"The best thing to save the Amazon...bomb all the roads"

Original, cleared and planted Amazon forest, photo: Samuel M Beebe/Ecotrust, Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

That's how a new opinion piece by Professor William Laurance of James Cook University in New Scientist opens. They aren't his words (instead those of Brazilian scientist Eneas Salati) but Laurence agrees in sentiment if not solution. You may never have considered it, but here's why something as simple as a new road can ruin a rainforest, in Laurence's words:Roads Fragment Forest, Pave Way for Logging, Oil and Mineral Exploration

Tropical forests have a uniquely complex structure and humid, dark microclimate that sustain a huge number of endemic species. Many of these avoid altered habitats near roads and cannot traverse even narrow road clearings. Others run the risk of being hit by vehicles or killed by people hunting near roads. This can result in diminished or fragmented wildlife populations, and can lead to local extinctions.

In remote frontier areas, where law enforcement is often weak, new roads can open a Pandora's box of other problems, such as illegal logging, colonization and land speculation. In Brazilian Amazonia, 95 per cent of deforestation and fires occur within 50 kilometers of roads. In Suriname, most illegal gold mines are located near roads. In tropical Africa, hunting is significantly more intensive near roads.

Environmental disasters often begin as a narrow slice into the forest. Rainforests are found mostly in developing nations where there are strong economic incentives to provide access to logging, oil and mineral operations and agribusiness. Once the way is open, waves of legal and illegal road expansion follow. For instance, the Belém-Brasília highway, completed in the 1970s, has developed into a 400 kilometer-wide swathe of forest destruction across the eastern Amazon.

Laurance goes on to describe how new roads can imperil indigenous peoples and spread diseases (malaria, dengue, and others have all be shown to rise along with roads). Ultimately Laurance says that restricting roads into the frontier is the "most realistic and cost-effective approach to conserving rainforests".

How Do We Just Not Do It?
Forget about the inflammatory comment about bombing roads; what I want TreeHugger readers to weigh in is how feasible is it to really just not build roads. If building roads really is the best way to preserve rainforest, how do we do something as simple as that?

It may sound like an empty question, but I don't think it is. After all, it really applies to so many green issues: Whether reducing energy demand, reducing demand for meat products, reducing demand for consumer goods -- the clear benefit is less environmental impact.

So, how do we get that message across? How do we not do it?

Read more: New Scientist
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Tags: Amazonia | Conservation | Deforestation