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Amazon on the limit: deforestation, degradation and illicit activities are destroying the largest tropical forest on the planet

Published on January 15, 2024

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Small agriculture and livestock farming, as well as gold mining and illegal logging stand out among the activities that are depredating this ecosystem.

Deforestation and degradation of Amazon forests are two of the most critical problems facing Amazonian countries.

Every year, reports on deforestation in the Amazon confirm that the largest tropical forest on the planet is losing its vegetation cover at an accelerated rate. The annual report by Global Forest Watch and the University of Maryland, for example, includes four of the nine Amazonian countries—Brazil, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia—in the top 10 of those that lost the most primary tropical forests on the planet during 2022. .

Small agriculture and livestock farming, as well as gold mining and illegal logging stand out among the activities that are depredating this ecosystem. To this must be added the violence and pressure exerted on forests and indigenous territories by illicit coca crops and drug trafficking. Forest fires, the vast majority of which are caused, are also added to this list of evils, as are monocultures and agroindustry installed in territories that were once forests. Also on the list of threats are oil spills, with very little remediation, which contaminate soils and rivers.

Three dredges exploit the Purité River in search of gold in images captured during a July 2023 flyover. Photo: Amazon Regional Alliance for the Reduction of the Impacts of Gold Mining.

In January 2023, Science magazine dedicated its cover to the Amazon . In that edition, more than 30 scientists published the article “The drivers and impacts of the degradation of Amazonian forests” that focuses on the degradation of this biome. Data recorded between 2001 and 2018 revealed that 360,000 square kilometers (36 million hectares), corresponding to 5.5% of the Amazon rainforest, are under some type of degradation. This figure increases to 2.5 million square kilometers, that is, 38% of the Amazon forests if data on extreme droughts are included.

Despite the constant call from scientists, experts and environmentalists to stop the deforestation and degradation of the Amazon, forests continue to be lost. Mongabay Latam offers here an overview of what happened during 2023 in five Amazonian countries: Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela.

One more year of deforestation

Once again, Bolivia ranked third among the most deforested forests in the world. The country lost a total of 385,000 hectares of primary forests in 2022 alone, according to information from the Global Forest Watch (GFW) satellite monitoring platform. The figure exceeds the deforestation of the previous year by 32%. The main cause of the loss of forest cover in Bolivia is the expansion of the agricultural frontier, but it is not the only one; we can also count the growth of infrastructure, the colonization and establishment of new human settlements, as well as forest fires, according to indicate the analyzes carried out by GFW and the Friends of Nature Foundation.

The valuable wood from the San Rafael Municipal Reserve is highly sought after in the construction market. Photo: Iván Paredes.

In Colombia, a study published in the journal Nature revealed that between 1985 and 2019 the country lost more than 3 million hectares of Amazon forest due to illicit activities. In addition, research by the Amazon Institute of Scientific Research SINCHI presented a set of possible scenarios for the future of the Colombian Amazon by 2040. According to this analysis, if a control policy on deforestation and other degradation factors is not implemented, forests, an approximate of 2.1 million hectares of forest could be lost in the next two decades. Although in 2022 the Institute of Hydrology, Meteorology and Environmental Studies (Ideam) reported that deforestation decreased by 29.1% , experts who have analyzed the figures and made other measurements point out that these data must still be taken with caution.

Peru, on the other hand, ranks fifth in the world in terms of loss of primary tropical forests and third, behind Brazil and Bolivia, if deforestation figures are reviewed only in Latin America. According to the Global Forest Watch report, forest loss in Peru by 2022 reached 160,991 hectares. In turn, a report from the Andean Amazon Monitoring Project (MAAP) draws attention to the presence of Mennonite colonies in the country and how they are beginning to join the list of threats, considering that five of them are associated with the loss of 7,032 hectares in the last three years, of which only 2,426 hectares were registered between January 2022 and August 2023.

Livestock farming and the expansion of the agricultural frontier continue to be the main drivers of forest loss. According to the latest MapBiomas Amazon report – which analyzes 844 million hectares in South America, the territory that corresponds to the Amazon – the opening of new grazing areas has been the main vector of deforestation. The study shows that, of the 86 million hectares of natural vegetation deforested in the analyzed territory, 84 million were converted into agricultural and forestry areas, with emphasis on pastures.

The report, based on satellite images, shows that the conversion of forests to pastures is most intense in Brazil, as well as in Colombia and Venezuela. In Bolivia, deforestation in the department of Santa Cruz, in the south of the Amazon, has given way to large agricultural areas, while in Peru images show patches of small agriculture scattered throughout the country’s Amazon.

Illegal mining and forest destruction

Illegal mining is devastating the Amazon forests. A study published by MAAP in October 2023 documented the presence of 58 places in forests and rivers where mining is carried out and in 49 of them the activity was illegal. The report shows areas of illicit gold activity in the nine Amazonian countries.

Mining effects in the Ahuano sector, Napo province. Photo: Napo Resiste Archive.

In the province of Napo, in Ecuador, illegal mining is practically killing the rivers, as has happened with the Chumbiyaku, whose contamination with heavy metals exceeds the permitted limits by 500 times. Analysis of satellite images from the Amazon Andes Monitoring Project (MAAP) and the Ecociencia Foundation also show the increase in illegal gold activity in provinces such as Zamora Chinchipe and Morona Santiago, in southern Ecuador. According to a report from March 2023, in the province of Napo, between 2015 and 2021, the areas with mining activity increased by 855 hectares.

In Peru, this illicit activity has spread in the regions of Amazonas and Loreto, in the northern Amazon, as well as in Madre de Dios, in the southern jungle of the country. The Nanay River, in the Loreto region, is the most affected by gold extraction. In this basin, the Specialized Prosecutor for Environmental Matters has registered more than 100 dredgers since 2020, while in the Cenepa River, in the Amazon region, at least 70 illegal gold exploitation points were registered by Mongabay Latam and the NGO Paz y Esperanza during a tour of that river in the month of September. Madre de Dios, in southern Peru, continues to be a place taken over by this illicit activity. A MAAP study indicates that in the last two years, gold mining has devastated 18,421 hectares of forest in this region.

The devastation from illegal mining in protected areas is not exclusive to Peru. In Colombia the situation is also critical. Since 2020, the park rangers of the Amacayacu National Natural Park (PNN), in the state of Amazonas, cannot guard the protected area in its entirety. In February of that year, national park officials were summoned by dissidents of the extinct guerrilla group the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), to warn them that they had to leave the territory in a few hours. In that meeting, the officials took away the rafts, engines, gasoline, GPS, computers and radios they were carrying.

Currently, illegal mining surrounds the protected area. In an overflight carried out in July 2023 by the Amazon Regional Alliance for the Reduction of the Impacts of Gold Mining, the presence of 13 dredges was recorded in the Purité River, which originates in the Amacayacu National Park. According to the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the National Administrative Department of Statistics (DANE), in Colombia there are nearly 200,000 miners , and of them, approximately 70% are dedicated to illegal mining.

The advance of drug trafficking

In Bolivia, at least 29,900 hectares were used to produce coca leaves during 2022, a figure that exceeds the 22,000 hectares established by law for traditional and ancestral consumption. The data presented in the annual report on Monitoring coca crops in Bolivia carried out by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) also shows that the threat of illicit crops has been registered in six protected natural areas, places where the production of this ancient plant is illegal. According to the report, an area of ​​435 hectares of coca crops have been registered in these territories.

An illegal coca cultivation in the Amboró national park, in Bolivia. Photo: El Deber, Mongabay Latam.

In Colombia, one of the areas most threatened by drug trafficking is Putumayo. According to the latest report from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), a total of 48,034 hectares of coca have been registered in Putumayo, an increase of 70% compared to 2021 and which by far places it as the Amazonian department with the largest number of illicit crops. In this Colombian border area is the La Paya National Natural Park, where the dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) have prohibited the entry of park rangers into the territory, while they fight battles with other illegal armed groups to control drug trafficking. and the coca crops that feed it.

Satellite images of the central Amazon of Peru confirmed, this year, the presence of clandestine landing strips in the North and South Kakataibo Indigenous Reserve. The environmental monitors of the Kakataibo native communities, located near the indigenous reserve, indicated that they found illegal coca crops and maceration ponds within the limits of the reserve. Otishi National Park, in the central jungle, is another area besieged by drug trafficking.

Oil pollution

Oil spills are a constant in the Amazon and their impacts on rivers and soils affect dozens of indigenous peoples. This 2023, Mongabay Latam —in alliance with Rutas del Conflicto y Cuestión Pública of Colombia, La Barra Espacadora of Ecuador and El Deber of Bolivia— published a cross-border investigation that revealed the large number of environmental liabilities and contaminated places in four Amazonian countries: Bolivia , Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. The special “Oil Debts”, developed on the basis of information requested from governments through transparency laws, managed to identify 8,278 contaminated points in the territories of Amazonian communities and on land next to the sea in the four countries. Of this amount, 6,371 contaminated sites have not yet been remediated.

In the provinces of Orellana and Sucumbíos, in the northern Amazon of Ecuador, there are hundreds of pools full of crude oil that have been abandoned for five decades. Photo: Armando Lara.

The native community José Olaya , located in the Amazon region of Loreto, in Peru, is an example of what happens in more than 3,000 oil-contaminated places in the country. In that community you can see rows of bags containing soil with oil from the spills that have affected this territory. The investigation managed to identify—in Loreto alone—14 environmental liabilities and 171 “impacted sites,” which, although not classified as liabilities, have seriously contaminated the territory.

Oil spills continue to cause damage in the Peruvian Amazon. In January 2023, the spill of 3,600 barrels of oil as a result of the rupture of the North Peruvian Oil Pipeline (ONP) affected more than 30 communities near the spill area. The crude oil traveled 222 kilometers from where the dumping began until it reached the Marañón River.

In Ecuador, the number of sites contaminated by oil totals more than 4,000. In the parish of San Carlos, located in the Amazonian province of Orellana, you can still see the abandoned oil pools after several decades of operations by the American oil company Texaco. which was in the country between 1964 and 1990. This company reported, during the judicial process being followed for the environmental damage caused in the exploitation areas, to have built 333 swimming pools in its period of operations, however, satellite images have registered up to 990 pools.

Another of the most dramatic cases of contamination is in Bolivia, in the Carrasco National Park, in Cochabamba, where there is an environmental liability that is described as a “forewell [that] was completely covered with water, which had a dark color, and a clear smell of hydrocarbons being perceived in the environment.” Within this protected area, 4 other abandoned wells have also been identified in the Bulo Bulo field. Despite this scenario, Bolivia remains focused on expanding oil exploration in its territory.

*Main image: A Petroecuador EP worker works to clean a water source that was contaminated by an oil spill on September 30, 2022. Photo: Armando Lara.

This report was originally published in Mongabay Latam. It has been copyedited for clarity.

1 Comment

  1. That is a crime against our lovely planet.
    Every country should be agains deforestation and punish the ones who commit such a crime.


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