Amazon forests at risk from both legal and illegal activities

Lima climate conference hears 20 per cent of tropical forests across Amazonia are in peril

Nearly 20 per cent of tropical forests across Amazonia are at risk from legal and illegal logging, construction of new roads and dams, and the expansion of agriculture, mining and petroleum industries, according to a new in-depth study.

Released at the Lima climate conference, the peer-reviewed study also highlighted the vital role played by indigenous people throughout the Amazon region in conserving the world's most important tropical forests as valuable carbon sinks.

“The vast amount of carbon stored above ground in the forests of indigenous and protected lands – totalling 55 per cent of the Amazon – is critical to the stability of the global climate as well as to the cultural identity of forest-dwelling peoples,” it says.

Delegates from more than 190 countries are taking part in the latest round of UN-sponsored negotiations aimed at reaching a universal agreement in Paris by the end of next year on climate change.


Amazonia comprises 2,344 indigenous territories and 610 protected areas, spread across nine countries, notably Brazil, which announced last week its annual deforestation rate "fell dramatically" by 18 per cent in the year to June 30th.

US-based Woods Hole Research Centre (WHRC) scientist Wayne Walker, co-author of the latest study, said the territories of Amazonian indigenous peoples store almost one-third of the region's above-ground carbon on just under one-third of the area.

“We now have evidence that where there are strong rights, there are standing forests,” said Edwin Vásquez, co-author and president of Coica, the indigenous peoples’ co-ordinating body.

“Yet we have never been under so much pressure . . .”

‘Giant savanna’

Beto Ricardo, of Brazil’s Instituto Socio-Ambiental, said many areas were at risk. “If all the current plans for economic development in the Amazon are actually implemented, the region would become a giant savanna, with islands of forest,” he warned.

The study, Forest Carbon in Amazonia: The Unrecognised Contributions of Indigenous Territories and Protected Natural Areas, involved a novel north-south collaboration between scientists, indigenous peoples and environmental policy experts. It combined satellite measurements of carbon density, field data and boundary records of indigenous territories and protected areas.

The indigenous areas are exceptional in biological, cultural and linguistic diversity. They are considered the cornerstone of Amazon conservation efforts. “International recognition and investment in indigenous and protected areas are essential to ensuring their continued contribution to global climate stability,” said Richard Chase Smith, of Peru’s Instituto Bien Comun. This would unclude security of tenure.

Frank McDonald

Frank McDonald

Frank McDonald, a contributor to The Irish Times, is the newspaper's former environment editor