Deforestation in the Amazon fell by 18% last year, reversing a brief spike in tree loss that had alarmed environmentalists. The long-term trend for the Amazon appears to be quietly positive, with forest loss falling for most of the past ten years. Mark Rowe asks if the battle for the Amazon is finally being won
The problem with monumental environmental challenges is that just when it looks as though some progress has been made, along comes news that seems to jolt everyone back to square one.
This appeared to be the case in the Amazon rainforest when Brazil announced in 2013 that deforestation was unexpectedly once again on the increase in the largest continuous tropical forest on the planet. Nearly 6,000 sq km (2,315sq miles) of forest was cleared in the 12 months to July 2013, according to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), a rise of 29 per cent over 2012’s figures. This represented the worst year for forest loss across the Amazon biome since 2004, when almost 30,000sq km (11,580sq miles) of forest was lost. The research institute Imazon, which monitors the rainforest with satellite imagery, reports that deforestation further increased by 190 per cent in August and September 2014, compared with the same period in 2013.
Is this a return to the dispiriting, long-term trends associated with most news from the Amazon? ‘In the last 50 years, 17–20 per cent of the Amazon’s forest cover has been deforested,’ says Andre Dias of WWF International’s Living Amazon Initiative. ‘A large proportion of the rest has been degraded, generally making the Amazon forest highly vulnerable. This may lead to its fragmentation and the loss of its global environmental functions.’
THREAT ANALYSIS The spike surprised many environmental campaigners, as deforestation rates had been falling sharply in the Amazon since that peak in 2004. The year to July 2012 saw the lowest rates on record for the area; meanwhile annual forest loss in Brazil has declined since 2004 by around 80 per cent, supported by better enforcement, new protected areas, satellite monitoring, pressure from NGOs and economic trends.
That steady decrease in deforestation suggested, cautiously, that conservation had gained the upper hand in the Amazon. In 2013, the world’s largest protected wetland reserve, the 6.9 million hectare Llanos de Moxos Ramsar site, was established in the Bolivian segment of the
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