Economic activities imperils Amazon

February 19, 2009 12:00 am

, NAIROBI, Feb 19 – Unbridled economic development fuelled by globalisation is devastating large swathes of the Amazonian basin, the United Nations warned in a major study released Wednesday.

A population explosion concentrated in poorly planned cities, deforestation driven by foreign markets for timber, cash crops and beef, and unprecedented levels of pollution have all taken a heavy toll on the planet’s largest forest basin, the United Nations Environment Programme said.

The report, which pooled research by more than 150 experts from the eight countries that straddle Amazonia, acknowledged that these governments have individually taken steps to address environmental degradation.

But coordinated action is urgently needed to stem and possible reverse the damage, it said.

Trends to date are not encouraging. By 2005, the region had lost more than 17 percent of its forests — 875,000 square kilometers (331,000 square miles), an area larger than Pakistan or France.

While the rate of deforestation has slowed since then, another 11,224 square 0kilometers (4,333 square miles) disappeared in 2007 in Brazil alone.

"If the loss of forests exceeds 30 percent of the vegetation cover, then rainfall levels will decrease," the report said. "This will produce a vicious circle that favours forest burning, reduces water vapour release and increases smoke emissions into the atmosphere."

Internal migration and the unplanned expansion of urban zones are also serious threats to the Amazonian environment, the report concluded.

The region today counts some 35 million people, nearly 65 percent of them in cities, including three with more than one million inhabitants.

Changes in land use patterns — including a ten-fold increase in the road network over three-decades — have also led to fragmentation of natural ecosystems and an alarming drop in biodiversity.

Water resources are also threatened, the report cautioned. About 20 percent of the world’s fresh water spills into the Amazonian basin — some 15,000 cubic kilometres (3,600 cubic miles) each year.

The lack of coordinated management has made it difficult to control the human activities damaging water quality: pollution from industrial-scale mining, oil spills, chemicals used in agriculture, and solid waste from the cities.

Global demand for commodities — timber, cattle, bio-fuel crops, minerals — have also led to over-exploitation of natural resources.

All of these problems are likely to be aggravated by global warming change, the report noted.

"Climate change and extreme (weather) events are putting pressure on the Amazonina ecosystems and making it more vulnerable," the UNEP said in a statement.

The report called on the region’s eight nations to forge "an integrated Amazonian vision" and to harmonise their environmental policies.

The eight countries astride Amazonia are Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Surinam and Venezuela.


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