A study from University of Leeds researchers, published earlier this year, found significant shifts in the deforestation dynamics of Amazonian forests.
The Amazon Basin is home to over 5 million km2 of tropical rainforest, storing up to 200 petagrams of carbon (each petagram = 1 billion tonnes). Changes to this important ecosystem are expected to have impacts on both regional and global climate.
Understanding forest loss patterns in Amazonia, is vital for effective forest conservation and management. Forest loss has been monitored by the Brazilian Institute for Space Research (INPE) since 1988, as part of the PRODES (Monitoramento do Desmatamento na Amazonia Legal por Satelite) programme. However, PRODES-based studies do not provide a complete picture of deforestation dynamics as they focus only on the Brazilian Amazon, and consider only disturbances greater than 6.25 hectares in area.
Using new satellite data that covers a wider area, a team based at the University of Leeds were able to assess changes to forest cover, between 2001 and 2014, in more detail than ever before.
Firstly, the team found that there was a geographical shift in the hotspots of forest loss, away from the “arc of deforestation” in the southern Brazilian Amazon and into Peru and Bolivia (see Figure; higher values indicate increased clustering of deforestation patches).
The new hotspot in Peru appears to be linked to the growth of the palm oil agribusiness, as well as the completion of the Interoceanic Highway from Brazil to Matarani Port in Peru. In Bolivia, deforestation around the Santa Cruz area appears to be linked to the growth of soybean crops, potentially due to leakage of soybean plantations from neighbouring Brazil as a result of the Brazilian soybean moratorium established in 2006.
Study lead author, Dr Michelle Kalamandeen said “Most studies on the Amazon focus primarily on Brazil. This was the first study that looked at all nine Amazonian countries across a consistent 14 year timeline, allowing for comparison of forest loss dynamics and revealing a different pattern of forest loss than previously thought.”
The study also found that while the number of new large forest clearings (bigger than 50 ha) has reduced over time, the number of new small clearings (less than 1 ha) increased by a third between 2001–2007 and 2008–2014. The shift towards smaller scale forest losses presents a difficult new challenge for forest conservation as these losses are much more difficult to monitor and control.
“We were surprised by how widespread the small scale forest loss events were, even in areas which were considered too remote for land use pressures”, Dr Kalamandeen further stated, “If this trend continues and remains undetectable, policy makers will underestimate deforestation and consequently carbon emissions, which would prevent them from meeting emissions targets agreed under the UNFCCC Paris Agreement.”
The team also explored the impact of protected area networks but found that the increase in small-scale deforestation events was the same inside and outside of protected areas. This finding questions the effectiveness of the current protected area programme, particularly in the context of the challenge posed by small-scale forest clearance.
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