From: Rhett A. Butler, MONGABAY.COM, More from this Affiliate
Published April 1, 2010 10:08 AM

Depopulation may be harming the Amazon rainforest

Urbanization may be having unexpected impacts in the Amazon rainforest by leaving forest areas vulnerable to exploitation by outsiders, report researchers writing in Conservation Letters.

Conducting field surveys during the course of 10,000-kilometers of travel along remote Amazon rivers, Luke Parry of Lancaster University found that a sharp decrease in rural habitation has not been accompanied by a decline in harvesting of wildlife and forest resources, indicating that urban populations exact a heavy toll on distant forests through hunting, fishing, logging, and harvesting of non-timber forest products.

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"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," said Parry in a statement.

"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."

Parry said that abandoned land was more likely to be colonized by speculators, who cut down forest for cattle pasture, hoping to capitalize on appreciating land values. Under Brazilian law, forest-clearing is one of the easiest ways to gain property rights on unclaimed land. 

"When people leave the villages they leave behind a vacuum," he said. "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."

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