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Amazon deforestation

The Rainforest Alliance feels Brazil’s forest laws had proved so onerous as to be counter-productive

GIVE A DAM Land clearance to accommodate large infrastructure projects is another factor. These include dams, such as the Belo Monte dam, the world’s third largest hydroelectric dam, being built on the Xingu river. According to the NGO Amazon Watch, the Xingu basin is home to 25,000 indigenous people from 40 ethnic groups along its 2,271km course. Even though the Xingu is protected by conservation laws and indigenous reserves, Amazon Watch says the region is affected by soya plantations and cattle ranching. Across the Amazon, 400 dams are being built or are planned, covering every major tributary.

‘There is not a great track record for big infrastructure such as dams to be done in a greener fashion,’ says Butler. ‘A lot of work has looked at deforestation but perhaps the issues directly affecting the river from damming it – ish migration, loss of nutrients – are often missed.’

International Rivers has highlighted less high-pro ile dams that nevertheless still threaten profound impacts on forest cover and river-based ecosystems, including 29 large dams along the Tapajos river. According to the organisation’s Latin America programme coordinator, Monti Aguirre, ‘the cumulative impacts will be devastating for riverine ecosystems, biodiversity, and the livelihoods of indigenous people and riverine communities in the Andean Amazon.’

Any issue around the impact of energy generation quickly raises the point that energy reduction is part of the solution. Aguirre feels the Amazon is no exception and that this option could impose a brake on deforestation. ‘Peru has many other energy options,’ she says. ‘If Peru reduces its electricity consumption by 30 per cent through energy e iciency measures, it would need only half the new power plants it intends to build.’

ILLEGAL TRADES Logging continues to be problematic. Despite European Union Timber Regulations and the US Lacey Act which prohibit companies from placing

C A U S E S A N D E F F E C T S According to, early deforestation in the Amazon was caused by subsistence farmers who cut down trees to produce crops for their tribes. In the later part of the 20th century, an increasing proportion of deforestation was driven by industrial activities and large-scale agriculture. By the start of the 21st century, more than 75 per cent of forest clearing was for cattle ranching. Roads built to facilitate cattle pasture, logging, dam building and mines also allowed in land speculators, poor farmers and illegal logging.

Subsistence farming has also been an important driver of deforestation, with Brazil establishing colonisation programmes in an attempt to alleviate urban population pressure. However, harvest yields for new farmers were o en poor and soil erosion rates high, and the accompanying infrastructure, such as the Trans-Amazonian Highway, was o en inundated by heavy rains and rendered impassable.

Today, cattle ranching continues to be the leading cause of deforestation in the Amazon. Most of the beef is sold within Brazil, while leather and other cattle products are generally exported. But cattle ranching is also a vehicle, says Mongabay’s Rhett Butler, for land speculation as cleared pasture can also be sold to large-scale soya planters.

Remarkably, the consensus is that around 80 per cent of the Amazon remains covered by native vegetation. The Amazon Biome represents 40 per cent of the remaining standing tropical forest of the world, and 49.4 per cent of that is under some type of protection.

January 2015 | 37

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