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The challenge of the future (and lessons from the recent past) in the Pan Amazon

Sunset in the Peruvian Amazon. 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 current development trajectory of the Pan Amazon is uncertain. The ongoing investment in protected areas and Indigenous territories has created a solid foundation for conservation of the region’s biodiversity. The dramatic reduction in deforestation in Brazil probably avoided an ecological catastrophe and identified key public policies with the potential for bending the arc of Amazonian development. Nonetheless, the momentum of fifty years of chaotic economic growth, disregard for the law and the economic power of vested interests continue to impede efforts to halt the environmental degradation that threatens the long-term integrity of the Pan Amazon.

Looking forward, multiple interrelated phenomena will determine the future of the region: some would support the development of a sustainable economy, while others would reinforce the behaviors linked to conventional business models. Quite a few are neutral in nature and have impacts that could be mitigated in a well-managed and diversified regional economy. They can be organised in the following four categories, based on their probability of occurrence and their potential to contribute to a sustainable future.

Things that will definitely happen

Highway networks will continue to expand; existing roads will be upgraded; it is just a matter of time. Agricultural enterprises with overseas export markets will expand; this will displace some producers toward the forest frontier (ranchers) and motivate others to expand existing production models (smallholders). The extractive industries will dominate the economies of jurisdictions rich in mineral resources; their environmental performance will improve, but they will still create long-term environmental liabilities.

Sustainable production technologies, such as aquaculture, will provide new economic opportunities, while selected forest products, such as açaí, will become new export commodities. Initiatives to decentralise the administrative functions of the state will empower both local elites who want to expand conventional production models and grassroots activists who advocate for environmental conservation and social justice. Urbanization will continue to expand the opportunities and improve the living conditions of the region’s inhabitants.

Río Branco, the capital of Acre, is home to approximately 50% of the state’s citizens, a rural–urban distribution replicated throughout the Southern Amazon where three of every four inhabitants reside in towns with a population greater than 10,000. Many urban residents support nature conservation, but their economies are dependent on production systems linked to deforestation and the extractive industries. Image by PARALAXIS / Shutterstock.

Things that might possibly happen

The management of protected areas should improve as their operations are incorporated into state budgets; nonetheless, political opposition may cause some to be downgraded or degazetted from the system. Indigenous communities will face challenges to protect their land; some may be tempted to sell access to natural resources in exchange for money.

Widespread noncompliance with the land-use zoning regulations (e.g., Forest Code) and the loss of forest remnants may diminish the convective systems that maintain high precipitation regimes. Consumer demand for deforestation-free commodities should lead to the intensification of production on agricultural landscapes, while community-based business models could improve the management of wild fisheries and decrease levels of informality (illegality) in the timber industry.

Amazonian Indigenous guides with a pacu as part of ecotourism initiatives in the Peruvian Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

Nature and cultural tourism could improve the livelihoods of traditional forest communities but would require significant investment in infrastructure, human capacity and marketing. Democratic reform and regulatory oversight can improve the quality and objectivity of environmental and social review but are unlikely to eliminate ill-advised investments in infrastructure or the extractive sector. Financial resources from PES schemes could provide critical support for the operational budgets for protected areas and Indigenous lands but may not provide sufficient investment capital to reform non-sustainable business models.

Things that should never happen

There should be no new trunk highways constructed through any wilderness area; there are no justifications based on economic criteria within the transportation sector. Large-scale hydropower facilities on major rivers should be eliminated from consideration due to irremediable impacts on sediment flows and fish migration; they are rarely economically viable using standard financial criteria. Global warming should not exceed 2° Celsius due to impacts on plant physiology, forest carbon dynamics and continental-scale modifications of precipitation regimes.

Piles of wood obtained from the rainforest of the Peruvian Amazon, in Madre de Dios. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

Things that absolutely need to happen

The most pernicious and destructive activities in the Pan Amazon are all blatantly illegal, and governments must take action to bring them under control. Some are obvious by-products of a cultural tolerance of corruption: illegal logging and land grabbing. Others are the product of inequality and the lucrative nature of the illicit activity: artisanal gold mining and the cultivation of coca. Eradicating the former will require institutional reform and sustained law enforcement action; the latter will require a more integrated approach because of the number of people involved and their willingness to confront the state with violence.

“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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