of these challenges, or perhaps because of them, civil society groups continue their campaigns to expand protected area networks. The designation of national protected areas has slowed, but efforts to create regional and local parks, reserves, and recreational areas have increased, especially in the Andean republics where administrative authority has only recently been devolved to subnational jurisdictions. Although local business elites support conventional development models, creating protected areas under local control is popular with broad sectors of the electorate.

“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).

Read the other excerpted portions of chapter 1 here:

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