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date: 04 June 2020

Conservation in the Amazon: Evolution and Situation

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


This is an overview of the evolution of the environmental situation in the Amazon since the end of World War II (1945) when development in the region was incipient. Three aspects are discussed: (a) the historical and current impact of development on forests in terms of deforestation and forest degradation, (b) the influence of the progress of science and technology on conservation measures, and (c) the diversity, scope, and effectiveness of conservation measures.

Many criteria are available to describe the Amazon. For this article the concept of biome is applied (Whittaker, 1962). The Amazon biome is grossly equivalent to the Amazon forest, originally demarcated by the tree line of the cloud forests mostly at 3,600–3,800 meters in the eastern Andean flanks of Bolivia and Peru and lower in Ecuador and Colombia and the Atlantic Ocean, covering some 640 million hectares of Brazil (67.8% of Amazon), Peru (13%), Bolivia (11.2%), Colombia (5.5%), Ecuador, Guyana, Venezuela, Surinam, and French Guyana (Commission on Development and Environment for Amazonia [CDEA], 1992). It includes two main basins, Amazon and Orinoco, which cover some 7 million square kilometers and a great diversity of ecosystems, determined by altitude in the Andean slopes and by orography, soil, and climatic conditions everywhere, imposing a great biological diversity (Holdridge, 1947; Prance, 1982; Udvardy, 1975).

The presence or absence of forest is the most obvious and useful indicator of the environmental condition of Amazon ecosystems. Deforestation has been measured for decades in the Amazon and, despite information that is being politicized, it offers a good picture of the status of conservation. Forest degradation is also important, but its measurement and interpretation are much more difficult to achieve (Lund, 2009).

The term “Amazon conservation” used in this article is equivalent to the concept of sustainable development, meaning efforts made in the region to harmonize economic development, social progress, and environmental protection (World Commission on Environment and Development [WCED], 1987). It implies limited well-justified deforestation, no irreversible degradation nor waste of natural resources, and the proficiency of conservation measures such as protected areas. This article is intended to offer a measure of the gap between what could be considered sustainable development and the changing reality over the decades.

Historic Occupation and Its Impacts

Pre-Columbian Human Presence

The Amazon has had a human population possibly as long as any other biome in South America (Mann, 2011; Roosevelt, 2013). Early Andean cultural developments such as Chavin, located out of the Amazon biome but within the Amazon basin, gave ground to the theory of an Amazon origin for all ancient Peruvian cultures (Tello, 1960). Caral discoveries (Shady, 2006) among others in the Peruvian Pacific coast challenged this theory as they are older than Chavin. However, recent findings demonstrated a civilization probably even older than Caral was situated in Jaen (Peru), the easiest contact location between the Amazon and the Pacific Coast (Atwood, 2011, 2017; Clasby & Meneses, 2012). Thus, the discussion is still open. Nonetheless, humans have existed in the Amazon for millennia, as long ago as 12,000 years bce in Peru (Church, 1994). While previous views considered the Amazon’s human carrying capacity limited (Meggers, 1971) it is now assumed that before arrival of Europeans, in one or more moments of history, the total population of the Amazon could have reached several million inhabitants (Denevan, 1992, 2003; Newson, 1996).

Overall, four types of societies probably occurred: (a) civilizations that left large engineering works, mostly located in the western and southern Amazon peripheries; (b) civilizations with important human concentrations located along the great rivers and in the Amazon delta; (c) forest villagers who practiced agriculture, including those associated with the “black earth” sites; and (d) forest villagers who did not practice agriculture, including hunters, fishermen, and itinerant gatherers. Obviously, there is a complex gradient in time and space between these peoples and it is not always possible to differentiate them completely.

Part of the first group settled in the high humid jungles of Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia, built stone cities, such as Pajatén in Peru or Pastaza and Sangay in Ecuador (Lumbreras, 1981, 2013), and developed agricultural practices similar to those used in the Andes. They deforested important areas and cultivated corn, among other adapted Andean plants, as well as many useful plants known to locally preexisting peoples (Brack, 2003; León, 2013). In the Amazonian southwest, in the Pampas de Mojos in the Bolivian Beni, another civilization built impressive hydraulic infrastructures. They also grew corn and squash, among other local plants (Denevan, 1970, 1976). And in Acre (Brazil), a considerable number of earth structures (geoglyphs) have been discovered that reveal a civilization that may or may not be related to the previous one but that also developed significant agriculture (Watling et al., 2017). Hydraulic works like those mentioned, although of lesser proportion, existed in several other places in the Amazon (Pärssinen, Schaan, & Ranzi, 2009; Ranzi & Aguiar, 2004). But there is much more evidence of widespread pre-Columbian cultural presence in the Amazon as well as of exchanges with other cultures far beyond the Amazon biome (Lathrap, 1973). Most of these civilizations had already disappeared or were decadent when the Europeans arrived. Some of the Amazonian west was, by then, occupied by the Incas, who had also built new citadels such as Machu Picchu and Choquequirao farther south (Burga, 2008).

Amazonian civilizations obviously used fire to supplement their stone and in some cases bronze tools when clearing trees and expanding agriculture. They may have built terraces to limit erosion. Fire was also used to open up the forests that covered the land where the great hydraulic works of the Beni were built in Bolivia and elsewhere, and its use has been demonstrated in the case of the civilization that built the Acre geoglyphs in Brazil. These works, like any infrastructure that modifies the natural drainage, caused major environmental alterations whose impacts are visible even today, changing the floristic composition and therefore the entire trophic chain (Watling et al., 2017). It is not known how many hectares these diverse and large cultural developments in different parts of the Amazon may have deforested over time but, considering the extent occupied by them, the area may have been very significant.

The second group corresponds to the civilizations that occupied the banks of the Amazonian rivers and took advantage of the várzeas or floodplains. These were reported by Orellana during his expedition of the Amazon and by the Portuguese who sailed from the delta and encountered the Marajo cultures (Roosevelt, 2000). Everything indicates that they had relatively large inhabited centers with complex societies and a significant population, with agriculture fueled by the annual renewal of soil fertility, which did not require significant deforestation. They also took advantage of the alluvial forests and nearby highland forests for hunting, in addition to fishing, which was obviously the main source of animal protein (Blatrix et al., 2018; Mashuta, Ovando, & McKey, 2018). Possibly these riparian cultures were the bulk of the pre-Columbian Amazonian population. They were almost completely decimated by diseases brought by Spaniards and Portuguese at initial contact (Hamilton, Walker, & Kesler, 2014). Those civilizations left less traces because of their exposure to exceptional floods that literally washed away many archaeological sites.

The other two groups were unlikely to have been very different from today’s indigenous people. They developed small settlements, relatively isolated, that formed nations with differentiated territories. They developed a diversified agriculture and may have altered the nearby forests by propagating useful tree species (Crystal, McMichael, Matthews-Bird, Farfan-Rios, & Feeley, 2017; Levis et al., 2017; McMichael, Matthews-Bird, Farfan-Rios, & Feeley, 2017). Some of them seem to have created the many sites known as terra preta or black earth to ensure lasting soil fertility (Basso & Kimura, 2006; Costa, Kern, Pinto, Eleotério, & Souza, 2004; Erickson, 2003). Considering the extent of the occupation of these indigenous people in the Amazon, confirmed by satellite imagery and drones, it is evident that they caused some deforestation to establish agriculture. A 3.2% figure has been mentioned for terra preta lowlands (Wade, 2014). Others practiced typical migratory agriculture, or slash and burn, rotating the cultivation areas. And, finally, there were also indigenous groups that depended principally on hunting, fishing, and gathering. A few small groups of uncontacted indigenous groups still live in remote parts of the region (Brackelaire, 2006).

Access to the Amazon was a lot easier by navigation up the Amazon River than by land down the Andes. Thus, despite precious woods such as mahogany being extracted, some plantations, such as coca, were established in the upper Amazon near Spanish cities; some other forest products were extracted by the Portuguese using the city of Belem do Para (founded in 1616) as a base. The search for goods, mostly gold and precious stones, allowed the establishment of a network of new small villages along the Amazon River and its main tributaries that developed subsistence agriculture. It was only by the mid-19th century, when the rubber boom began, that some newcomers considered the establishment of land properties that later took the form of farms, when the natural rubber lost its importance. Despite all the evils related to the two phases of the rubber boom, it has not caused obvious permanent damage to forests (Bunker, 1984). Simultaneously, and later, species such as river turtles, rosewood, Brazil nuts, as well as giant otter, ocelot and jaguar skins, and peccaries and caiman hides, among others, were also subject to heavy exploitation, but none has been a proven cause of biological extinction nor caused any significant deforestation. Between the two World Wars a small number of short non-paved roads were built, linking some Andean cities to the upper Amazon, while some farms for tea, sugar cane, cacao, and coffee began to be developed. A similar situation was developing in the southern portion of the Brazilian Pará state.

In summary, despite evidence of a very old and quite significant agricultural occupation of the Amazon that unquestionably has made perdurable ecological changes in large tracks of the region, most of these impacts were mitigated by a new relatively natural climax caused by a population gap most probably induced by diseases and disarray following European arrival. By the end of World War II, despite heavy and irrational exploitation of natural resources in the previous two centuries, deforestation of the Amazon was not significant. While not measured, forest degradation caused by unrestricted hunting and extraction of timber and non-timber products was at that time probably more significant than deforestation.

Postwar Development in the Amazon

The last years of the 1940s and especially the 1950s witnessed the beginning of the boom of road-building in most Amazon countries. The biggest push in that period was in Peru and Ecuador, and also in Bolivia. In these countries, so-called “penetration” roads were intended to reach upper Amazon valleys and, especially, eastern navigable rivers. Brazil was still relying on river navigation, but in the late 1950s everything changed as its long-standing policy of occupation of the west materialized with the move of the capital city from Rio de Janeiro to Brasilia (inaugurated in 1960) in the center of the country (Martins de Souza, 1996). A first step has been the Brasilia–Belem road (BR-010). The big push came in the early 1970s with the construction of the 4,000-kilometer-long Trans-Amazonia Highway (BR-230) linking the Brazilian Amazon states from the Atlantic to the borders of Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru (Fearnside, 2005).

During the mid-1970s another road (BR-364) was built to link Cuiabá, Mato Grosso’s capital, to Porto Velho in Rondônia and Rio Branco in Acre. In the 1980s this road was paved with financing from the World Bank (in Mato Grosso and Rondonia) and the Inter-American Development Bank (in Acre). This road attracted more people more quickly than the Trans-Amazonia road, inducing the government to launch the Northwest Development Program (POLONOROESTE), with additional investments from these banks aiming at rationalizing land occupation and establishing sustainable settlements, protected areas, and indigenous reserves. This project, as others later, had only limited success as uncontrolled deforestation and mining proliferated (Dourojeanni, 1985a; Fearnside, 1989; Millikan, 1984).

Several other important roads were also initiated in the 1970s linking the states of Mato Grosso and Para, Tocantins and Para (BR-320), and the states of Amazonas and Roraima. The roads between Cuiaba and Santarem (BR-163) and between Manaus and Boa Vista (BR-174) to the Venezuelan frontier (Barni, Fearnside, & Graça, 2015; Fearnside, 2007; Rodrigues & da Silva Pinheiro, 2011) were inaugurated in 1990. Several more have been built or are under construction, including the opening of a link between the state of Amazonas and the network of roads in Rondônia and Acre (BR-319) and another road opening the Xingu Valley. Many thousands of kilometers of regional roads complement and amplify this basic network.

Concerned about Brazilian geopolitics, neighboring countries adopted equivalent measures regarding the Amazon (Medina, 1980). They also built ambitious roads aiming to link urban centers with lowland navigable rivers, such as the Lima–Pucallpa (Ucayali River) road. Another important Peruvian effort has been the Marginal de la Selva (PE 5N), a road that opened to colonization huge areas of the Huallaga Valley in the 1960s, and that was expanded in the 1980s and later. Peru also adopted the policy of “living frontiers,” establishing precarious jungle settlements near the limits of Brazilian towns (Belaunde, 1969; Dourojeanni, 1990). In Bolivia and Ecuador, roads in the Amazon were and still are often more related to oil exploitation than to colonization, but the end result has been the same, as they have attracted peasants, loggers, and gold diggers (Rudel, 1983). However, these countries also adopted the concept of the Marginal (known as Troncal de la Selva or E 45 in Ecuador), intending to replicate in the upper Amazon the concept of the mainly coastal Pan-American Highway.

The 1990s saw a constant amplification of the Amazon road network and improvement of existing routes, including bridge-building and paving. Main roads as well as rivers were interlinked with new roads. While the main roads or axes were federally or nationally planned decisions, most secondary and all tertiary roads were the result of provincial, local, or even individual decisions, frequently built only to facilitate logging, ranching, or mining (Dourojeanni, 2011a; Perz, Overdevest, Caldas, Walker, & Arima, 2007). These unplanned and often illegal roads were usually adopted and improved by the ministries of public transportation.

The 21st century saw the first road connecting the Brazilian road network with those of the Andean countries. The interoceanic roads, sponsored by Brazil through the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in Latin America Initiative (IIRSA), opened to resources exploitation a vast region of the Amazon frontier between Brazil and Peru that had previously remained a haven for indigenous people and wildlife (van Dijc, 2013). The region of Madre de Dios, in Peru, has become easily accessible for agriculture, logging, and especially gold digging since 2011, when the interoceanic road (Interoceánica Sur) between Rio Branco in Brazil and Cuzco in Peru (PE 26B) became fully paved and operative (Alberti & Pereyra, 2018). Its enormous negative impact on forests and local society has been predicted (Dourojeanni, 2006) and confirmed (Fernandez, 2010; Webster & Haviv, 2012). Another interoceanic road (Interoceánica Central) is currently advancing between Pucallpa in Peru and the Brazilian road system at Cruzeiro do Sul (Glave et al., 2012), while a bimodal (road and waterway) transport system (Interoceánica Norte) is already in place in northern Peru ensuring a connection with Manaus. A branch of this main road will also connect the Amazon regions of Ecuador and Peru (Dourojeanni, 2011a, 2013b). There is still a large forest patch unimpacted by roads in the Brazilian state of Amazonas and its nearby Peruvian department of Loreto.

The Ecuadorian Amazon region is currently well served by roads that connect with the Peruvian system and more are being planned, including with Brazil through the bimodal Manta–Manaus project that includes roads and waterways (Izko, 2012). While still relatively free of roads, Colombia has plans to build more roads in the Amazon and to transform rivers into waterways (Arenas, Zúñiga, & Mayordomo, 2011). Venezuela and French Guyana are today connected with Brazil. Guyana and Surinam roads are mostly associated with mining.

Road expansion plans are aggressively being developed everywhere in the Amazon. Between 2004 and 2007 around 17,000 km of roads per year were built in the Brazilian Amazon region alone (Ahmed, Souza, Ribeiro, & Ewers, 2013). Around 100,000 km of roads, of which 64.5% are not paved, were identified in the Amazon in 2012 (Red Amazónica de Información Socioambiental Georreferenciada [RAISG], 2012). In 2013 the Brazilian government registered 178,000 km of roads in its Amazon region, including those under imminent construction. In Peru a new road from Yurimaguas is advancing to the Marañon River and several others are making progress from the city of Pucallpa to the north and from the Ucayali and Amazon Rivers to the Brazilian frontier (Finer & Villa, 2018). The still isolated city of Iquitos will soon be connected to the Interoceanica Norte. Bolivia is also linking its Pando region with the Interoceanica Sur in Peru. The economic justification of these roads is not always evident, especially when considering environmental costs (Malky, Reid, Ledezma, & Fleck, 2011).

Roads are supplemented by the construction of waterways and railways. These are less environmentally damaging and may be better options if they replace roads. However, in the Amazon these public works are scarce and poorly maintained. In addition, especially in Peru, they are often parallel routes to existing or planned roads (Dourojeanni, 2013b). The main Amazon Peruvian rivers are currently the subject of a Chinese investment project to improve their navigability in order to better connect with the Brazilian Amazon waterways (ProInversión, 2016). Several international railways are being proposed in Brazil to the Pacific coast in addition to interoceanic roads. The two most advanced proposals would link the Brazilian railways system with ports in the Peruvian northern coast (Caillaux, Novak, & Ruiz, 2016) while another, also serving Bolivia, is planned to go to ports on the southern Peruvian coast (Small, 2017). Both are said to be financed by China.

Brazil built the first large dams (Tucurui and Balbina) in the Amazon lowlands in the 1980s. By then, some smaller or mid-sized dams already existed in the higher watershed, in the Andean countries, and in the Orinoco basin, but these, with few exceptions, had limited negative impact. Unfortunately, the lowlands’ huge reservoirs proved to be very harmful in terms of loss of natural ecosystems, increase in greenhouse gas emissions, blockage of fish migration, and creation of anoxic water, as well as producing methane and providing conditions for methylation of mercury (Fearnside, 2001, 2006). The growing energy requirements of Brazil in the 1990s and 2000s justified the building of many more dams covering almost every river of the Amazon. Several other very large dams are being built in Brazil, such as Belo Monte in the Xingu River and Jirau and Santo Antonio in the Madeira River (Fearnside, 2012). Brazil is currently building or planning to reach a production of 42,529.5 MW in its Amazon region (Little, 2013), and it is also putting political pressure on its Andean neighbors, especially Peru and Bolivia, to build dams in their physiographically more advantageous Amazon territory. Fifteen large dams are considered a priority inside the Peruvian territory (Serra, 2010). The impacts of dams that are located out of the Amazon biome but in its basin are also very serious in terms of disruption of the ecological connectivity of the Amazon River to the Andes, causing substantial impacts on nutrient cycling and fish populations. Of the 413 dams already in operation, under construction, or proposed, 256 are in Brazil, 77 in Peru, 54 in Ecuador, 14 in Bolivia, six in Venezuela, two in Guyana, and one each in Colombia, French Guyana, and Surinam. In the Amazon watershed of Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, 48 dams are operating and 151 are planned; of these 47% were classified as “high impact” (Finer & Jenkins, 2012; Forsberg et al., 2017). The direct and indirect damage of energy transmission lines in tropical forests is often understated (Goodland, 2005).

Oil exploration in the Amazon took off in the 1970s, mainly in Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia (Finer et al., 2008). A total of 263 of the 327 concessions of the Amazonia are concentrated in Andean countries. Only 25% of this total are currently in the production phase. Current oil production activities in the Ecuador Amazon span more than 1 million hectares and include more than 300 producing wells and 29 production camps (San Sebastián & Hurtig, 2004). Practically all the Peruvian Amazon, including indigenous land but excepting key protected areas, is included in oil and gas exploration concessions (Finer & Orta-Martínez, 2010). Mining in the Amazon is especially important in Brazil, where some of the largest companies are located. There are almost 53,000 mining concessions in the Amazon covering 163 million hectares or 21% of the Amazon—80% are in Brazil and 11% in Peru (RAISG, 2012). A key issue is the unlawful gold digging going on almost everywhere in the Amazon: the most serious cases are in Brazil, Peru, and Guyana, with enormous environmental impacts on the aquatic ecosystems, including high mercury levels in water, soils, and humans (Dórea & Marques, 2016).

Deforestation and Forest Degradation

The road infrastructure has had a tremendous impact on the biome. Roads are the unequivocal main driver of deforestation (Alamgir et al., 2017; Barber, Cochrane, Souza, & Laurance, 2014). Deforestation is obviously a direct result of agricultural expansion (Laurance, Sayer, & Cassman, 2014). However, illegal gold mining deforestation is becoming significant. The clearing process and land use is different in the Andean countries and in Brazil and, to some extent, also in Bolivia and Colombia. In the Andean Amazon most deforestation has been caused for years by poor small farmers who practice different modalities of shifting cultivation. After a few years of such treatment most of the cleared land is degraded and abandoned or transformed into low productivity grassland (Shane, 1980; Watters, 1971). African grasses cover 60% or more of the deforested Amazon. Another portion of the land has been transformed into mid-size farms that have been established to produce coffee and cacao or fruits; more recently, larger estates have begun planting oil palm, among other industrial crops for export, including the illegal and highly environmentally impacting coca (Araujo, 2001; Dourojeanni, 1992; Gilbert, 2012). However, in general, properties in this region are relatively small. In Brazil and in the Bolivian lowlands, where private ownership is more prevalent and flatland abundant, large estates were established initially for cattle ranching; the beasts were fed on exotic grasses. Cattle ranching, with numbers of beasts currently reaching some 200 million heads in Brazil alone, continues to be the dominant use of the land (Hecht, 1985; Hecht, Norgaard, & Possio, 1988; Margulis, 2004; Vera-Diaz, Kaufmann, & Nepstad, 2009). Part of this land is progressively being transformed through intensive production of commodities such as corn, cotton, or soybean. Shifting cultivation and small farms also occur in Brazil but are not as dominant as in the Andean countries (Kalamandeen et al., 2018).

Diverse studies have measured the relation of roads to deforestation and other environmental impacts, but these vary enormously with regard to the function of the road, its quality and maintenance, soil fertility, and time elapsed since construction, among other factors (Alves, 2001a, 2001b; Fearnside, 2007; Laurance, Goosem, & Laurance, 2009). Measures of annual and especially of accumulated deforestation in the Amazon are heavily influenced by factors such as the purpose of the information, selected baseline year and assumed original size of the biome, definition of forest and of national “Amazon region,” inclusion or exclusion of secondary growth forests, tree or shrub plantations, reforestation and agroforestry fields, and, obviously, the remote sensing technologies used (MacDicken & Tubiello, 2015). The most frequently mentioned information is collected by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) (FAO-EC, 2012). However, this information is often contested as it relies on government information (Kim, Sexton, & Townshend, 2015). Since the beginning of the present century, deforestation information has become more precise and independent thanks to new remote sensing technologies to address reduced emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (Goetz et al., 2015).

It is generally assumed that 18% to 20% of the Amazon biome has been already deprived of its original forests (Lovejoy, 2015; Lovejoy & Nobre, 2018). Guyana, Suriname, and French Guyana are the less deforested countries while Ecuador, with 38%, is proportionally the most deforested (Izko, 2012). These statistics are driven by Brazil’s deforestation, which covered 19.1% in 2017 (Branford & Torres, 2017), and Peru’s, with probably as much as 17.9% (Dourojeanni, 2011a, 2018). Official and other information, using different criteria, gives lesser proportions (Ministerio del Ambiente Peru [MINAM], 2010; Portugués & Huerta, 2005; RAISG, 2015).1 It is important to mention that especially in Andean countries, such as Peru, only 20% to 25% of the deforested land produces crops yearly, including grasslands, and that every hectare produces a fraction of its potential capacity if adequately managed (Dourojeanni, 1990). This results in a gross waste of land already deforested and serviced by roads. Also, in Andean countries most deforestation occurs on steep hills whose soils are technically unsuitable for agriculture and by law must be protected.

Agriculture and the keeping of livestock are the overwhelming purposes of deforestation. But some other land uses may also be significant. It is estimated that the Brazilian hydroelectric expansion program may occupy 9.4 million hectares (Little, 2013). Oil and gas exploitation have no significant direct impacts on deforestation, but they are indirectly important when roads are built to facilitate exploitation or to build pipelines that also favor the invasion of loggers and farmers (Goodland, 2005). Mining, especially unlawful mining in river banks such as in Madre de Dios, Peru, also cause direct deforestation that is increasingly destructive (Asner, Llactayo, Tupayachi, & Ráez-Luna, 2013; Finer & Novoa, 2017). Urban expansion is another contributor to deforestation. However, all these land uses, especially oil exploitation and mining, are much more significant as contributors to forest and aquatic ecosystems’ degradation through diverse forms of contamination (Donovan, 2012).

Information on forest degradation is obviously much less precise and difficult to define and evaluate than deforestation (Lund, 2009; Sasaki & Putz, 2009). Selective logging, the most common form of forest exploitation in the Amazon, is the main cause of forest degradation (Foley et al., 2007; Souza & Roberts, 2005). This process occurs over decades, as selective logging implies waves of exhaustive timber extraction that target different species, often in the same places. Logging is complemented by hunting (Burivalova, Sekercioglu, & Koh, 2014). Another key factor in degradation is the border effect that increases with forest fractioning and isolation (Haddad et al., 2015), especially as related to the use of fire (Branford & Torres, 2017; Sanford, Saldarriaga, Clark, Uhl, & Herrera, 1985).

Forests are also degraded by many other exploitation modalities, like rubber tapping or gathering of seeds and nuts and hunting, as well as by contamination originating in oil and mining exploitation, agriculture, industry in urban areas, and even well-intentioned ecotourism (Ceballos-Lazcurain, 1996; Peres, 2000; Peres et al., 2003; Swenson, Carte, Domec, & Delgado, 2011). Hunting for food and commerce are today, as in the past, common activities all over the Amazon (Pierret & Dourojeanni, 1966, 1967; Nasi, Taber, & van Vliet, 2011) and is often associated with narcotic and arms traffic (Sinovas, Price, King, Hinsley, & Pavitt, 2017). Uncontrolled fisheries are also contributing to create “empty” forests (Terborgh, 1999; Wilkie, Bennett, Peres, & Cunningham, 2011). It has been estimated that forest degradation yearly has an impact that is equivalent to deforestation (Carnegie Institution News, 2005). Considering the history and density of logging in Peru it is probable that no less than half the remaining forest of this country has been degraded to some extent (Dourojeanni, 2011a).

Science and Its Influence in Amazon Conservation

The Amazon has been open to scientists from everywhere, who have worked all over the region in every country, based in universities and research institutions from the Amazon countries and abroad. However, they have been especially concentrated in two facilities located in the region: the Instituto de Pesquisas da Amazônia (INPA) in Manaus, Brazil, and the Cocha Cashu Research Station in the Manu National Park in Peru. The Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (INPE) of Brazil also plays a key role with regard to climate change and vegetation monitoring, while the Instituto de Investigaciones de la Amazonia Peruana (IIAP) is acquiring relevance.

Scientific advances have influenced everything that has been proposed and achieved to conserve the Amazon. But, as will be shown in this analysis, science’s influence has been limited and often concentrated in protected areas, mainly used to provide arguments for their establishment and, to a lesser degree, for their management. Research has also provided inputs on small-scale projects that combine socioeconomic objectives with environmental care. To a much lesser extent it has also contributed to the adoption of specific environmental legislation. Such legislation has been only partially applied and has never been able to consistently oppose or counteract legislation that promotes business as usual (Fearnside, 2014). Research has also opened new opportunities for international financing, especially as related to climate change. However, most scientific evidence was not used to adopt policies or plans or to take action that would have real and perdurable positive impact on sustainable development (Fearnside, 1986). Instead, science and associated technology have been the main drivers of deforestation and conventional development.

Since the late 2000s, the most common argument to establish protected areas in the Amazon has been the demonstration of the magnitude (“megadiversity”), uniqueness, and patterns of distribution of their biological diversity urged by a demonstration of the growing risks of species extinction (i.e., International Union for Conservation of Nature [IUCN] Red Lists), coupled with their much promoted actual or potential usefulness in agriculture, medicine, or other areas (Myers, 1984; Mittermeier, Robles, & Mittermeier, 1997; Reid & Miller, 1989; Schultes, 1979). Evidence of speciation and endemism in the Andes (Swenson et al., 2012), theories such as the Pleistocene refuges (Bush, 1994; Salo, 1987), the existence of “hot spots” (Mittermeier, Myers, Thomsen, da Fonseca, & Olivieri, 1998; Myers, 1988), followed by the concept of cold spots (Kareiva & Marvier, 2003; Melián et al., 2015), as well as isolation and habitat fragmentation theories (DeFries, Hansen, Newton, & Hansen, 2005; Haddad et al., 2015; Wilcox, 1980), minimal critical size and border effect (Laurance et al., 2002), among others, were arguments frequently utilized and up to some point accepted to create more and larger protected areas (Laurance et al., 2011; Myers, 1988). These scientific discoveries also had input into the adoption of buffer zones and the proposals of biological corridors (Beier & Noss, 2008). The intensification of field research allowed the rediscovery of presumed extinct species and the discovery of 1,200 new species from 1999 to 2009 and 441 between 2010 and 2013 (World Wildlife Fund [WWF], 2009; Tickell, 2013). Studies also recognize ecosystems that had been ignored for many years, such as the Amazon white sands (Frasier, Albert, & Struwe, 2008), suggesting the need for more protected areas. But the establishment of protected areas may also be in response to opportunism or political will (Dourojeanni & Padua, 2007, 2013).

However, the scientific community has also often aired views that have provided arguments to policymakers opposed to the establishment of protected areas. A pervasive confrontation between natural and social scientists’ views on nature and its conservation has compromised achievements regarding protected areas. Since the late 1970s, and especially after the consecration of the concept of sustainable development (World Commission on Environment and Development [WCED], 1987), social scientists’ criticism of strictly protected areas increased (Machlis, 1992; Machlis & Tichnell, 1985; Poole, 1989); often they simply inverted the sense of the scientific arguments used to promote preservation, such as arguing that biodiversity in protected areas is like an island’s, condemned to extinction (Quammen, 1996). This trend has been evolving into today’s accentuated anthropocentrism, which, in many ways, agrees with positions that are also defended by developers (Barborak, 1997; Gómez-Pompa & Kahm, 1992; Kareiva, Marvier, & Lalasz, 2012). Another consequence of these views has been the establishment of an array of new “protected” areas open to human occupation and a wide range of resources utilization (Allegretti, 2008; Dudley & Stolton, 2007). On the more clearly positive side, social scientists have influenced the development of so-called community-based conservation and, as expected, they were key in the increased priority given to the recognition of rights for indigenous people.

Research related to forestry, freshwater vulnerability, and fisheries or wildlife (Castello et al., 2013), and related propositions of measures to improve their management, has had little practical acceptance. Information on natural forest regeneration (Hartshorn, 1980; Whitmore, 1978) and composition (Steege et al., 2013), fisheries (Goulding, 1981; Goulding, Smith, & Mahar, 1995), and wildlife (Dourojeanni, 1985b) has never been applied to improve the management of these resources nor their legislation or administration. Instead, several biological discoveries were used to intensify industrial silviculture or aquaculture that may be detrimental to nature and natural stocks. In addition, scientific mixed messages, such as the concept of the non-renewability of the tropical forests, were frequently used as arguments to not manage forests (Gómez-Pompa, Vasquez-Yañez, & Guevara, 1972).

The most transcendental scientific advances regarding the Amazon are obviously those related to biogeochemical cycles, especially carbon fixation in the biomass and soils (McClain, Victoria, & Richey, 2001) and the hydrological cycle (Salati & Vose, 1984; Salati, Dall’Olio, & Matsui, 1979). These discoveries, amid others, nourished the concept of environmental services and of their real value for world economics (Costanza et al., 1997; Farber, Costanza, & Wilson, 2002) and are essential elements of the climate change issue. For a long time, the half-truth of the Amazon as the planet’s lungs or key oxygen producer dominated the scene. However, different lines of research coincided to describe a far more complex reality. Early studies on biomass (Fitkau & Klinge, 1973; Klinge, Rodriguez, Bruning, & Fitkau, 1975) were complemented over time by many studies on the relation of Amazon deforestation to the global carbon problem (Baccini et al., 2012; Fearnside, 1985; Harris et al., 2012; Houghton, 2003; Houghton et al., 2000; Revelle, 1982; Woodwell, 1978; Woodwell et al., 1983). Carbon emissions from Amazon artificial lakes and hydric energy generation proved to be significant as well (Fearnside & Pueyo, 2012). Carbon is also accumulated in enormous quantity in Amazon soils and subsoils and implies serious risks of emissions depending on future land use (Lahteenoja et al., 2012). Research on tree physiology (Makarieva & Gorshkov, 2007; Makarieva et al., 2014), the role of biogenic nuclei of clouds and precipitation of rain (Pöschl et al., 2010), deforestation and fires (Nepstad et al., 2004; Koren, Kaufman, Remer, & Martins, 2004; Nepstad et al., 1999, 2004), the so-called “flying rivers” (Newell & Newell, 1992), and extreme climatic events (Marengo, Tomasella, Soares, Alves, & Nobre, 2011) is increasing awareness of the potential desertification of the Amazon but also regarding a reduction of precipitation in other South American regions (Nobre, 2014). Recent research demonstrates not only that Amazon droughts are increasing in frequency and intensity, but also that tree communities aren’t keeping up with the rapid changes. Rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is driving compositional changes in the forest (Esquivel-Muelbert et al., 2018; Laurance et al., 2004). The climate change context calls for a review of protected area efficiency in preserving biological diversity (Brodie, Post, & Laurance, 2012). Research has also documented a progressive decline of the Amazon carbon sink capacity (Brienen et al., 2015). The enormous amount of information on these matters and the growing evidence of the socioeconomic consequences of deforestation are raising awareness, especially in developed countries, and channeling more resources, but have not determined any concrete or effective decision in the Amazon countries, which continue with business as usual, expanding the road network and indirectly promoting deforestation.

Before the 1960s the predominating concept regarding the Amazon’s land use capacity was that the region had very limited potential for clean tilled agriculture and quite limited potential for permanent crops and pastures (Natural Research Council [NRC], 1982). Most studies estimated Amazon capability for agriculture and cattle ranching at less than 11% (Zamora, 1971). This has been reflected in the legislation of countries such as Peru, restraining deforestation. However, most soil scientists and agronomists were critical of this view and supported the principle that Amazon soils’ natural limitations could easily be overcome with appropriate technology that depends on economics (Sanchez & Buol, 1975; Sanchez, Bandy, Villachica, & Nicholaides, 1982). Despite justified doubts about its sustainability (Fearnside, 1987) this trend has dominated, and large portions of the Amazon, especially in Brazil, are now utilized for intensive mechanized agriculture. Advances in agricultural sciences and technologies, including weed and pest control, soils management, and genetically improved plants, among others, made this an economically viable reality thanks to world food demand and new transport infrastructure. No less important has been the enormous progress made recently regarding remote sensing, including the use of drones, new forms of communication, building technologies, and so many others. These may, of course, be useful to conserve the Amazon but can equally be used to deepen its exploitation, as in the case of geological surveys that unveil mineral richness. Other studies have explained long-term mysteries such as the resurgences of fertility in the northern Amazon (Bristow, Hudson-Edwards, & Chappell, 2010; Chin et al., 2015).

In conclusion, research has fulfilled its role of informing and alerting society about the potential negative consequences of the way the Amazon is being occupied and developed, and has proposed alternatives. The portion of the research that has been applied as suggested is not negligible, especially regarding protected areas, a portion of the legislation, and, possibly, regarding future financing of measures related to climate change. Nevertheless, society has overwhelmingly neglected scientific facts and, instead, has made intense use of branches of the science and technology that contribute to business as usual in the Amazon.

Amazon Conservation Efforts: Evolution and Situation

The careless development rush after 1945, as well as increasing deforestation and clear evidence of social and economic failures, gave rise to multiple cautionary voices and an array of proposals to avoid the worst expected scenarios (Dorst, 1970; Goodland & Irving, 1975). By the 1970s three strategies were given priority: the establishment of a network of representative protected areas, the adoption of forest management as an alternative to deforestation for agriculture, and efforts to restrict agriculture to soils that were considered suitable for such use. But by the end of the 1980s it was evident that only the first strategy had had some success (Dourojeanni, 1990). Then, in light of new facts and political contexts, during the 1990s the strategic choices to conserve the Amazon were diversified, covering: (a) more and larger but effectively managed protected areas, including biological corridors and buffer zones; (b) the recognition of indigenous peoples’ rights over larger territories supposed to be preserved; (c) a series of “sustainable use” options such as “sustainable” forestry, agroforestry, and forest restoration, most of which were included in the concept “community-based conservation”; (d) the application of land-use planning or economic-ecological zoning; (e) the financing of conservation through international technical cooperation, debt swaps, and, more recently, climate change’s related financial mechanisms; and (f) better and better enforced planning, legislation, and governance, including improved monitoring.

Protected Areas and Indigenous Land

Only 12 protected areas existed in Latin America before 1949, none of them in the Amazon. The first five protected areas in the Amazon biome were established in the 1960s: one in Bolivia, two in Peru, and two in Suriname (IUCN, 1971). But, since 1970, the establishment of larger and better-designed protected areas has been exponential, especially in Brazil (Padua & Coimbra, 1979) and Peru (Dourojeanni, 1982; Dourojeanni & Ponce, 1978), covering around 23.5 million hectares in 1980 (3.3% of the Amazon basin) and as much as 32.2 million hectares in 1990 (Dourojeanni, 2018; IUCN, 1990; Rojas & Castaño, 1990). By 1996, 43.8 million hectares, or 6.2% of the Amazon basin, were protected. In 2015, more than 174 million hectares (22.3% of the biome) were preserved (RAISG, 2015), of which 100 million hectares were in Brazil (RAISG, 2017; Veríssimo, Rolla, & Vedoveto, 2001; Verissimo & Nussbaum, 2011). A portion of this total, covering 5% of the Amazon, pertains to transitory categories that may revert to other uses. However, ecological representativeness of existing protected areas is still below the amount required to ensure conservation (Fajardo, Lessmann, Bonaccorso, Devenish, & Munoz, 2014).

The ecological representativeness of the protected areas established up to 1990 was mostly based on the theory of the Pleistocene refuges in Brazil (Wetterberg, 2004; Wetterberg et al., 1977) and used Holdridge’s life zones (Tosi, 1960) in the Andean countries (Dourojeanni, 1968, 1976, 2018; Dourojeanni & Ponce, 1978). More sophisticated methods were later used in Brazil, such as gap analysis in large meetings of specialists (Ministério do Meio Ambiente [MMA], 2001) and, more recently, applying the methodology of rapid biological assessment (Sayre et al., 1999), a method that, since the late 1990s, has been widely used in Andean Amazon countries. Nonetheless, protected areas’ representativeness and defensibility are still below requirements (Coetzee, Gaston, & Chown, 2014; DeFries et al., 2005; Laurance et al., 2012; Peres & Terborgh, 1995). Until 1990, well over 90% of the protected areas pertained to categories I to IV of IUCN, meaning that no people or utilization of resources were allowed inside. But 46% of the protected areas now pertain to categories that allow the presence of humans and resources exploitation. This has been essentially a result of: (a) the development of a strong anthropocentric social environmentalism, especially but not only in Brazil, that promotes the concept that traditional people better conserve nature than protection designations (Daniels, 2002; Diegues, 2005; Fairhead, Leach, & Scoones, 2011; White, Khare, & Motnar, 2005) and (b) the growing limitation of areas free of human occupation or development interests to establish conventional protected areas. Some categories of protected areas, such as the Brazilian extractive reserves (Allegretti, 2008), where logging and farming are allowed, have, as their primary objective, to allow traditional peoples access to land and resources, while others, such the large Áreas de Proteção Ambiental, are open to almost every possible legal use, including agriculture, villages, and rural industries. Additionally, this group includes national forests that are leased to logging concessions. Therefore, despite numbers being impressive, a clearly insufficient 11.8% of the Amazon is represented in fully protected areas.

Management effectiveness of Amazon protected areas of all categories is limited due to low political priority, corresponding funding shortages, and lack of staff, infrastructure, and equipment (Dourojeanni, 2002; Dourojeanni & Quiroga, 2006). Management plans, when available, are not economically feasible, and are often outdated and rarely applied. Many parks are quite isolated and not yet open to visitation, so are not contributing to local development despite strong evidence of the economic advantages of the environmental services they provide and their tourism potential (León, 2007; Young & Medeiros, 2018). All categories of protected areas are increasingly threatened by the surrounding population, poverty, and development needs, such as roads and dams, which are responsible for more frequent decisions of downgrading, downsizing, and degazettement annually, especially in Brazil (Bernard, Penna, & Araujo, 2014; Fearnside & Vilela, 2018; Mascia et al., 2014). Despite divergent views that support opening strictly protected areas for sustainable uses by traditional populations (Chapin, 2004; Dowie, 2005; Galvin & Haller, 2008; Mora & Sale, 2011; Porter-Bolland et al., 2012), the evidence is that national parks and other strictly protected designations have been and remain the most effective and efficient options to conserve viable samples of the ecosystems and the biodiversity they contain (Andam, Ferraro, Pfaff, Sanchez, & Robalino, 2008; Bruner, Gullison, Rice, & da Fonseca, 2001; Chape, Harrison, Spalding, & Lysenko, 2005; Dourojeanni, 2015; Laurance et al., 2012; Nepstad et al., 2006). Instead, evidence is being accumulated regarding the inherent difficulty of protecting some biological resources while using others in the same area (Nepstad, 1997; Peres, 2000; Redford & Stearman, 1993). It is also clear that human occupation of both types of protected areas is necessary and may be complementary (Dourojeanni & Padua, 2007; Peres, 2011).

As result of the evidence on the impact of isolation and lack of connectivity aggravated by the risks of global warming (Damschen, Haddad, Orrock, Tewksbury, & Levey, 2006) efforts were made to establish transboundary protected areas (International Tropical Timber Organization-United Nations University [ITTO-UNU], 2011), parks for peace (Ali et al., 2006), and, especially, biological corridors (Bennet, 2005; Laurance, Vasconcelos, & Lovejoy, 2001; Rosenberg, Noon, & Meslow, 1997) in the Amazon. Several biological corridors were proposed between large protected areas in every country and among those in neighboring countries. However, these projects have not been officially endorsed and face enormous practical obstacles and scientific challenges (Haddad et al., 2014). A significant contribution to Amazon conservation is the growing number of privately owned protected areas as well as the Peruvian forest concessions designed for private conservation or ecotourism operations. The long-term fate of protected areas is unclear (Laurance et al., 2012).

Brazil has been pioneering the recognition of indigenous territories since 1910. However, until the 1970s the Amazon was viewed as an empty space (Smith, 1983). While Brazil already had some large indigenous territories (mostly reserves), other countries considered native people as negligible or as simple farmers and provided them with only very small patches of land. In the 1980s, the Amazon indigenous people, with a population estimated at 2 million to 3 million, many of whom live in urban areas, spoke out strongly and began to play an increasingly important political role in almost every country, with strong international support. In 2015, recognized indigenous land amounted to 168.4 million hectares, while 5.1 million hectares more were to be recognized or pertained to other categories, totaling 28.1% of the Amazon biome. Brazil alone had 118 million hectares mainly under the category of indigenous reserve. Venezuela, Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia followed in indigenous land size. Indigenous land represents 72% of the Venezuelan Amazon and above 50% of the Colombian and Ecuadorian Amazon (RAISG, 2015). Part of these territories is superposed on protected areas. Indigenous claims for more land, including inside protected areas, continues in every country.

With regard to native peoples’ rights over the land, a strong argument used to expand their territories is the value of their assumed traditional knowledge to wisely manage natural resources (Plotkin, 1993). Their lands are still covered by forests and, in many cases, they have efficiently resisted the advances of agriculture and logging. However, they reveal growing susceptibility to the temptation of economic benefits through conventional development, including rental of the land for agriculture and livestock, logging, and mining. There is an ongoing debate on the long-term validity of these lands with regard to conserving nature (Alcorn, 2010; Clay, Alcorn, & Butler, 2000), but it is unquestionable that they currently offer a very important opportunity for conservation provided titling, technical assistance, and other measures are opportunely put in place (Blackman, Corral, Lima, & Asner, 2017; Daniels, 2002; Dourojeanni, 2011a; Garnett et al., 2018).

Considering protected areas and indigenous territories, but excluding their reciprocal superposition, no less than 45.4% of the Amazon is somehow protected (RAISG, 2017). Despite all mentioned limitations and growing challenges, the establishment of a system of protected areas complemented by recognized indigenous land is the clearest, largest, and probably most perdurable result of past conservation initiatives. Efforts must be made to expand strictly protected areas and to improve conservation through effective resources management within indigenous territories and protected areas that are legally open to exploitation.

Sustainable Use Options

While it is evident that protected areas in the Amazon are an essential but insufficient component of any strategy to limit deforestation and degradation (Soares-Filho et al., 2006), several other options are being applied to the end goal of achieving sustainable development.

Forest management for sustainable timber production has been the first choice to avoid deforestation in the Amazon. This option has been promoted by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) since the 1950s. National forests and reserves were established even before protected areas, and several important forest management projects were conducted in Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela, especially in the 1970s (Dourojeanni, 1999; Lentini, Pereira, Celentano, & Pereira, 2005; Schmidt, 1987). As experiments, they demonstrated that tropical forest management is technically viable, economically profitable (Alavapari, Putz, & Schmink, 2004), and could be environmentally sound (Fearnside, 2008). However, they all failed, as the national social and related economic contexts made it impractical to sustainably produce timber while unlawful chaotic logging, often associated with unplanned deforestation, was going on everywhere. Social disorder made it almost impossible to avoid the landless farmer’s invasion of legal long-term forest concessions (Dourojeanni, 2009b). Selective logging, provided technically determined rotations are respected, may preserve environmental services, but this is rarely the case (Asner et al., 2005; Edwards, Tobias, Sheil, Meijaard, & Laurance, 2014; Nepstad et al., 1999; Putzel, Peters, & Romo, 2011). Since the 1960s forest laws have been regularly modernized in every country, sustainability criteria and indicators adopted (Pokorny, Sabogal, Prabhu, & Silva, 2002), forest certification promoted (Agrawal, Chhatre, & Hardin, 2008), and some low-impact logging has been practiced (Putz, Sist, Fredericksen, & Dykstra, 2008). However, as of 2005, even the most optimistic evaluation found that only 3.5% of the production forests of Latin America and the Caribbean were managed to an extent and only 60% of this fraction had forest certification (International Tropical Timber Organization [ITTO], 2006). Corruption in the Amazon forestry sector is increasing (Finer, Jenkins, Blue Sky, & Pine, 2014; Urrunaga, Johnson, Orbegozo, & Mulligan, 2012) and new agronomical techniques and opportunities are seriously challenging natural forestry’s competitive profitability if its environmental services are not taken into account. As of today, by every parameter sustainable management of natural forests in the Amazon has failed. Instead, silviculture with exotic or native species is progressing.

Agroforestry, the combination of trees and crops in the same land, has been considered an alternative use of the land that is less environmentally destructive than conventional agriculture or cattle ranching. This has considerably expanded, assuming, especially in the Andean countries, the form of understory coffee and cacao plantations (Miller & Nair, 2006; Somarriba et al., 2012). Many other agroforestry practices exist that combine native or exotic trees with crops (Dubois, Viana, & Anderson, 1996; Pinho, Miller, & Alfaia, 2012). While it is evident that agroforestry is environmentally friendlier than open field agriculture, especially regarding soils and water resources, its environmental benefits do not match that of the original forest (Fearnside, 1995). Additionally, some commonly promoted definitions of agroforestry are equivalent to shifting cultivation, implying land clearing (Dourojeanni, 2009a).

Large portions of the Amazon are covered by secondary forests that usually regenerate well (Dent & Right, 2009; Sanchez-Cuervo, Aide, Clark, & Etter, 2012) if use of the land has not been excessively intense (Jakovac, Pena-Claros, Kuyper, & Bongers, 2015). The permanence or age of the fallow forests decreases as land use intensifies (Carreiras, Pereira, Campagnolo, & Shimabukuro, 2006); nevertheless, these forests are significant as carbon sinks and to regulate water flux, among other environmental services. It has been estimated that 13.2 million hectares of these forests existed in Brazil in 2006 (Almeida, Valeriano, Escada, & Rennó, 2010) and proportionally much more in Peru and other Andean countries. The management of fallow forests or secondary growth to produce fast-growing timber (Dourojeanni, 1987; Emrich, Pokorny, & Sepp, 2000) or other goods is an interesting option that is beginning to be applied (Chokkalingan & de Jong, 2001; Kammesheidt, Köhler, & Huth, 2002). Despite being heavily anthropic, these forests conserve a significant portion of their original biodiversity (Almeida et al., 2010; Chazdon et al., 2009; Dent & Right, 2009; Peres et al., 2010), but they do not replace all services provided by natural forests (Gibson et al., 2011; Jakovac et al., 2015).

It is often argued that industrial forest plantations and tree crops, including oil palm, are a better use of the Amazon land than clean tilled agriculture or pasture. Permanent plantations are environmentally better than annual crops and theoretically they may spare forests (Gutierrez-Velez et al., 2011). But this is not an accepted argument when these ventures require deforestation of natural stands of trees (Dammert, 2013). Of course, there are many ways of establishing plantations and some are less environmentally damaging than others. Forest restoration or rehabilitation in the Amazon is incipient and used on a minimal scale, especially in protected areas or as obligations imposed by environmental conditionality. Evidence exists that natural regeneration is the cheapest and most effective option to restore vegetation, if cattle and fire are excluded (Sanchez-Cuervo et al., 2012; Zahawi, Holl, Cole, & Reid, 2013).

Diverse locally adapted combinations of the previous options, often mixed with fisheries and wildlife management and ecotourism, especially inside and nearby protected areas, have been applied in the Amazon since the late 1980s. They are part of a wave of projects that are known as “community-based conservation” when used by traditional or indigenous peoples, who were, frequently, the originators of such concepts. This strategy is based on the theory that conservation and development could be simultaneously achieved, but for ideological reasons it has been widely used to promote the direct use of the protected areas’ resources, even their extinction (Ghimire & Pimbert, 1997; Murphree, 2002; Santilli, 2005). Despite social scientists attributing a wide range of environmental and socioeconomic virtues to community-based conservation these are not so obvious when scrutinized and many difficulties and shortcomings become evident (Agrawal & Gibson, 1999; Barrett, Brandon, Gibson, & Gjertsen, 2001; Brooks, Waylen, & Borgerhoff Mulde, 2013; Dourojeanni, 2008; Kellert, Mehta, Ebbin, & Lichenfeld, 2000; Redford & Padoch, 1992; Schwartzman, Nepstad, & Moreira, 2000). But the community-based conservation concept is not only related merely to protected areas; it is used and may be useful over a wider space (Berkes, 2004). It is seen as an especially promising option for communities in indigenous territories and in buffer zones around protected areas (Dourojeanni, 2011a).

It is difficult to precisely calculate the extent of the Amazon that is covered by each of the several types of land use, and especially by those that may be considered sustainable, but the evidence is that forest losses are prevalent despite some gains (Hansen et al., 2013). There is no match among the agricultural census, information on deforestation, and statistics on protected areas and indigenous lands, nor with information on secondary forests. Also, each country uses different approaches. But by any measurement it is evident that the Amazon is under very heavy pressure and that at the national level most Amazon countries already have proportionately less forested area—including reconstituted—than developed countries such as Japan or Sweden. Furthermore, in most developed countries the forest area is increasing (Veríssimo & Nussbaum, 2011).

Policy, Planning, Legislation, Enforcement

Another set of strategies applied to conserve the Amazon is, of course, a combination of better-adapted policies, long-term planning, adequate legislation, and enforcement using well-known tools such as institutional strengthening and governance improvement with more and better information and participation, monitoring, and control. Important efforts were developed in almost every Amazon country, sometimes under pressure and with the support of developed countries to improve sustainable development and conservation in the region. Much progress has been achieved: more comprehensive legislation, especially regarding environmental licensing of infrastructure, rules such as the percentage of land that must be kept under natural forest in private properties, the compulsory protection of river banks and other erodible terrains, the establishment of protected areas, and the growing recognition of indigenous rights are a few among many other results. Brazil is the country where progress in these aspects has been most noticeable. Despite legislation prepared in capital cities often not being well adapted to Amazon reality, in general terms it is adequate to—in theory—ensure the sustainable use of the Amazon. However, legislation related to natural renewable resources and environment is scarcely enforced and often not even applied (Dourojeanni, 2013b; Morim Novaes & de França Souza, 2013; Soares-Filho et al., 2014). Institutions that directly relate to natural resources such as forestry or fisheries have insufficient and irregular budgets and chronic lack of staff, while those who work in these industries are usually underpaid and susceptible to corruption.

If legislation can broadly be considered appropriate, development policy design for the Amazon is still undefined between the majority interested in business as usual and a very small minority willing to experiment with a more sustainable style of development. Usually productive sectors such as energy and mining, as well as those in charge of infrastructure, fully dominate the government and disregard weak environmental or planning institutions (Enrique & Cueto, 2011). Policies rarely guide the planning, which is not coordinated among the nation and its regions and is often clearly contradictory even among public sectors. Additionally, planning is frequently modified to satisfy the specific and predicted interests of successive governments. Since the 1980s a series of efforts to apply diverse modalities of land use or territorial planning, often locally known as ecological-economical zoning, has been developed in Brazil and other countries (Acselrad, 2001). However, their fate has been the same as for policies and plans. Their benefits have been restricted to a collateral improvement of environmental consciousness.

A positive development since the late 1990s has been the growing demands of local populations, especially indigenous peoples, to be informed and especially to have a say in the decisions on public works and natural resources exploitation initiatives that affect them. In response, most countries approved new legislation (Garcia, 2014) regarding transparency and participation in public decisions and accepted the rule of the International Labour Organization’s Decision 169 concerning indigenous and tribal rights. Indigenous people have been politically very active since the turn of the 21st century and disproportionally influential in regional decisions considering their very small minority. Several nongovernmental organizations are providing support to indigenous activism. However, there is still a long way to go to achieve an equitable participation of all involved.

In conclusion, the scenario for Amazon conservation is one of very poor governance aggravated by a traditionally corrupt authoritarian government style and social disorder that does not facilitate the application of a sustainable option of development.

Financing Conservation

Resources were always discretely available to promote conservation in the Amazon. Modest governmental contributions, initially through the forest services, were often matched by international or multilateral cooperation (Leal-Farias, 2018; Mittermeier & Bowles, 1993). International nongovernmental organizations, directly or through local correspondents in a changing context, also assisted in the establishment and management of many important protected areas of the Amazon (Dourojeanni, 2006). Ideas such as the debt swaps for nature (Post, 1990; Reilly, 2006; Visser & Mendoza, 1994) raised expectations but, except in Peru, they were not significant. Since the 1980s the funding for protected areas has been increasingly diverted to social issues, including “community-based conservation.” The growing consensus on the important role of the Amazon forest regarding global climate change preconized a new approach that, based on scientific but changing evidence, proposed a payment for carbon fixation in the biomass. The idea was transformed by the Kyoto Protocol (1997) and later by the Paris Agreement (2015) in a series of tools, including the “Clean Development Mechanism,” a market for emissions, and the concept of joint implementation. This concept has evolved to its present form (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation or REDD) aiming at creating a financial value for the carbon stored in forests, offering incentives for developing countries to reduce emissions from forested lands and invest in low-carbon paths to sustainable development. REDD+ goes beyond deforestation and forest degradation to include the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests, and enhancement of forest carbon stocks (Olander, Gibbs, Steininger, Swenson, & Murray, 2008; Putz & Romero, 2012). Until now, despite all efforts made, this evolving initiative has not resulted in significant advantages for conservation in the Amazon and, instead, has raised suspicions, especially among indigenous people.

International funding for conservation in the Amazon comes primarily from 24 major funders (Castro de la Mata & Riega-Campos, 2014). This funding totaled approximately US$206.2 million per year between 2007 and 2013, a fourfold increase since the 1990s. Fifty percent of this amount goes to Brazil, followed by Peru, Guyana, Colombia, and Ecuador. The top three organizations funding conservation in the Amazon basin are the Norwegian Agency for Development Cooperation, the World Bank, and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Seven of the top 10 funders are bilateral and multilateral agencies. Funding is split among legislation, policy, planning, enforcement, and so on (38%); payment for environmental services and REDD (24%); protected areas (16%); indigenous people, local livelihood, education, and so on (14%).

It is difficult to define the share of national and subnational governments in Amazon conservation investments, but a review of the annual budgets of the concerned ministries and agencies reveals they invest much more than external assistance, even when considering subjects such as protected areas that receive some international priority (Dourojeanni & Quiroga, 2006; Riva, da Fonseca, & Hasenlever, 2008). But foreign funds are essential to cover gaps and avoid bureaucratic procedures that plague Amazonian countries’ institutions.

Some original ideas have been developed to facilitate funding of conservation projects. Brazil’s legislation requires significant environmental compensation for infrastructure as part of licensing, including a percent for protected areas. Also, some states are compensating municipalities that have managed protected areas in their territory well with a favorable tax return. In several countries special funds have been established to finance such environmental projects as the Fundo Brasileiro para a Biodiversidade (FUNBIO) in Brazil or the Peruvian Trust Fund for National Parks and Protected Areas (PROFONANPE) in Peru.

Financing mechanisms for Amazon conservation, both from Amazon countries and from other nations, despite being clearly insufficient, have played a key role in what has been achieved. The subsidies for activities that contribute to deforestation alone are much more significant than investments in conservation, however (McFarland, Whitley, & Kissinger, 2015). Amazon countries as well as foreigners are investing several hundred times more in what can be called “environmentally risky developments,” such as transportation (Dourojeanni, 2011a; Little, 2013), energy, mining, agriculture, and forestry expansion, than in sustainable development and conservation alternatives (Dourojeanni, 2013b; Dourojeanni, Barandiaran, & Dourojeanni, 2010; GREFI 2014).

The New Amazon

Despite some progress toward sustainability there is no evidence that current development trends in the Amazon will change in the next decade or so. All projections for the region as a whole (Freire et al., 2007; Little, 2013) as well as for every individual country or region (Arenas et al., 2011; Dourojeanni, 2013b; Dourojeanni, Barandiarán, & Dourojeanni, 2010; Izko, 2012) demonstrate the existence and continuous preparation of new policies, plans, and financial availability for an enormous expansion of transportation and energy infrastructure as well as to increase export agriculture, hydrocarbon, and mining exploitation. Every prospect foresees a substantial growth of the resident population, especially urban. All scenarios, including those that are environmentally optimistic, demonstrate increasing deforestation and forest degradation and aggravation of environmental issues such as carbon emissions, extreme weather, alteration of the rain pattern, and biodiversity losses. The strong and growing concentration of the population in urban areas is often seen as a relief for nature but the opposite may be true (Uriartea et al., 2012). Even the past gains regarding Amazon conservation, such as protected areas and indigenous land, are threatened by isolation and climate change but especially by social and economic pressures from inside each country, especially Brazil, and increasingly from extra-regional areas such as China and other Asian economic powers, in addition to North America and Europe. The optimism of experts about Amazon forest conservation is very low (Terborgh, 1999, 2000).

It is improbable that current national or international efforts to channel more resources to avoid the worst scenarios, including those related to climate change, will modify this prognosis even in the unlikely case they be fully successful. Therefore, the enormous gap between proposals of zero deforestation (Brown & Zarin, 2013; Gibbs et al., 2015) and reality will continue and increase. Some foresters expect tropical forests to be reduced to a minimal level and, instead, be substituted by a mix of anthropic ecosystems (Blaser & Gregersen, 2013). Nature will adapt and simply be different, and some believe it will still be promissory (Lugo, 2013).

Sustainable development in the Amazon is not a utopia (Nepstad et al., 2009). It is possible that there is enough knowledge accumulated to increase agricultural productivity several times, to produce more energy and minerals, and to slow the exploitation of renewable natural resources while conserving remaining natural forests’ values and services. Small-scale evidence of compatibility between development and environment exists everywhere in the region and in almost every economic field. Most such schemes are ephemeral, mainly as the consequence of an economic and social environment related to gross disobedience of the law, but some have developed economic strategies that allow them to endure enough to prove their validity. As shown throughout this review, the central cause of the pessimism about achieving sustainable development in the Amazon is the poor governance capacity and the deeply rooted social disorder that still prevail in the countries that are responsible for the region. If public policies and plans or legislation are not legitimized by transparency and participation and are not enforced, as today, hope is limited. These countries are progressing in the right direction but the anarchy in the use of the resources is still not under control. Thus, the general situation will still deteriorate before starting to improve. But every gain for sustainability achieved today will facilitate future recovery. Therefore, it is worth continuing to work harder.

Further Reading

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(1.) RAISG. 1997–2019. La Red Amazónica de Información Socioambiental Georreferenciada. Provides multiple periodically updated information on the Amazon situation.