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An indigenous child next to a giant tree in the Peruvian Amazon.
Credit: Photo Stock
Report
Satellites Show Logging Decline in Peruvian Amazon
By Stephen Leahy

Deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon, intense in zones near roads and mining operations, has had little impact in protected forests, say researchers.

TORONTO, Aug 13 (Tierramérica).- Rainforest conservation policies are reducing the rate of deforestation in the Peruvian Amazon, but roads are unquestionably the drivers of change, new satellite data reveal.

Although Brazil's Amazon forests draw the most international attention, Peru's 661,000 square kilometers of rainforests are recognized as a unique and important ecosystem.

However, the impacts of human activities throughout the region have been poorly understood, until a study published Aug. 10 in the journal Science.

"Peru's forest reserves and conservation areas appear to be working well," said Greg Asner, director of the Carnegie Airborne Observatory, at Stanford University in California.

Deforestation and other disturbances of forested areas -- selective logging, oil exploration and mining -- increased about 127,700 hectares per year on average from 1999 to 2005, with just two percent occurring in protected areas, according to the study by Asner and colleagues.

By contrast, Brazil's four million-square-kilometer Amazon forest region loses 2.0 million to 2.4 million hectares annually, with about 10 percent occurring in protected areas.

Better land use policies and the remoteness of the forest in Peru are likely reasons why there has been much less forest loss there, Asner told Tierramérica. Peru has also long had a national forest policy that granted logging concessions, whereas Brazil has only recently implemented a similar system, he said.

Using a satellite-based forest disturbance detection system originally designed and used to measure forest loss in Brazil, along with on-the-ground fieldwork, the study found that 86 percent of all forest damage was concentrated in only two regions: the area around the Ucayali logging center of Pucallpa, and along the associated road network.

The satellite data reveals a great deal of logging "leakage" outside the concession areas into nearby forests, he said. Although it is difficult to know precisely what is occurring, Asner suspects that once an area has been opened up to logging, concession-holders or others simply move into nearby areas.

The study clearly shows that deforestation follows the construction of the Inter-Oceanic Highway, which ultimately is directly connected with 23 percent of the total damage. "Roads are absolutely connected to deforestation," he said.

Loggers are chasing "red gold", the valuable wood of mahogany trees, which are still found in commercial quantities in the Peruvian Amazon, says David Hill, a campaigner for Survival International, a Britain-based non-governmental organization supporting tribal peoples worldwide.

"'Tree laundering' is going on, with mahogany supposedly coming from legal concessions being brought in from outside," Hill told Tierramérica. It is very difficult to monitor or trace the origin of logs in such remote regions, he said.

"Legal logging concessions are facilitating illegal extraction," he explained.

The activist is dubious of Asner's findings that indigenous territories contained only 11 percent of the forest disturbances.

"There is illegal logging in four of the five indigenous reserves set aside for uncontacted peoples" in Peru, he said.

These indigenous tribes by choice have not been in regular contact with the outside world. The common cold or flu is often fatal to them because they have not had previous exposure to the diseases and have not developed the appropriate immune defenses.

Illegal loggers brought such diseases to the Nahua tribe in the 1980s and more than half of them died, Hill said.

While logging is the most urgent threat to these isolated indigenous communities, oil and gas exploration has also become a significant problem. Last month the Inter-Ethnic Association for Peruvian Jungle Development, AIDESEP, applied to the courts for a ban on oil exploration and drilling in parts of the Peruvian Amazon inhabited by uncontacted tribes.

Enforceable land rights would go a long way to helping indigenous people in Peru, Hill says.

But keeping extractive industries like loggers out is an enormous challenge for any country. Brazil has struggled with this, largely unsuccessfully, for decades.

"Logging is a multi-billion dollar industry in Brazil -- 80 percent of which is illegal, according to the government," says Bill Laurance, a tropical forest ecologist with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institution, in Balboa, Panama.

Deforestation rates have slowed in the past couple of years due to lower prices for soy and beef, and because of a crackdown on illegal logging, Laurance told Tierramérica.

That crackdown came after the 2005 murder of U.S.-born nun Dorothy Stang, who had been helping local people oppose illegal logging in the northern Brazilian state of Pará.

More than 100 people were arrested in a multi-million-dollar illegal logging network, including 40 people working for IBAMA, Brazil's federal environmental law enforcement agency, he said.

"Even Canada and the U.S. have trouble enforcing their logging rules in remote areas," he pointed out.

Slowing deforestation in the Amazon is an enormous challenge. The rise of so-called "carbon markets" offers some real hopes, if a country like Brazil can obtain credits for "avoided deforestation" and the corresponding reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, according to Laurance.

Brazil is the fourth largest emitter of greenhouse gases resulting from deforestation. The World Bank recently announced a 250-million-dollar pilot fund to pay tropical countries like Brazil for preserving their forests.

Avoided deforestation is an inexpensive and simple way to slow climate change and brings additional benefits, including preservation of ecosystem services and biodiversity.

Accurate and ongoing measurements of standing forests and deforestation are absolutely crucial to making such as compensation system work, and Asner's group has the technology, says Laurance.

Previous satellite data and analysis by the group revealed higher rates of deforestation in Brazil than previous estimates. And although Peru's forest regions are frequently obscured by clouds, the new technology involving use of supercomputers can work around that problem.

By this time next year, thanks to a training plan and a compressed version of the study team's program, government officials, academics and non-governmental groups in Peru will able to update the forest change analysis on personal computers, he said.

Asner believes the program can be adapted to any tropical country and he plans to present it at the next stage of the negotiations of the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, to take place in December in Bali, Indonesia.

"What the Peru study shows is that we have a definitive tool for detecting deforestation and change," says Asner.

* Stephen Leahy is an IPS correspondent.

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