Amazon Infrastructure Puts 68% of Indigenous Lands and Protected Areas at Risk: Report

Photo credit: Fábio Garcia Moreira / ISA

Already completed and proposed infrastructure projects, along with infrastructure investment plans, either directly threaten or put pressure on 68 percent of the indigenous lands and protected natural areas in the Amazon region, according to a newly published report prepared by the Amazonian Geo-referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG), a group of specialists from NGOs and other organizations within six Amazon region countries.

The data sets are presented in the form of six maps, each corresponding to an infrastructure-related activity or practice present in the Amazon, including transport (ie. roads), energy (ie. hydroelectric dams), mining, oil, deforestation and fires. The 2019 edition takes account of development in the headwaters of Amazonian rivers, information not included in past reports. The nine nations evaluated are Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, Guiana, Suriname and French Guiana.

RAISG reveals that, of the 6,345 indigenous territories located within the nine Amazonian countries surveyed, that 2,042 (32 percent) are threatened or pressured by two types of infrastructure activities, while 2,584 (41 percent) are threatened or pressured by at least one. Only 8 percent of the total are not threatened or pressured at all.

In the case of the 692 protected natural areas in the region, 193 (28 percent) suffer three kinds of threat or pressure, and 188 (27 percent) suffer threats or pressure from two activities.

"These are alarming numbers: 43 percent of the protected natural areas and 19 percent of the indigenous lands are under three or more types of pressure or threat. The data demonstrate that the implementation of infrastructure works in the region clash with the way of life of the people in those areas, as well as [with] the preservation of both," said Júlia Jacomini, a researcher with the ISA, Instituto Socioambiental, an NGO and RAISG partner.

Mining and oil pressures

According to RAISG, of the 390 million hectares (1.5 million square miles) officially protected by indigenous and natural areas in the nine Amazon nations, 87.2 million hectares (336,600 square miles), or 22 percent of the total, are subject to threat or pressure from mining and oil projects.

Among these countries, Brazil’s natural protected areas and indigenous reserves are seeing the greatest pressure from mining, with 108 million hectares (416,990 square miles) threatened. Venezuela is second, with 11.5 million hectares (44,401 square miles) under pressure. According to RAISG experts, although illegal mining is present in all Amazonian countries, the greatest environmental destruction comes from official projects supported by federal and regional governments.

Regarding oil development, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru and Brazil occupy the most Amazon territory, with a combined area under pressure of almost 58 million hectares (223,939 square miles). Oil exploration, drilling and transport have brought huge environmental damage to Peru and Ecuador, with 190 oil spills registered in the Peruvian Amazon between 1997 and 2016, according to Osinergmin, the country’s energy and mining investment oversight body. Those spills were mainly due to aging infrastructure at the most productive wells (mostly established during the 1970s which have not received proper maintenance), as well as to acts of vandalism.

Oil exploration in Ecuador – which accounts for 50 percent of the country's exports and 11 percent of its GDP – has resulted in more than 650,000 barrels of spilled oil and related deforestation, impacting 2 million hectares (7,722 square miles) since the 1970s.

Forests and savannas under threat – the Brazilian example

Between 2000 and 2015, according to RAISG, 10.3 million hectares (39,768 square miles) of Amazon forest was cut down within indigenous areas and protected areas, accounting for 12 percent of the total deforestation in all of Amazonia over that period.

Deforestation in conserved areas was heavily concentrated within several regions. In Brazil, for example, the states of Pará and Mato Grosso both are seeing extensive deforestation, with much of the pressure coming from land grabbers, the cattle and soy industries. Also seriously under pressure in Brazil are the Jaci-Paraná State Extractive Reserve, the Rio Pardo protection area (UC), and the Jaru Biological Reserve (in Rondônia state); the indigenous lands of the Yanomami people (in Roraima state); and the indigenous lands of the Guajajá and Guajajara peoples (in Maranhão state).

Threats to Brazilian protected areas and indigenous reserves are expected to worsen under the current government of rightist Jair Bolsonaro, which continues in its efforts to weaken environmental protections. On June 6, the president complained in his weekly broadcast that the nation’s constitution does not allow him to extinguish conservation units (UCs) by decree, and he protested that indigenous lands, the UCs, and quilombolas (communities of runaway slave descendants) hinder the economy of the northern region, including the Amazon.

Meanwhile, Brazil Environment Minister Ricardo Salles confirmed a plan to eliminate six of the 11 regional coordinators for ICMBio, the agency responsible for the country's 335 conservation units, which cover 9.1 percent of the national territory and 24.4 percent of its marine area. Salles' justification for the ICMBio staff reductions was cost: "The measure is being studied as a way to improve management, rationalize resources and create administrative efficiency," he said.

Another new threat to Brazil's protected lands: the Ministry of Agriculture recently issued a public bid offering 60 percent of Amapá National Forest for timber exploitation, an area covering 267,000 hectares (1,030 square miles) in the Amazon basin. The Brazilian Forest Service (SFB), recently shifted to the Agriculture Ministry, expects the concession to produce 132,000 cubic meters (4,661 cubic feet) of timber, and to generate R$ 3.6 million (US$ 0.9 million) annually.

Roads, dams and fires

More than 136,000 kilometers (84,000 miles) of roads have been built by governments in the Pan-Amazon region up to 2018, of which 26,000 kilometers (16,000 miles) are located within protected areas, with 9,100 kilometers (5,654 miles) located on indigenous lands and 16,900 kilometers (10,501 miles) within other conserved nature areas.

RAISG points to studies identifying the key role that these roads play in the advancement of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. One study, "Space-time dynamics of deforestation in Brazilian Amazonia," shows that most of Amazonia’s deforestation has occurred near roads, with about 90 percent of native vegetation loss happening within a distance of 100 kilometers (62 miles) from a road network. A 2014 study, "Roads, deforestation, and the mitigating effect of protected areas in the Amazon,” found that 94.9 percent of the deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon occurred within 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) of roads, and one kilometer (0.62 mile) from rivers.

RAISG cartographic data also indicates that of the 272 large hydroelectric dams either in operation, under construction or planned for Amazonia, 78 are within indigenous territories and 84 are in protected areas. Brazil has a large number of planned dams, which are listed within the National Electric Energy Agency's portfolio, according to geographer Jacomini.

Fires occurring in Amazonia, while sometimes natural in cause, are more frequently a product of land development – with fire utilized by land speculators to clear forest and increase property value for sale to cattle ranchers or industrial agribusiness. Fire is also used by land grabbers as a way of intimidating indigenous and rural communities, and a means of forcing them to give up their Amazon land claims. Forest degradation and droughts due to the escalating climate crisis have also added to fire risk.

Bolivia is one of the countries that most suffered from fires between 2005 and 2018, losing 18.7 million hectares (72,201 square miles) of Cerrado savanna biome and Amazon forests. 2010 saw the largest losses there, when fires associated with drought raged over more than 8.5 million hectares (32,818 square miles).

Of the 13 million hectares (50,193 square miles) of forest burned on indigenous lands in the Pan-Amazon between 2000 and 2014, eight million hectares (30,888 square miles) occurred in Brazil (61 percent of the total). And of the 11 million hectares (42,471 square miles) burned in protected areas, seven million (27,027 square miles) were in Brazil (63 percent).

"The central point of this study is to show the need of acquiring an integral vision of the region to fight the destruction that has been taking place," concluded Jacomini. Threats need to be clearly articulated "among the Amazonian countries [in order to] create cooperative initiatives, otherwise it will be very difficult to mitigate those impacts.

"The Amazon is a region shared by nine countries. If some of them implement effective deforestation control policies and others do not, the whole region will keep suffering. An oil spill that occurs in one country, for example, will cause impacts in neighboring countries, as we are talking about a region with interconnected ecosystems," she said

The participating organizations in the newest RAISG study included ISA and Imazon (Brazil); the Friends of Nature Foundation (Bolivia); Gaia Amazonas (Colombia), the Ecuadorian Foundation for Ecological Studies (Ecuador), The Common Good Institute (Peru), Provita and the Amazonian Socio-environmental Working Group – Wataniba (Venezuela).

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