The Amazon rainforest already faces devastation thanks to climate change and deforestation. Now politics is set to make things a whole lot worse thanks to the Brazilian former President, Dilma Rousseff, being impeached.
How come? It looks like a subset of the National Congress of Brazil, which represents agribusinesses and big landowners, is using the political uncertainty to force through legislation designed to reverse various legal protections that have kept the forest relatively safe until now.
Greed sits at the heart of the initiative
This greedy group is keen to make more cash from the rainforest, and wants to open up former conservation areas to mining and agriculture in a horribly short-sighted initiative. Michel Temer, the ex-President's successor, isn't helping matters. He has decided to fast-track a handful of huge infrastructure development projects that require large-scale deforestation, including the hotly contested Cuiaba-Santarem road, set to cut the Amazon in half with devastating results. At the same time the Brazilian Ministry of Environment's budget has just been cut by more than 40% and science budgets have plummeted by 44%, mirroring a post-truth cut in similar budgets in other countries.
All this means Brazil’s long standing environmental licensing process could be under threat, with environmental law enforcement at an all-time low. Constitutional amendment 65 is the culprit, a piece of legislation that will force government agencies to agree all proposed infrastructure projects no matter how seriously they affect the forest. All that's needed is a three-fifths majority vote and amendment 65 will become law.
Goodbye to hard-won rainforest stability in the region
It's terrible news since the Brazilian Amazon had been relatively stable for a decade or so until three years ago, when we saw a sudden and dramatic hike in new deforestation. 2016 saw a rise of just under 30% compared to 2015, something that conservationists are laying at the feet of global price hikes on soya beans and beef, both frequently grown on deforested land.
Indigenous landowners to the rescue
The best hope of positive action comes from the forests' indigenous people, who have enjoyed considerable success protecting their own land. In these areas deforestation is just 10% of that in non-indigenous owned areas. Around 3000 indigenous people are about to join an encampment in Brasilia to protest about the cuts in funding. As one commentator said in New Scientist magazine, (https://www.newscientist.com/article/2129024-amazon-rainforest-under-threat-as-brazil-tears-up-protections/) “Indigenous people across the country are outraged at the failure to safeguard their land, without which they cannot survive.”
Add your voice to the protest
Can you help by protesting direct to the Brazilian government? Yes, you can. All you need to do is click here to see how you can help.
Dig beneath the surface of many a deforestation disaster and you'll find greed lurking. Madagascar is no different thanks to a recent sapphire rush that has generated worldwide interest from gem hunters, who are being blinded by the undoubted beauty and rarity of the country's brilliant blue, enormously precious stones.
Pressure groups are hoping for military intervention
Apparently tens of thousands of prospectors have already arrived in Madagascar's remote eastern rainforests in search of the costly gemstones, and they're busy disfiguring a region that is supposed to be officially protected, an environmental no-go area. The situation is so bad that officials in the country are threatening military intervention.
The problem is the sheer, magical quality of the gemstones being found in the incredibly biodiverse area called the Corridor Ankeniheny-Zahamena. More have been dug up there during the past six months than have been found in the whole of the country in the past two decades, making this a gold rush-type event of legendary proportions. In fact it is being labelled the most important gemstone discovery in Madagascar for the past thirty years.
Thousands of acres of forest are being felled
The tiny village of Bemainty, once remote and quiet, is now teeming with miners and gem traders, who are busy felling thousands of acres of forest in the protected area. The environmental group Conservation International helps manage the region and they are horrified by the destruction of the forest, which is widely known as one of the island nation's most precious resources.
Madagascar already produces about half of the planet's high-end sapphires, around $150 million worth every year. But the latest rush is without precedent, a chaotic six month-long environmental tragedy that has already led the government over there to declare the protection of the region a national priority.
Officials are unable to control the sapphire rush
Sadly, so far local officials have been completely unable to control the ongoing rush, and have had very little help despite making numerous requests for military support. Some say it's because ‘too many influential people' are involved in trading the stones, another testament – as if one was needed – that human greed and short sightedness still holds sway over environmental concerns.
It's tempting to see the Amazon's rainforests as pristine environments mostly unaffected by mankind. It's equally tempting to see indigenous people as having very little impact on the natural forest environment. But new research reveals humans have an awful lot to do with the way Amazon forests have developed over the 8000 years or so that people have lived there.
Proof that Pre-Colombians colonised the Amazon and thrived there
New research reveals that the area's powerful Pre-Colombian civilisation changed the region profoundly. A team from Naturalis Biodiversity Center and the Amazon Tree Diversity Network compared the distribution of 85 tree species, cross-referencing them with known archaeological sites. What they found was a surprise. It looks like the trees that were once domesticated by the pre-Columbians still dominate the forest, being five times more likely to grow around ruined cities and settlements than non-domesticated trees.
Out with the old, in with the new
The finding is already generating heated debate amongst scientists, challenging the old view that somehow, thousands of years of human occupation didn't really impact today's levels of diversity. And it's interesting to see which trees these ancient people valued most. They cultivated Brazil nuts and cacao, rubber, acai palm, cashew, caimito and tucuma palm, all species that are widely found to this day around the ruins of their cities. It looks like the Amazon is not as untouched as everyone assumed.
Why does it matter?
The results matter because they can be used to examine the agricultural history of the region. The Amazon is unbelievably vast, which usually makes research tricky, but the sheer quantity of new archaeological sites found recently, partly thanks to good quality satellite imagery, reveal the pre-Columbians' powerful ecological legacy.
No longer can we claim that the Amazon rainforest was only sparsely populated before Europeans arrived on the scene. The pre-Columbians lived and thrived in the Amazon region, just as they did across the rest of South America.
There's some very good news too – interestingly, the domesticated tree species are tipped to re-colonise deforested areas more readily than non-domesticated species, and they can do it without help from humans.
Think peat and you might picture Ireland, where vast tracts of the stuff were systematically dug up over hundreds if not thousands of years, leaving huge black scars marring the landscape. Or you might find yourself picturing a garden centre with stacks of peat-based potting compost. It's unlikely the Congo Basin would spring to mind, but a vast peatland in the Congo Basin has just been mapped for the first time, and it turns out it's the biggest in the tropics.
Stashing 30 billion tonnes of carbon safely
It's called the Cuvette Centrale peatlands, it's located in the central Congo Basin, and as little as five years ago nobody had a clue it existed. But it covers a whopping 145,500 square kilometres, a chunk of land bigger than England. Importantly, this huge tract of land sucks up and locks in an awesome 30 billion tonnes of carbon, and it's one of the richest carbon ecosystems on the planet, stashing an amount the same as three years' worth of the planet's total fossil fuel emissions.
Understanding what makes the peatlands tick
Professor Simon Lewis and Dr Greta Dargie, from University of Leeds and University College London, discovered the peatlands on a 2012 field trip to the region. They contain almost a third of the world's tropical peatland carbon, equalling around two decades' worth of fossil fuel emissions given off in the USA, and the resulting peatland map created by the team marks an important first step in understanding exactly what makes this remarkable ecosystem tick.
A vital resource in the fight against climate change
Peat is made from partly-rotted down plants, and it tends to be made in cooler areas of the world. Peat acts as a powerful carbon sink, sucking carbon out of the atmosphere via plant growth. Because it's waterlogged, the plant matter doesn't completely decompose, locking carbon in. If peatlands dry out, the decomposition process kicks off again and CO2 gets released back into the atmosphere. As you can imagine, intact peatlands are a vital resource in the fight against climate change, and it's important to maintain them.
An urgent need to consider peatlands in conservation plans
Carbon has been steadily building up in the Congo Basin's peatlands for almost eleven thousand years. Destroy it and billions of tonnes of CO2 would be released into the earth's atmosphere. The Congolese peatlands are such a new discovery they aren't taken into account in conservation plans, which puts them at serious risk.
Guest post by The Rainforest Foundation.
Rainforest conservation hits the headlines regularly for the most important global reasons, things like climate change, habitat destruction, oil pipelines and deforestation. Now the ‘Lost City of the Monkey God' has been uncovered in the rainforests of Honduras, one of the last great unexplored areas on earth.
The city's original inhabitants fled some time during the 1500s, believing their city to be cursed with disease and bad luck. In fact the natives were suffering from illnesses brought in by invading and settling Europeans, who also enslaved them.
An American author, one Douglas Preston, and a team of explorers set off to explore the dense Honduran and Nicaraguan rainforests and find the ancient city. The journey was exceptionally hazardous, studded with threats from poisonous snakes and involving fighting their way through incredibly thick vegetation.
The secrets of the massive Mosquitia rainforest revealed
The team's journey kicked off in the stunning Mosquitia rainforest, which covers a massive 20,000 square miles of Central America. The city was thought to be a legend, sometimes called the White City, other times the City of the Monkey God, and rumours have tantalized adventurers since the 1600s. One explorer, Steve Elkins, had been hunting for the city since the 1990s without success when he brought Preston in to document his latest expedition.
They are just two of many adventurers who have entered the jungle in search of the city. People have been looking for the ancient metropolis for hundreds of years, coveting the potentially precious objects left behind by its fleeing citizens.
High tech equipment reveals the lost city
This time around Elkins and Preston used contemporary technology to locate the ruined city, namely clever laser imaging equipment designed to scan hundreds of miles of jungle in just a few days, ‘seeing' through the trees with ease to map the ground remarkably accurately. On locating the city they soon uncovered a fascinating treasure trove of artefacts, including personal belongings.
See the documentary, read the book
A documentary about the expedition is currently being produced and there's a book too, just out, called The Lost City of the Monkey God and published by Grand Central. If you fancy a real, old-fashioned adventure full of thrills, it's a great read.
This Christmas, the Rainforest Foundation is asking for your help to protect the world's rainforests, by putting indigenous people at the heart of conservation efforts in the Congo Basin.
Indigenous communities have lived in Africa’s Congo Basin region for over 50,000 years. They are the forest’s natural guardians. Yet they are being routinely evicted from their traditional lands to make way for ‘protected areas’, endangering not only their livelihoods but also the forest’s biodiversity.
In the Tumba Lediima Reserve, a protected area in the Democratic Republic of Congo, around two hundred forest communities have found their livelihoods threatened. Living in fear of being beaten by eco-guards and unable to access the forest resources they need to survive has left some communities on the brink of starvation.
Evidence from around the world is showing that where indigenous peoples have been granted secure rights to their customary lands, rainforests are thriving. Their unparalleled ecological knowledge and traditional livelihoods are strongly linked to sustainable rainforest conservation.
Please click here to support their Christmas Appeal and help indigenous peoples shape the future conservation of the rainforests that they call home.
Think rainforests and Wales doesn't necessarily come to mind. But the small yet perfectly formed nation has a stunning rainforest all of its own, and now Wales' magnificent Celtic rainforest is ready to welcome visitors aboard.
Snowdonia's lovely rainforest is ten thousand years old, named Coed Felinrhyd in the 1100s and long a mysterious, magical place. Dating back to the end of the last ice age, it is already gaining a reputation as one of Britain's most unique ecosystems.
Head for the lovely little village of Maentwrog to find the pristine 221 acre forest, a place rich in unusual and rare plants and animals, many of which you can't find anywhere else. While it might look totally different from a tropical rainforest at first glance, much the same processes go on behind the scenes. The geography of the area has played a vital part in the forest's development, thanks to its unusual setting in a sheltered gorge. The countless streams and waterfalls that dot the woodland have also contributed to its unique ecosystem. The oak canopy makes things nicely humid, and the nasty Snowdonian frosts and powerful prevailing westerlies are kept at bay.
All this, and its sheer remoteness, means that the wood hasn't really changed for the past ten thousand years. And it shows. This place looks totally unlike any other forest you'll find in Wales, if not the whole of Britain. Take the tree lungwort, for example, which thrives there, a gorgeous and very rare lichen only found in a few remote areas of Britain these days.
The forest was bought by the Woodland Trust in 2015. Before then it was going to rack and ruin, seriously , endangered by invading rhododendrons and conifers. Since then, the Trust has been busy thinning the trees to allow native species the space they need to thrive. In fact you can already see the oak woodland growing back and the invaders retreating.
Best of all, the project has also created an awesome two and a half mile trail which they hope will encourage more people to explore the rainforest. If that floats your boat, head for Snowdonia and discover a natural landscape you'll never forget.
Peru's Central Amazon region suffers some of the nation's most acute levels of deforestation, but it's mostly neglected by conservationists. The problem is cows, which are grazing more and more of the region, and the resulting deforestation hotspot extends not far short of 15,000 square kilometres. The area has lost a quarter of its tree cover in the past 15 years and it's at crisis point. Worse still, recent reports reveal the rate of tree cover loss in 2016 is due to be more than three times the levels seen in 2015.
Cattle already have a major impact on the Brazilian Amazon
Cattle are notorious for destroying Brazil's Amazon rainforest. Cattle ranching is still the biggest cause of of deforestation there, and right now the cleared forest is home to about 60 million cows. Now a new report reveals neighbouring Peru as home to its own fast-growing ‘cowboy culture'. Researchers have found a forest area measuring more than 24,000 hectares has been destroyed during the past three years alone.
The Peruvian Central Amazon is ‘under-appreciated'
Cattle ranching in Peru isn't new, of course. It's just that nobody bothered to document the effect until now.
In recent analyses, MAAP (Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project ) has found that Peru’s Central Amazon has the highest levels of forest destruction in the country. At the same time the plight of the rainforests in the area has had very little media attention. Nobody knows why, it just appears to be an ‘under-appreciated area'.
Illegal cattle ranching in areas supposedly under protection
Worse still, the cattle-led deforestation is mostly illegal, taking place in outside the official areas earmarked by the government for agriculture, a situation highlighted thanks to satellite images which actually show cows roaming in denuded forest regions that should be under protection.
The Huánuco region, which is badly affected, is well known as a particularly beautiful place with a great deal of biodiversity and many unique species not found anywhere else. The region's unusual geography actually dissects the Andes, and it's home to massive amounts of remarkable cloud and montane forest.
Cattle deforestation has even affected areas in the official buffer zone, the Sira Communal Reserve, set up in 2001 to protect the Cordillera El Sira by law, a stunning mountain range co-managed by the local Ashaninka, Asheninka, Yanesha and Shipibo-Conibo indigenous people, leaving the park ‘vulnerable'.
Yet again corruption, greed and weak law enforcement are taking their toll. On one hand governments move to protect precious threatened forests, on the other hand they don't enforce the laws they put in place.
Exciting news! The first Kemito Ene chocolate bars made with sustainable rainforest cacao grown by indigenous Asháninka communities in the Peruvian Amazon, are available to buy online.
The chocolate bars are the result of years of work by RFUK to help the Asháninka secure and protect their rainforest homelands and to develop ecologically sustainable livelihoods.
Brought to the UK by specialist chocolate maker Loving Earth, this is a ‘bean-to-bar’ raw chocolate, made with organic and highly aromatic cocoa beans harvested last year and sweetened with evaporated coconut nectar. It's also palm oil free! Loving Earth, which is built on principles of trading fairly with indigenous people and respecting the planet, buys directly from Kemito Ene, the Asháninka producers association RFUK has supported since 2010. This ensures that indigenous communities receive the best price for their harvest.
Buying the 85% Dark Chocolate will help support the livelihoods of Peru’s rainforest peoples in their efforts to protect their forest and traditional way of life. So what are you waiting for!
Every year the earth loses around 15 billion trees. This is a shocking figure. A huge figure. But how big is that really?
It shows just how frightening the true scale of deforestation is.
For instance, every two days we lose an area of forest the size of New York City. An area the size of one of the world’s biggest cities gone in a weekend!
You can also see in this graphic that every three and a quarter years an area the size of California is lost, and every 15 years an area the size of Mexico. That’s almost 72,000 square miles!
Read on to discover more about the devastating scale of deforestation, and the work being done to prevent it.