Throughout the Amazon region, human activities like agricultural production, infrastructure development and logging are leading to alarming levels of deforestation. After impressive advances like the tripling of protected areas in Colombia, we are now seeing backsliding or insufficient improvement throughout the basin. Policies that are sound on paper often succumb to the combination of weak institutions and inadequate enforcement coupled with powerful economic forces, both legal and illegal, driving activities that destroy forests.
The Amazon rain forest plays a critical role as a carbon sink, mediator of the global water cycle and cradle of biodiversity. Massive loss of the Amazon rain forest would spell catastrophe not just for the 30 million people living in the basin but also for the world. Half of the world’s tropical forests are in the Amazon, and yet deforestation produces 8 percent of net global emissions, more than the entire European Union. Scientists warn that we may be close to a “tipping point” — a degree of deforestation at which the Amazon basin will no longer be able to generate its own rainfall by recycling moisture and thus cease to support rain forest ecosystems. According to a 2018 study by the World Wildlife Fund, as much as half of wildlife in the world’s richest forests, like the Amazon, could be at risk of extinction in the next century.
Countries in the Amazon are falling behind on their targets to cut deforestation. Effective conservation policies have proved successful, but enforcement is lacking. We must quickly reverse current trends and ensure that economic development is not at odds with conservation to avoid reaching the tipping point.
The combination of forces driving deforestation varies in each country, and there is often a chain of events rather than a single cause. The agriculture sector — a leading source of deforestation in the region — is a major source of employment, investment and government revenue, but unsustainable practices often lead to inefficient use of land. In Ecuador, for example, the agricultural sector uses 30 percent of land but generates just 6 percent of G.D.P.
Roads and other infrastructure projects are an indirect driver of Amazon forest loss. Highway projects, often without proper environmental safeguards and land tenure planning, create access to previously remote areas, allowing for expansion of legal and illegal activities that cause deforestation. China plans to finance and construct transport infrastructure and large energy projects like hydroelectric dams in the Amazon through its ambitious Belt and Road Initiative. But its state banks and companies generally follow less stringent environmental standards than multilateral lenders, raising concerns about further expansion into pristine forests.
Powerful criminal groups and weak governments in remote areas have also allowed for environmentally destructive activities such as illegal logging, gold mining and land seizure for speculation. Across the region, the policy response has been woefully inadequate. Governments have cut environmental oversight budgets rather than providing the needed increases. Security measures to fight criminal activities that cause deforestation fail to address the underlying economic drivers.
Colombia’s 2016 peace agreement opened up large swaths of forest previously controlled by the FARC, which had imposed strict limits on logging. Criminal groups have since moved in, leading to a significant spike in land-grabbing, coca cultivation and unregulated agricultural expansion. Amazon forest loss in Colombia has tripled since 2015, hitting an all-time high.
Though former President Juan Manuel Santos expanded protected areas during his tenure, enforcement has been weak, with just one park ranger for every 124,000 acres, or 0.2 percent of the international standard. The current administration of Iván Duque has sought to stem the rise in deforestation by increasing security forces, but environmental authorities still struggle with inadequate budgets, and limited personnel and equipment.
In Peru, the government has loosened environmental enforcement in recent years, while policies to fight illegal gold mining have been largely ineffective. Despite years of police and military operations, stricter illegal mining laws and attempts to formalize the industry, deforestation from illegal gold mining reached a record 23,000 acres in 2018, leading Peru to declare a state of emergency in the Madre de Dios region in February.
Success stories show that policies could be established to reverse the trend, at a relatively low cost compared with other climate change mitigation strategies. Incentives for small- and large-scale producers can promote sustainable agricultural practices. Soy and cattle production rose in Brazil even as the government reduced deforestation by 80 percent from 2004 to 2012. This suggests agriculture operations can grow without stripping the land, when farmers tap underutilized land and improve efficiencies. A 2006 agreement in which soy buyers committed not to purchase from suppliers that deforest land for production played a big role in reducing Amazon deforestation in Brazil.
In the aftermath of corruption scandals in Latin America, governments are seeking to improve transparency in infrastructure programs. This opens up the opportunity to include better environmental planning in the infrastructure design process. Protected areas, which studies show can reduce forest fires by up to 6 percent, can be expanded alongside better monitoring and enforcement. In Latin America, indigenous reserves are estimated to reduce forest fire activity, a proxy for deforestation, by 16 percent.
Economic incentives can also encourage reforestation. In Colombia, for example, reforestation can be used to offset carbon emissions and avoid the country’s carbon tax. In Ecuador, a program that provided economic incentives to landowners to maintain native forests helped the country cut its deforestation rate by almost 50 percent between 2009 and 2014, compared with the period between 1990 and 2000.
There is no shortage of policy proposals to protect the Amazon. But governments must have the political will to institute them, despite seemingly competing priorities. Identifying opportunities for economic growth that are compatible with conservation will ensure the best outcome for the Amazon basin and the world.
Lisa Viscidi is director of the Energy, Climate Change and Extractive Industries Program at the inter-American Dialogue. Enrique Ortiz is the program director for the Andes Amazon Fund.