, Volume 61, Issue 1, pp 113-122

Mega-Development Trends in the Amazon: Implications for Global Change

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Abstract

This paper describes four global-change phenomena that are having major impacts on Amazonian forests. The first is accelerating deforestation and logging. Despite recent government initiatives to slow forest loss, deforestation rates in Brazilian Amazonia have increased from 1.1 million ha yr−1 in the early 1990s, to nearly 1.5 million ha yr−1 from 1992–1994, and to more than 1.9 million ha yr−1 from 1995–1998. Deforestation is also occurring rapidly in some other parts of the Amazon Basin, such as in Bolivia and Ecuador, while industrialized logging is increasing dramatically in the Guianas and central Amazonia.

The second phenomenon is that patterns of forest loss and fragmentation are rapidly changing. In recent decades, large-scale deforestation has mainly occurred in the southern and eastern portions of the Amazon — in the Brazilian states of Pará, Maranhāo, Rondônia, Acre, and Mato Grosso, and in northern Bolivia. While rates of forest loss remain very high in these areas, the development of major new highways is providing direct conduits into the heart of the Amazon. If future trends follow past patterns, land-hungry settlers and loggers may largely bisect the forests of the Amazon Basin.

The third phenomenon is that climatic variability is interacting with human land uses, creating additional impacts on forest ecosystems. The 1997/98 El Niño drought, for example, led to a major increase in forest burning, with wildfires raging out of control in the northern Amazonian state of Roraima and other locations. Logging operations, which create labyrinths of roads and tracks in forsts, are increasing fuel loads, desiccation and ignition sources in forest interiors. Forest fragmentation also increases fire susceptibility by creating dry, fire-prone forest edges.

Finally, recent evidence suggests that intact Amazonian forests are a globally significant carbon sink, quite possibly caused by higher forest growth rates in response to increasing atmospheric CO2 fertilization. Evidence for a carbon sink comes from long-term forest mensuration plots, from whole-forest studies of carbon flux and from investigations of atmospheric CO2 and oxygen isotopes. Unfortunately, intact Amazonian forests are rapidly diminishing. Hence, not only is the destruction of these forests a major source of greenhouse gases, but it is reducing their intrinsic capacity to help buffer the rapid anthropogenic rise in CO2.