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Research shows rural exodus threatens the Amazon

Story supplied by LU Press Office

The exodus of rural people from the Amazon's rivers could have serious consequences for the future of the forest, according to fresh evidence gathered by environmental scientists.

Research - published in the March edition of the journal Conservation Letters - shows that as people abandon remote areas in search of education and opportunities in small towns and cities the forest and rivers are being exposed to new forms of exploitation such as commercial logging, fishing, hunting and even forest clearance.

The study calls for further efforts to be made to keep rural populations living on remote rivers to enable the creation of more inhabited, sustainable reserves benefiting the land and its inhabitants.

And where river dwellers have already left, the researchers say there is an important opportunity to turn uninhabited land into protected wilderness.

Dr Luke Parry of Lancaster University's Environment Centre spent nearly a year in Brazil carrying out field studies travelling more than 10,000 kilometres by boat along some of the central Amazon's remotest rivers interviewing largely forgotten river-dwellers.

He said: "You might think that as people leave the forest there would be a conservation gain - that the abandoned land and rivers would be left to nature. However, we found that wasn't the case. Although plants and animals were no longer being farmed and harvested by subsistence resource users , other more commercial activities moved in.

"We found evidence that commercial activity continued on the rivers many hundreds of miles beyond the last rural household. Much of the harvesting we observed was to supply the demand for wild foods such as turtles, fish and forest animals to service growing demand from the Amazon's burgeoning urban population.

"Perhaps more worryingly, when people leave the villages they leave behind a vacuum. When the land isn't occupied the forest is exposed to the threat of large scale deforestation and unregulated land speculation in abandoned headwaters which is a real possibility in some areas due to expansion of the road network.

"This presents a new challenge to policy makers as Brazilian law encourages deforestation as a means of gaining property rights and planned road building schemes mean that further land grabbing and deforestation is increasingly likely in the "heart" of the Amazon.

"For those areas not yet abandoned we would encourage efforts to support river-dwellers and slow the exodus to the towns, where limited infrastructure and little opportunity for employment can make life difficult for poorly educated migrants."

Dr Parry carried began his research in Amazonas - the largest Brazilian state - in 2007 when he was at the University of East Anglia. Ninety seven percent of the Amazonas' original forest is still intact.

Some of the key findings of the study, which also drew on census data, include:

  • Over the last 25 years the permanently inhabited extent or river catchments contracted by 33 per cent.
  • The remaining rural population in remote areas is unstable – of those people living beyond 100km away from the nearest town 24 per cent were are planning to leave.
  • Harvesting of aquatic and terrestrial wildlife continues unabated for up to 525 Km beyond the last riverside household.

The research was funded by Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

The Lancaster Environment Centre is a joint centre between the University and the NERC Centre for Ecology & Hydrology.

Wed 31 March 2010

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