Improper extraction of wood and inappropriate handling of fishing resources also put conservation of the biome at risk, warn researchers (Wikipedia)

Threats to The Amazon go far beyond fires

November 6, 2013

By Elton Alisson

Agência FAPESP – There are other types of threats to the conservation of Amazonia besides deforestation, which occurs on a small scale and in several varzea (floodplains) in the region, such as improper extraction of wood and inappropriate handling of fish resources, which may cause transformations that will be as significant to the forest as fires in the coming decades.

These phenomena, however, are not as perceptible and are not as easily detectable in aerial images as fires because they occur inside the forest and outside the so-called “Arc of Amazon deforestation” (a region on the fringes of the biome that corresponds to the south and east of Legal Amazon and covers all states in the North, plus Mato Grosso and Maranhão). For this reason, they may go unnoticed and not garner the same attention from inspection agencies.

The warning was issued by Hélder Queiroz, researcher at the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Institute, during the 7th Meeting in the 2013 BIOTA-FAPESP Education Conference Cycle held on September 19 in São Paulo.

“Reducing deforestation is undoubtedly much more important for conservation of the Amazon, but it does not represent the sole threat to the biome,” affirmed Queiroz.

“There are also a large group of threats comprised by small-scale transformations of habitats which occur exactly in the same manner as in the last 50 years and are hard to detect, but generate important changes in the composition and structure of forests and whose effects will be prolonged for several decades,” he estimates.

Improper wood extraction in the Amazon Forest, for example, could change the number of animal species that live in a given forest area. The reason for this threat is that, according to the researcher, certain species of trees whose wood has high commercial value (and for this reason are more sought-after) could be important for feeding fauna.

The removal of these species of trees in an unorganized manner could change the forest composition and consequently the animal species composition of a forest area, stressed Queiroz.

“The opening of small clearings to remove specific species of wood is not detected by satellite images, generally because they are only a few square meters wide,” said Queiroz.

“At the end of the three decades, all species of these trees and consequently, the fauna that depended on them could disappear,” he warns.

Improper fishing and hunting

Another threat that is a becoming a major problem in Amazonia, according to the researcher, is uncontrolled fishing for Piracatinga (Calophysus macropterus) – a scale-less species of fish that is commonly known as the “water buzzard” because it feeds on the remains of other fish and animals.

Caiman and pink dolphins (Amazon river dolphins) are being used as bait. Because of this, the number of Amazon river dolphins has decreased in several regions of Amazonia, according to monitoring data on the species in the region of the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve (RDS) and the National Amazon Research Institute (INPA).

“The carcass of a caiman or a pink dolphin is worth R$ 100 at most in the Amazon region and generates approximately 200 to 300 kilograms of this species of fish,” said Queiroz.

“In addition to a fishing crisis, this problem represents a system of valuing biodiversity that is profoundly unbalanced,” he added.

On land, according to the researcher, uncontrolled hunting of certain species of animals has resulted in the emergence of what several authors called in the early 1990s “empty forests” – areas of standing forests where the main species responsible for reproduction, pollination and seed dispersal have disappeared due to uncontrolled hunting.

“The expression coined for the phenomenon – ‘empty forests’ – is romantic, but the problem is worrisome and the effects will only be realized over decades,” evaluated Queiroz. “Planes or satellites used for monitoring also cannot identify these regions of the forest where trees are intact, but where animals species are being intensely hunted,” she affirmed.

Flooded forests

In general, the majority of these “imperceptible” threats occur in the flooded forests of varzea floodplains, which represent almost one-fourth of the entire extension of the Amazon, stressed the researcher.

Subject to a regime of daily, seasonal or unpredictable flooding – according to the rain regime – these low-altitude regimes are flooded by white water from the Andes, flowing mainly through the Solimões and Madeira.

These areas are very productive and fertile because of the large quantities of nutrients and sediments. Accordingly, varzea floodplains in Amazonia have abundant natural resources. For this reason, they have been densely occupied since pre-Columbian times.

“Practically 75% of the Amazon population [roughly 8 million people] are directly located in these environments or their proximities, living, working and transforming these regions,” said Queiroz.

“This means that these environments are more threatened than those located in the ‘arc of deforestation’ because they feel a greater daily impact from the populations, even though it may not be detected in the landscape like deforestation,” he compared.

Precisely because of the population density, it is difficult to create Priority Conservation Areas (ARPA) in these flooded forest areas,” explained Queiroz. “There are few protected areas and many proposals to create ARPAs in flooded forests in Amazonia,” he affirmed.

Some of these areas are now the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve, and together they add up to 3.5 million hectares of Amazonia.

Created at the beginning of the 1980s with the intention to protect the bald white uakari (Cacajao calvus), at the end of the 1990s the Mamirauá Reserve came under the management of the Mamirauá Institute, which has the objective of conducting conservation research.

The researchers at Mamirauá Institute conduct studies focused principally on the sustainable development of natural resources. Most recently, they began to develop social technology focused on water treatment and environmental sanitation, among other things.

“We have been expanding our actions since 2010. Currently, they reach 150,000 people. But we hope to reach 1.5 million people in the coming years,” stated Queiroz.

Reducing deforestation

Maria Lucia Absy, a researcher at INPA, also participated in the FAPESP event. In her workshop, Absy highlighted the decrease in annual deforestation rates in the Legal Amazon, which fell a total of 84% in the 2004 – 2012 period, according to data from the Environment Ministry’s Sustainable Development Project (Projeto Proeds) and the Brazilian Environment and Natural Resources Agency (IBAMA).

“The inspection actions and the reduction of deforestation in Amazonia have the fundamental support of this tool and the Deter [Real Time Deforestation Detection, conducted by the National Institute for Space Research (INPE)],” she stressed.

“It’s not that it is wrong to deforest an area – as long as it is not that large – for production. What’s wrong is doing this randomly, without a methodology and forest handling techniques,” evaluates Absy.

Organized by the Research Program on Characterization, Conservation, Recuperation and Sustainable Use of the Biodiversity in São Paulo (BIOTA-FAPESP), the 2013 Conference Cycle aims to contribute to improve science teaching.