In the A new report finds that up to 85 percent of threatened animal and plant species have had their habitat damaged by mining, agriculture or logging.
By Georgina Gustin
September 1, 2021
As industrial agriculture, mining and logging have barreled across the Amazon rainforest in recent decades, fires and deforestation have dramatically reduced the habitat of tens of thousands of plant and animal species, damaging not just the rainforest’s ability to act as a climate stabilizer but its role as the world’s greatest reservoir of biodiversity.
In a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature, a large collaboration of researchers from the United States and China found that up to 85 percent of species listed as threatened by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature have lost habitat because of fires and deforestation since 2001. Overall, fires have damaged the habitat of as many as two-thirds of the species in the Amazon basin.
“The Amazon ecosystem is not adapted to fires, but deforestation and fires have been and are still continuously impacting the Amazonia biodiversity,” said Xiao Feng, a geographer with Florida State University and one of the paper’s lead authors. “Literature suggests a tipping point that when the Amazon loses a certain portion of the forest, the whole ecosystem will transition to another type. If this happens, it will be a tragedy for the Amazon, and for the global ecosystem given the important role the Amazon plays.”
Feng and her colleagues looked at fire data collected from satellites and then mapped that data onto the ranges of thousands of species—a remarkable accomplishment, given the sheer numbers of plants and animals in the region. The Amazon is home to 10 percent of the planet’s known species.
“The Brazilian Amazon is absolutely massive. There are so many species it’s hard to model,” said Thomas Gillespie, a geography professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, who wrote a companion piece to the study, also published Wednesday.
Yet the study’s authors, Gillespie wrote, were able to “develop the most comprehensive collection of range maps available so far of Amazonian plant and vertebrate species.”
The authors of the study then go a step further by comparing the habitat damaged by fires and deforestation to environmental policies in place at the time. They found that, from the early 2000s to 2008, deforestation rates began to rise. But then rates began to slow from 2009 to 2018, when the government removed incentives to burn forest for soy and cattle, created more protected areas and began to better police environmental policies.
In 2019, shortly after Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro took office, rates again began to rise. In Brazil, home to the largest swath of the Amazon basin, “policies that were initiated in the mid-2000s corresponded to reduced rates of burning,” the authors wrote. “However, relaxed enforcement of these policies in 2019 has seemingly begun to reverse this trend.”
Nearly 4,000 square miles of forest have been damaged since 2019, the authors noted, “leading to some of the most severe potential impacts on biodiversity since 2009.”
The study comes as the Bolsonaro administration and its allies in the Brazilian legislature push a handful of laws aimed at reducing protection for the Amazon and for Indigenous peoples. Last week, thousands of protesters from Indigenous and environmental advocacy groups marched in the streets of Brasilia, the country’s capital, demanding that Brazil’s Supreme Court uphold a land claim by the Xokleng people. Bolsonaro and the country’s powerful agricultural lobby have argued that Indigenous claims on land should be rejected if the Indigenous group did not inhabit that land prior to the 1988 enactment of the country’s constitution.