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New highways drive accelerating deforestation in Amazonia

In today's issue of Science (21 May 2004), a team of U.S. and Brazilian scientists show that the rate of forest destruction has accelerated significantly in Brazilian Amazonia since 1990. The team asserts, moreover, that Amazonian deforestation will likely continue to increase unless the Brazilian government alters its aggressive plans for highway and infrastructure expansion.

"The recent deforestation numbers are just plain scary," said William Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, the study's lead author. "During the last two years nearly 12 million acres of rainforest have been destroyed--that's equivalent to about 11 football fields a minute."

Deforestation has risen most sharply in the southern and eastern parts of the Amazon, where rainforests are more seasonal and thus more easily burned. "Since 2002, forest loss has shot up by nearly 50% in the states of Par, Rondnia, Mato Grosso, and Acre," said co-author Ana Albernaz of the Goeldi Museum in Belm, Brazil. "Plant and wildlife species indigenous to these areas are being severely threatened."

The rising deforestation is directly linked to Brazilian development policies, says the team. In 2000, Brazil announced the largest infrastructure-expansion plan in the history of the Amazon. The plan, formerly called 'Avana Brasil' (Advance Brazil), could ultimately involve over US$40 billion in investments in new highways, roads, power lines, gas lines, hydroelectric reservoirs, railroads, and river-channelization projects.

These huge projects will criss-cross the basin, say the team members, providing greatly increased access for loggers and colonists to pristine tracts of forest. "In the past, such projects have led to striking increases in illegal deforestation, logging, mining, and hunting activities," said Heraldo Vasconcelos of the Federal University of Uberlndia in Brazil, another co-author of the study.

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Contact: Bill Laurance
laurancew@si.edu
11-507-314-9206
Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute
21-May-2004


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