New Journal: Case Studies in the Environment

Blog by ATBC member Tuyeni H Mwampamba

I’m excited to announce an innovative new resource that I am involved in for students, faculty, educators, professionals, and policymakers for deep exploration of environmental issues for theory, teaching and practice: Case Studies in the Environment (
Published by University of California Press, Case Studies in the Environment is a journal of peer-reviewed case study articles with slides and teaching notes, articles on case study pedagogy, and a preprint server for editor-reviewed case study slides. Case Studies in the Environment is organized around a comprehensive collection of cases within six domains, with the first three domains—Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation, Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation, and Environmental Law, Policy and Management—coming in mid-2017. The remaining three domains—Sustainability, Energy and the Environment, and Water Science and Technology—will launch in 2018-20.

I think many of you would find this resource valuable for your courses, but I also believe that with your experience and approaches to tropical ecology and conservation, you would be great contributors of case studies that we could all use in our classes. I hope you will consider submitting your case study.

Do have a look at the journal website for more information— note that there are several categories in addition to the article option, such as the ‘slides deck’. For more information on submitting a case, please see; Also, sign up for periodic email alerts about Case Studies in the Environment at

Do not hesitate to contact me directly if you have any questions.

Best regards,
Tuyeni H Mwampamba, PhD Ecology
Section Editor, Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation Section

The global road-building explosion is shattering nature

If you asked a friend to name the worst human threat to nature, what would they say? Global warming? Overhunting? Habitat fragmentation?

new study suggests it is in fact road-building.

“Road-building” might sound innocuous, like “house maintenance” – or even positive, conjuring images of promoting economic growth. Many of us have been trained to think so.

But an unprecedented spate of road building is happening now, with around 25 million kilometres of new paved roads expected by 2050. And that’s causing many environmental researchers to perceive roads about as positively as a butterfly might see a spider web that’s just fatally trapped it.

A Malayan tapir killed along a road in Peninsular Malaysia. WWF-Malaysia/Lau Ching Fong


The new study, led by Pierre Ibisch at Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development, Germany, ambitiously attempted to map all of the roads and remaining ecosystems across Earth’s entire land surface.

Its headline conclusion is that roads have already sliced and diced Earth’s ecosystems into some 600,000 pieces. More than half of these are less than 1 square kilometre in size. Only 7% of the fragments are more than 100 square km.

Remaining roadless areas across the Earth. P. Ibisch et al. Science (2016)

That’s not good news. Roads often open a Pandora’s box of ills for wilderness areas, promoting illegal deforestation, fires, mining and hunting.

In the Brazilian Amazon, for instance, our existing research shows that 95% of all forest destruction occurs within 5.5km of roads. The razing of the Amazon and other tropical forests produces more greenhouse gasesthan all motorised vehicles on Earth.

Animals are being imperilled too, by vehicle roadkill, habitat loss and hunting. In just the past decade, poachers invading the Congo Basin along the expanding network of logging roads have snared or gunned down two-thirds of all forest elephants for their valuable ivory tusks.

Deforestation along roads in the Brazilian Amazon. Google Earth

Worse than it looks

As alarming as the study by Ibisch and colleagues sounds, it still probably underestimates the problem, because it is likely that the researchers missed half or more of all the roads on the planet.

That might sound incompetent on their part, but in fact keeping track of roads is a nightmarishly difficult task. Particularly in developing nations, illegal roads can appear overnight, and many countries lack the capacity to govern, much less map, their unruly frontier regions.

One might think that satellites and computers can keep track of roads, and that’s partly right. Most roads can be detected from space, if it’s not too cloudy, but it turns out that the maddening variety of road types, habitats, topographies, sun angles and linear features such as canals can fool even the smartest computers, none of which can map roads consistently.

The only solution is to use human eyes to map roads. That’s what Ibisch and his colleagues relied upon – a global crowdsourcing platform known as OpenStreetMap, which uses thousands of volunteers to map Earth’s roads.

Therein lies the problem. As the authors acknowledge, human mappers have worked far more prolifically in some areas than others. For instance, wealthier nations like Switzerland and Australia have quite accurate road maps. But in Indonesia, Peru or Cameroon, great swathes of land have been poorly studied.

A quick look at OpenStreetmap also shows that cities are far better mapped than hinterlands. For instance, in the Brazilian Amazon, my colleagues and I recently found 3km of illegal, unmapped roads for every 1km of legal, mapped road.

A logging truck blazes along a road in Malaysian Borneo. Rhett Butler/Mongabay

What this implies is that the environmental toll of roads in developing nations – which sustain most of the planet’s critical tropical and subtropical forests – is considerably worse than estimated by the new study.

This is reflected in statistics like this: Earth’s wilderness areas have shrunk by a tenth in just the past two decades, as my colleagues and I reported earlier this year. Lush forests such as the Amazon, Congo Basin and Borneo are shrinking the fastest.

Road rage

The modern road tsunami is both necessary and scary. On one hand, nobody disputes that developing nations in particular need more and better roads. That’s the chief reason that around 90% of all new roads are being built in developing countries.

On the other hand, much of this ongoing road development is poorly planned or chaotic, leading to severe environmental damage.

For instance, the more than 53,000km of “development corridors” being planned or constructed in Africa to access minerals and open up remote lands for farming will have enormous environmental costs, our research suggests.

Orangutans in the wilds of northern Sumatra. Suprayudi

This year, both the Ibisch study and our research have underscored how muddled the UN Sustainable Development Goals are with respect to vanishing wilderness areas across the planet.

For instance, the loss of roadless wilderness conflicts deeply with goals to combat harmful climate change and biodiversity loss, but could improve our capacity to feed people. These are tough trade-offs.

One way we’ve tried to promote a win-win approach is via a global road-mapping strategy that attempts to tell us where we should and shouldn’t build roads. The idea is to promote roads where we can most improve food production, while restricting them in places that cause environmental calamities.

Part of a global road-mapping strategy. Green areas have high environmental values where roads should be avoided. Red areas are where roads could improve agricultural production. And black areas are ‘conflict zones’ where both environmental values and potential road benefits are high. W. F. Laurance et al. Nature (2014)

The bottom line is that if we’re smart and plan carefully, we can still increase food production and human equity across much of the world.

But if we don’t quickly change our careless road-building ways, we could end up opening up the world’s last wild places like a flayed fish – and that would be a catastrophe for nature and people too.


Dr. ,  Distinguished Research Professor and Australian Laureate, James Cook University and long time ATBC member.

Originally published at:


Planet at a crossroads: Report from the IUCN World Congress

Tony Lynam and Alice Hughes were representing ATBC at the World Conservation Congress of the IUCN — the International Union for the Conservation of Nature — which has just concluded in Hawaii.  Through Alert, Alice Hughes gives us an overview of the event. 

Commencing on September 1, over ten thousand decision-makers from government, environmental and indigenous-peoples groups, the business sector, and academia, convened for the one of the world’s largest conservation meetings.

With representatives from 192 nations, the IUCN World Conservation Congress serves as a barometer for the state of the environment globally, an assessment of global biodiversity and the threats to it.  Its theme, reflecting the many challenging decisions we face ahead, was “Planet at a Crossroads”.


The first five days of the Congress consisted of forums on an array of conservation-related themes, and addressed the need to connect across sectors, cultures, and youth to achieve meaningful change in the world.

Some key commitments concerned the oceans, highlighted by the creation of the largest protected area on Earth, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.  Announced at the start of the Congress, this vast reserve spans over 1.5 million square kilometers and surrounds much of the Hawaiian Archipelago.

Another big concern was the burgeoning global trade in wildlife and wildlife products, which is now estimated to be the fourth-largest illegal trade globally, valued at $7-23 billion annually.

One key debate focused on the trade in ivory, which is a major driver of elephant declines globally.  Most nations favor a global ban on ivory sales but a handful of southern African nations have strongly opposed it.

The impacts of global change were also discussed at length, with the first confirmed loss of a species from contemporary climate change, the Bramble Cay Melomys (Melomys rubicola).  The mammal was endemic to an small Australian cay and was killed off by rising sea levels and floods.

Much discussion focused on how how to avoid further species losses through implementation of the Paris Climate Agreement.


Global biodiversity trends were also highlighted at length.  The IUCN Red List provides cutting-edge information on the distribution, status, and threats to imperiled species.

Currently, nearly 83,000 threatened species have been red-listed, although this is only a fraction of the actual number of species in trouble.

For example, IUCN data show that ten times as many mammal species are declining in numbers than are increasing or have stable populations.  Globally, only eight threatened mammal species have become more abundant, predominantly in Europe and Australia.

Among those suffering serious declines despite concerted conservation efforts are the Great Apes, of which four of six species have had their status downgraded to Critically Endangered.

A major goal announced at the Congress is to list 160,000 threatened species within another four years, protecting vital information for endangered species conservation.


Only 14.7 percent of global land occurs within protected areas.  This number is improving but still falls well below the global goal of 17 percent as outlined in the Aichi targets — which is part of the Convention on Biological Diversity, to which most nations are signatories.

Unfortunately, there are still far too few protected areas in the critical global biodiversity hotspots, which support the bulk of Earth’s endangered species.  Furthermore, 80% of the 18,000 sites listed as key biodiversity areas are currently unprotected.


The IUCN Congress highlighted both good and bad news for the global environment.  Although conservation efforts can save species, the number of imperiled species and habitats is growing daily.  Many ecosystems are being eroded and stripped of their most iconic species.

It is clear that much more effort is needed to protect critical habitats and protect endangered plants and animals, if we are going to stave off one of the biggest biodiversity crises in Earth’s entire geological history.

Building conservation capacity across the global tropics

A young conservation ecologist

Tropical forests cover around 6 % of the world’s land surface, yet support 50 – 75 % of all terrestrial species. Yet in addition to hosting most global biodiversity, the global tropics have also seen the greatest loss of diversity in recent decades, and over 50 % of tropical forests have already been cleared.

To combat this loss of biodiversity traditional models have largely involved either bringing trained scientists from the West to advise on conservation approaches and priorities, or taking the brightest students from local universities to the West for training. However, both of these models have problems. In the first, scientists from the West rarely have the same nuanced understanding of the socio-cultural realities in the countries they are operating in, and thus though their research may be scientifically sound, translation into practice and policy may be impossible. In the second, many of these talented students never return to work in their home country, and though this model often has the best of motives, many of the brightest from the region leave for good. This represents an overlooked “brain-drain”, with the regions most in need of researchers losing many of their future academic resources to countries which already have a strong scientific capacity, without many of the needs of these less developed regions.

What is truly needed to build capacity in the global tropics is to provide practicable training for the region in the region. Such a programme can and should take many forms to meet the realities and needs of these regions. To date, a successful component of this has been the training of rangers and local NGOs in the very best of approaches by organizations such as the Wildlife Conservation Society and Flora and Fauna International, which has led to the better monitoring and management of a variety of ecological challenges across much of the global tropics.

However, this does not necessarily include the future conservation scientists of these regions, who may still be tempted by foreign PhDs. So what approaches best meet the needs of this growing population of energetic and enthusiastic young scientists?

Conservation science is by no means easy. It requires not only an understanding of ecology and biology, but a multifaceted understanding of social and political dimensions, which are essential in the translation of scientific knowledge into management action. Creating opportunities within the tropics for its future conservation scientists – enabling them to continue developing their skills within the local socio-cultural context they have grown-up with – provides the best possible preparation for a successful career in conservation. These kind of opportunities give them skills that extend beyond the academic through exposure to the true mechanics of conservation, management and policy that are required to effect sustainable change, and simultaneously allow them to develop and maintain their research networks throughout their PhD studies. In terms of developing its own research base of conservation-minded researchers, or even international scientific attention, across the global tropics Southeast Asia has traditionally lagged behind Latin America (with strong traditional ties to North America) and much of Africa, with its ties to Europe. This is compounded by the lack of a shared language, which makes collaborations across the region much harder than in other parts of the global tropics. Yet recent years have seen significant changes to this within Asia, such as the development of a Master’s degree programme in biodiversity conservation at the Royal University of Phnom Pehn, and the increasing role of Xishuangbanna Tropical Botanical Garden (XTBG) and their new Chinese Academy of Sciences Southeast-Asian research Institute in training Masters and PhD candidates in ecology and conservation within the region.ConservationScience_AliceHughes

Another important component of capacity building is access to specialist skills and more holistic guidance, which even in the very best PhD studies may not be able to offer. These are sometimes included in field courses in summer schools, however even in tropical regions developed universities often run courses without inclusion of local students, thus leaving little, if any, long-term positive impacts in the countries they visit. Efforts are being made to offer appropriate and accessible courses in many parts of the tropics, with scholarships to try to provide access to students with potential and enthusiasm through tropical regions, such as the Tropical Biology Association in Africa, the Tropical Andes Alliance in South America and XTBG’s courses. However, these courses are always oversubscribed, with field courses like XTBG’s only able to take around 16% of total applicants annually. In addition, developed universities holding courses in tropical regions could and should make greater efforts to include more local students through stronger partnerships with local organisations.

However such courses are still only accessible to only a relatively small number of students, and for more holistic and specialist skills, further efforts are needed to better meet the needs of ecologists in the global tropics. This is why in 2014 the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation initiated its Capacity Building Committee with the aim of attempting to meet some of these shortfalls. Using its annual conference and the society’s Asia-Pacific Chapter (an active portion of the society based exclusively in the Asia-Pacific region) as a vehicle, various skills sessions are packaged around the conference, with fundraising to support students and all training and trainers’ time, which is given on an entirely voluntary basis. At present those sessions have included short skills sessions in lunch breaks and evenings, mentoring, and extended workshops. This year over 350 people were directly involved in training in the month of June alone.

These sessions aim to meet the needs of practitioners and scientists at all levels, but particularly at early-career level, with shorter sessions focusing on more holistic skills to help build their abilities as researchers, and extended workshops to build capacity around challenging or more specialist skills. Mentoring also allows participants to find a mentor who can best meet their needs, whether that be for research or career advice, or other forms of support, such as access to mentorship and advice, especially about transitioning between research and practice, which can be difficult or impossible to find. The trainings are adapted to meet researchers’ needs through post and pre-conference surveys, aiming to leave a positive legacy in the wake of any conference.

This is a time of unparalleled threat to tropical biodiversity globally, but with an increasingly tech-savvy and internationally connected new generation of researchers, one that is more likely to speak at least one “international” language, we also have an unparalleled opportunity to provide access to the skills they need to fulfill their potential. As a Western scientist working in the global tropics, I feel optimistic that this upcoming generation will do more than I, or solely Western-based scientists could ever hope to achieve in combating biodiversity loss in the global tropics, especially when given the training and support to reach their potential, without needing to traverse the globe to access those opportunities.

Changing tropical forest landscapes: A view from a small plane


We emerge from the thick tropical clouds that perpetually hang over Kota Kinabalu at this time of year. I crane my neck to get a good view through the plane window of the surreal profile of Mount Kinabalu, its multi-pronged rocky top standing well aloof of the surrounding clouds and forest. It seems as if the mountain, aware of its own splendour, has shaken off all vegetation from its peaks to better show off their plutonic immensity. Neighbouring lesser hills are overwhelmed by forest which runs rampant up and over all ridges and tops, but not on Kinabalu. As the plane skirts round Kinabalu’s southern edge the mountain slowly recedes, as does the cloud which clings to the coast. I turn my attention to the forest below. It is unbroken, filling valleys, and rising up and over ridges. Different shades of green linger in the forest canopy — lighter on the ridges and darker in valley bottoms. A large tree catches my eye, standing proud of the forest as if emulating Kinabalu itself. The view continues unchanged for forty minutes as the plane carries me across to Sabah’s east coast. The monotony of the forest is broken only by the glint of an occasional river. My interest is suddenly rekindled by a small dirt road, a rough settlement, white rock exposed in a small quarry — shockingly bright against the dark forest — then some fields, and a plantation of some sort. Settlements now come thick and fast as the forest is dissected by small roads and tracks. The forest quickly falls away in the few minutes before touch down, and collapses into a patchwork of small fragments before giving way entirely to fields and buildings, more roads, plenty of people, shops and traffic, and the runway. It is 1995, and I have arrived, for the first time, in Lahad Datu.

I have made the same journey to Sabah’s east coast many times in the 20 years since. My most recent visit was last year in 2015. While the mountain has changed little, the view beyond is completely transformed. Little by little, that monotonous green canopy has become increasing dissected. Gaps formed where trees were felled, and a filamentous network of logging roads penetrated the forest. Later, fields appeared within the forest, but over the years these grew in size and number until they enclosed patches of remnant forest. A new crop, oil palm, became firmly established at the outskirts of Lahad Datu, then gradually spread westwards towards the mountain on the other side of Sabah.

Other changes were apparent. In 1995 Kota Kinabalu was little more than a three street town, albeit pleasantly vibrant. It is now a regionally important centre. Industries and small businesses have proliferated, and tourists throng the markets and restaurants. There are two universities and, to my great appreciation given my student days are long past, several excellent hotels. Kota Kinabalu’s development reflects the increasing wealth of the region, and it is the lowland dipterocarp rain forest that I see below my plane that has provided this wealth.

Dipterocarp is the critical term. On Borneo, the Dipterocarpaceae comprise around 270 species of mostly massive trees. There are a further 200 species across Asia, and a few more in Africa. It is in Borneo, however, where they are most impressive. Over half the tree canopies that I saw through the plane window were dipterocarps. Crucially for our story, dipterocarp trees have excellent timber, and have been sought out all over Southeast Asia by logging companies. The unprocessed timber from a single tree can be worth over a thousand dollars. Malaysia’s timber export market is around US$1.3 billion annually. In dipterocarp forests, money really does grow on trees.

Mount Kinabalu by NepGrower at the English Language Wikipedia. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Mount Kinabalu by NepGrower at the English Language Wikipedia. CC-BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Logging of Sabah’s dipterocarp forest was the initial driver of Kota Kinabalu’s current prosperity. Rural people took advantage of the logging roads to access degraded forests which were cleared, initially in small patches, for agriculture. Later development led to the wholesale clearance of logged forest by companies intent on planting oil palm. This highly lucrative crop, with an export value of US$16 billion, now dwarfs timber values. Development, responding to global market demand for timber, oil palm, and other commodities, has alleviated poverty and generated unprecedented opportunities and wealth.

We have, however, also lost something. Dipterocarp forests are among the most biologically rich habitats anywhere on Earth. Orang-utans loom large in tourist brochures, but they are but the most charismatic of a great many forest denizens. When the gloom of the deep forest is alleviated by a gap in the canopy, we see birds, butterflies, beetles, and bees come and go. Lizards cautiously peer round tree trunks, while ants obliviously follow regimented schedules. A silent exclamation declaims a green viper in the undergrowth, motionless and poised. Canopy cacophonies of morning birds and evening frogs reveal much that we do not see. The trees underpin this biological wealth. Dipterocarps surround us, some with immense buttresses, and trunks that soar high into the canopy. None is quite the same as the next, and close inspection reveals a plenitude of forms. There is, literally, value in this view of life, as tourists flocking to Malaysia’s natural parks contribute US$12.3 billion to its economy.

My flights across Sabah have witnessed the loss of much of this forest. We should not be despondent — much still remains. What remains is often degraded, but it will recover with time. Indeed, Sabah has recognised its imperative to safeguard its biological heritage for the global community, as well as for its own citizens.

Research with our Malaysian partners in Sabah has taught me much about dipterocarps, but I have also learned something about society. True, logging and oil palm plantations have devastated large swathes of tropical dipterocarp forest, but in Sabah at least it is also the case that policy makers, land managers, and scientists, are working together to restore degraded forests to their former states.


– See more at:

The Emerging Role of Asia in Wildlife Conservation Practice

tony lynam

Tony Lynam helped advise Myanmar’s national survey effort for tigers. Members of the team went on to lead conservation efforts for tigers in the country. Photo: A.J. Lynam/WCS.

National Geographic published a blog written by Antony Lynam, chair of the ATBC’s Asia-Pacific Chapter,  about the Conservation Asia conference, a joint meeting  between  the Society for Conservation Biology Asia section and the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation Asia-Pacific chapter at the National University of Singapore, Singapore from 29 June – 2 July 2016. Here is the link to the blog:

The untold environmental costs of the Brexit vote

ALERT member Pierre-Michel Forget is a leading tropical ecologist and former President of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation.  Here he tells us about some surprising implications of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.

On 22 June 2016, hundreds of participants attended a photo slideshow during the Annual Meeting of the Association for Tropical Biology and Conservation (ATBC) in Montpellier, France.

There was no talk, only pictures showcasing the beauty of nature in the tropics.  It was a quiet moment, a relaxing break for those who are dedicating their lives to knowledge and conservation of tropical biodiversity.


When the clock woke me early on 24 June, everything had changed.  While ATBC delegates were still sleeping, investors were already awake, expecting a gold price increase after anticipating the Brexit vote outcome.

It happened when markets opened — gold prices spiked.  I immediately thought of the tropical ecosystems we are studying and hoping to protect from human misuse, because as Alert’s Director Bill Laurance recently wrote: “The world will be a far poorer place if we fail to try.”

My thoughts then turned to the Guianan rainforests, especially those belonging to France, and countries that have been terribly ravaged by long-term mercury and cyanide pollution from mining activities.  It was not difficult to envision the consequences of the Brexit vote for rainforest diversity and communities.

This new economic crisis will generate high demand for gold, as we already experienced in the early 2000s.  The aftermath of the Brexit vote will be ecologically devastating, not just politically or economically.

These untold, hidden consequences will not be mentioned in reports for the UK, EU, or the global market.  Those who invest in gold are blind to its origins.

A moonscape of illegal gold mining in Sumatra, Indonesia (photo by William Laurance).

A moonscape of illegal gold mining in Sumatra, Indonesia (photo by William Laurance).


Likewise, investors ignore the ecological and social consequences of increased demand, though these are well known.  Climate change will worsen and global carbon stocks and water quality will be directly impacted by deforestation due to gold mining.

And all this only six months after the historic COP21 agreement in Paris — where the world agreed to strong measures to limit harmful climate change.  What can we do now, as conservationists?

After the increase of gold prices and the subsequent gold rush in Amazonian countries in 2004-2008, the Conservation Committee of the ATBC released resolutions calling for the halt of gold mining in the Guianas and the Amazon, and opposing industrial mining in nature reserves and protected areas — issues that were addressed during the ATBC 2008 meeting in Suriname.

What has happened since 2008?  Are ATBC resolutions and declarations successful in countries suffering from rampant mining in protected areas?  Yes and no, might be the response.


I recently returned to Nouragues, a nature reserve in French Guiana, more than three decades after my first expeditions there.  Contrary to my first observation in late 2003, I did not see a single gareimperos village or canoe along the Approuage and Arataye rivers this time.

However, the gold rush still persists in other locations, and the Brexit vote will make it worse.

The scars of illegal gold mining in Suriname, South America (photo by William Laurance)

The scars of illegal gold mining in Suriname, South America (photo by William Laurance)

study showed that 41% of deforestation in the Amazon occurred between 2001-2013 in the Guianas, with 2007–2013 being the worst due to the economic crisis and an increased demand for gold.  It is difficult to stay optimistic.

In 2008, the French government rejected the Iamgold-Cambior project’s application to open a large-scale gold mine at Kaw Mountain after NGOs and experts warned that these activities in the core zone of a protected area would be detrimental to nature and people.


Now, a new project has been proposed in western French Guiana by the Canadian-Russian joint venture Columbus Gold-Nordgold, which is now under scrutiny by various local media and environmentalists.

The proposed mining site is within the biologically rich area of Montagne d’Or, squeezed between the two mountains of the Integral Biological Reserve of Lucifer Dékou-Dékou.

The devil is in the details of the project.  There is no need for another resolution or declaration about the consequences of a new gold rush; all this has been said before.

It is now the responsibility of stakeholders, policy-makers, and politicians to act and vote NO or YES, against or for destroying the Amazon forest to extract more gold in response to investors who demand more — the untold consequences of the Brexit vote.  For me, the risks of a project like this is just too high to contemplate.

This referendum is crucial for all citizens on the planet, not only for Europeans.

News Flash: Scheme to gut eco-safeguards being railroaded through Brazil’s Congress

From Philip Fearnside at

A proposal to create a special abbreviated licensing channel for “strategic” projects, such as major dams, would basically destroy Brazil’s environmental licensing system — a system that took decades to create.

Even the current system is full of loopholes and weaknesses.  This is abundantly evident when one sees the environmental and social crises being generated by massive dam schemes on the Madeira River, at Belo Monte, and the Tapajós River in the Brazilian Amazon.

Given the current problems in vetting proposed projects and avoiding severe environmental and social impacts, one can hardly imagine the chaos that would ensue under the proposed abbreviated system.


The proposal is being debated right at this moment in the Brazilian Senate — under a special “urgent” regime that limits debate to a period of just 48 hours.

Nongovernmental groups and others are trying to have the debate extended, but have little leverage.  There is a very real danger that this scheme will be railroaded through the Brazilian Senate.

Senator Romero Jucá, who is sponsoring the bill, has a long history of anti-environmental actions and of attempting to limit the rights of indigenous peoples.

Until recently Jucá was the Senate leader for the ruling coalition of political parties, and he is still one of the most powerful forces in Brasília.


A global outcry is needed.  The Amazon is being buried beneath a barrage of dam proposals — with over 300 major dams currently being planned or under construction.


Hundreds of dams are planned or underway in the greater Amazon region

Vast areas of the basin — including some of its most remote and biologically important areas — could be flooded by dams and opened up by construction roads that will sharply accelerate deforestation.

Senator Jucá’s proposal could gut direly needed environmental safeguards that are critical to the future to the Amazon.

Please tell your friends and colleagues to speak out — now — and advise Brazilians not to support this astonishingly ill-conceived scheme.


Pan-Tropical study reveals huge variation in effectiveness of Protected Areas

From William Laurance at

Protected areas such as national parks and World Heritage sites are probably our best bet for conserving nature in the long term.  They’re not the only game in town but they’re certainly the cornerstone of global conservation efforts.


Given this, we really need to know how well protected areas are functioning.

Are they doing what they’re supposed to be doing — acting as ‘Arks’ for biodiversity and natural ecological processes — as well as harboring indigenous peoples, supporting ecotourism, and providing environmental benefits such as clean water, carbon storage, and flood mitigation?

This is a very big and important question.  A particularly impressive study has recently been published by Ben Spracklen and colleagues.  Their goal: to compare the effectiveness of moist-forest reserves across the tropics and subtropics in halting deforestation.

Stopping deforestation, of course, is one of the main things we want our protected areas to do.  And in many places it’s a tall order because tropical regions are often under assault from a range of threatening processes.

In the last few decades one of the most striking patterns across the tropics has been large-scale deforestation, with many tropical reserves rapidly being isolated from their surrounding forests — effectively becoming habitat fragments.

And that’s a scary proposition because we all know that fragmentation causes a great many problems for tropical biodiversity and ecosystems.


In this context the Spracken et al. study is particularly important.  The authors assessed deforestation both inside and immediately outside nearly 3,400 protected areas within 56 nations, contrasting the situations in 2000 and 2012.  Some of their key conclusions:

1.  Most protected areas are under pressure.  Overall, 73 percent have extensive deforestation occurring just outside of the reserve.

2.  There is great variation in protected-area effectiveness, both among different continents and different nations.

3.  Protected areas are generally doing better in more-affluent nations (with higher per-capita GDP) than they are in poorer countries.

4.  Reserves also tend to suffer in nations that have dense rural populations, although this trend was weaker than the ‘wealth’ effect.

5.  At a continental scale, protected areas are faring the worst in Asia, with intermediate success in the New World and African tropics.  Reserves in Australasia (Australia and New Guinea) are faring the best overall.

6.  At regional scales, Southeast Asia, West Africa, and Central America have the poorest protected-area performance.

7.  Despite strong differences among continents and regions, there’s still a lot of variation at the national level.  For example, within Asia, protected areas are faring better in Thailand and Laos than they are elsewhere in the region.  And in Central America, reserves in Costa Rica and Belize are doing better than those in other countries.

For protected areas, green is good, whereas orange and red are bad (from Spracklen et al. 2015, PLoS One).

For protected areas, green is good, whereas orange and red are bad (from Spracklen et al. 2015, PLoS One).

8.  Not surprisingly, countries with large and relatively remote frontiers, such as those in the Amazon and Congo Basin, tend to have relatively low forest loss within their protected areas.

9.  Happily, there was little evidence that protected areas are simply displacing deforestation — pushing it elsewhere outside of their boundaries.  That’s good news, because it suggests that protected areas help to reduce deforestation rates.

10.  Protected areas with steeper slopes or higher elevations than their surroundings experience less degradation than do those that have less-challenging topography.

11.  Finally, reserves that have a lot of deforestation happening around them also tend to have more deforestation inside them.

Somewhat surprisingly, the authors did not discuss this latter point in their paper, but when asked about it they verified that this indeed was the case.  This is consistent with a central finding from the 2012 study of tropical forest reserves in Nature led by ALERT director Bill Laurance.  The key point: we can’t ignore what’s happening outside protected areas because those same effects tend to ‘leak inside’, with serious impacts on biodiversity.



All in all, the Spracklen et al. paper is one of the most important studies ever published on protected areas.  Sweeping in scope, it’s arguably a scientific tour de force with profound implications.

It’s telling us that, in general, our protected areas are working — to a degree.  They’re slowing or halting deforestation, and they’re not simply displacing it someplace else.

But there’s still huge room for improvement.

Protected areas in many nations — especially in Southeast Asia, West Africa, and Central America — just aren’t doing enough.

We need to battle to safeguard the protected areas in these places, because they sustain some of the biologically richest — and most imperiled — real estate on the planet.

When we get trapped in conservation conflicts

Concerning news spread rapidly through social media on Friday 25th of September – more than 30 people, including well known tropical biologist John Terborgh, had been ‘kidnapped’ by a group of local protesters in Manú National Park, Peru.

John Terborgh, Royal Belum State Park, northern Malaysia.

Field trip to Royal Belum State Park, northern Malaysia. From left to right: John Terborgh, Lisa Davenport, Kim McConkey, Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz, and Lisa Ong. © Reserved.

The abduction took place on the 22nd of September and two days later, John and the other hostages had been released. Apparently there was no harassment nor use of violence and all the hostages are well (except for a person with a dislocated shoulder). John is now (26th September) on his way home, where he will meet his wife before the end of the week.

News of innocent people being retained against their will are always unsettling. In this case, John’s high academic profile and the fact that he is a such a respected and liked member of the ATBC community added a great deal of attention and concern to a story that otherwise might have passed unnoticed internationally.

I found interesting how netizens discussed on the social media whether it was or not appropriate to call the protesters ‘terrorists’. The motivations behind the protest were not clear at the time, but there were suggestions that the local community was ‘fighting against the construction of a road through their lands’. Basically, that they were ‘fighting for conservation’.

Reports coming from Peru now suggest rather the opposite – that the local communities were actually protesting to support the construction of a road that would connect Nuevo Eden with Boca Manu. This road is a project of the regional government that has been stopped due to a complaint from Peru’s National Protected Natural Areas Service (SENANP). SENANP is concerned that the proposed road would lead to illegal deforestation and mining activities inside Manú. Additional reports from the area indicate that the park rangers abandoned their working duties in advance of the protest, to avoid confrontations with the local communities.

Several thoughts come to (my*) mind in the middle of this story. First, local communities are often not the conservation heroes many people like to think they are. It is perfectly understandable for many of these communities to have interest that come in conflict with conservation. That is where proper (sensitive and sensible) policies and regulations come in place.

Second, law enforcement is extremely difficult in contexts where confrontation is culturally and socially very sensitive. This is the case in many remote protected areas. It doesn’t matter how sensitive and sensible policies and laws are, if they cannot be enforced.

And, finally, that we – researchers – are one more of the stakeholder groups involved in conservation and increasingly will find ourselves trapped in conservation conflicts. We cannot afford to claim that we just want to remain neutral while conducting our research. When in the name of conservation we recommend to gazette a protected area or to stop the exploitation of an endangered species, we are crossing our way with the interests of other stakeholders, sometimes large corporations sometimes local communities.

I’m really glad to hear that John is well. When I shared the news of his ‘kidnapping’ with my students, one of them wrote back saying ‘the protesters might have felt they abducted the wrong person. John probably earned the protesters respect during the period chatting with them’. My student has spent time chatting with John in the field, and he obviously earned a great deal of her respect. And mine.

Ahimsa Campos-Arceiz
Kuala Lumpur, 26 Sep 2015

* Note: these are exclusively my views. I’m not representing any organization nor anyone else.