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date: 17 June 2019

Summary and Keywords

In 1945 the Amazon biome was almost intact. Marks of ancient cultural developments in Andean and lowland Amazon had cicatrized and the impacts of rubber and more recent resources exploitation were reversible. Very few roads existed, and only on the Amazon’s periphery. However, from the 1950s, but especially in the 1960s, Brazil and some Andean countries launched ambitious road-building and colonization processes. Amazon occupation heavily intensified in the 1970s when forest losses began to raise worldwide concern. More roads continued to be built at a geometrically growing pace in every following decade, multiplying correlated deforestation and forest degradation. A no-return point was reached when interoceanic roads crossed the Brazilian-Andean border in the 2000s, exposing remaining safe havens for indigenous people and nature. It is commonly estimated that today no less than 18% of the forest has been substituted by agriculture and that over 60% of that remaining has been significantly degraded.

Theories regarding the importance of biogeochemical cycles have been developed since the 1970s. The confirmation of the role of the Amazon as a carbon sink added some international pressure for its protection. But, in general, the many scientific discoveries regarding the Amazon have not helped to improve its conservation. Instead, a combination of new agricultural technologies, anthropocentric philosophies, and economic changes strongly promoted forest clearing.

Since the 1980s and as of today Amazon conservation efforts have been increasingly diversified, covering five theoretically complementary strategies: (a) more, larger, and better-managed protected areas; (b) more and larger indigenous territories; (c) a series of “sustainable-use” options such as “community-based conservation,” sustainable forestry, and agroforestry; (d) financing of conservation through debt swaps and climate change’s related financial mechanisms; and (e) better legislation and monitoring. Only five small protected areas have existed in the Amazon since the early 1960s but, responding to the road-building boom of the 1970s, several larger patches aiming at conserving viable samples of biological diversity were set aside, principally in Brazil and Peru. Today around 22% of the Amazon is protected but almost half of such areas correspond to categories that allow human presence and resources exploitation, and there is no effective management. Another 28% or more pertains to indigenous people who may or may not conserve the forest. Both types of areas together cover over 45% of the Amazon. None of the strategies, either alone or in conjunction, have fully achieved their objectives, while development pressures and threats multiply as roads and deforestation continue relentlessly, with increasing funding by multilateral and national banks and due to the influence of transnational enterprises.

The future is likely to see unprecedented agriculture expansion and corresponding intensification of deforestation and forest degradation even in protected areas and indigenous land. Additionally, the upper portion of the Amazon basin will be impacted by new, larger hydraulic works. Mining, formal as well as illegal, will increase and spread. Policymakers of Amazon countries still view the region as an area in which to expand conventional development while the South American population continues to be mostly indifferent to Amazon conservation.

Keywords: Amazon, pre-Columbian occupation, deforestation, forest degradation, scientific support, protected areas, indigenous land, forest management, community development, policy and legislation for conservation

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