Amazon emergency: two-thirds of species are under threat from deforestation – dispatch

Dating service

When Marco Aurelio Zapata first built his farm named La Flor Del Amazonas (The Amazon Flower) deep in the Colombian rainforest nearly half a century ago, the only sound from his surrounding 288 hectares was that of the wild: howler and capuchin monkeys, macaws, and immeasurable birds, insects and amphibians striking up a cacophony of noise.

The modern era has violently interrupted this natural chorus. During the country’s long civil war which ended with a ceasefire in 2017 low flying crop-dusting planes would roar overhead dousing the forest canopy with herbicide in a bid to stem the guerilla’s cocaine production, much of it centred in Guaviare province where Zapata lives and tends to his smallholding.

Now it is the distant buzz of chainsaws, growing nearer all the time. Machete in hand hacking a path through the rainforest, the 62-year-old Zapata leads us to a clearing the size of several football pitches recently levelled by a neighbour to sell as cattle pasture.

“I feel sad and also angry to see it,” Zapata says. “This is a beautiful place and we want to protect the land but here anybody can do what they want.”  

This swathe of jungle on the edge of Colombia’s Chiribiquete national park, declared a world heritage site in 2018 and championed by the Prince of Wales as a vital lung of the earth, is part of a rapidly unfolding environmental crisis stretching right across the Amazon basin.

Concerned landowner and former coca grower Marco Aurelio Zapata is under constant pressure to sell his land to commercial cattle ranchers Credit: David Rose /The Telegraph

After a decade or so of gradual progress, deforestation has suddenly exploded across the Amazon, which spans nine countries containing 40 per cent of earth’s rainforest and 10-15 per cent of all its terrestrial species.

In Brazil, where the country’s new populist president Jair Bolsanaro has nakedly pursued an anti-environmental agenda, 2,254 sqkm of the rainforest has been cleared in the past month alone. That figure represents a 278 per cent rise on the 596.6 sqkm destroyed in July last year.

In Colombia, meanwhile, deforestation has rapidly increased from 124,000 hectares in 2015 to 197,000 hectares in 2018, 66 per cent of which is concentrated in the Amazon region.

Vanishing tree lines in the rainforests of the Serrania de Chiribiquete national park Credit: David Rose/The Telegraph

As the trees vanish so too is the vital biodiversity they protect. A major new report co-authored by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and Zoological Society of London (ZSL) and made exclusively available to the Telegraph ahead of its publication on Tuesday reveals that global forest vertebrate populations have declined on average by 53 per cent between 1970 and 2014

According to the report if global temperature rise continues at its current rate then two thirds of the species in the Amazon will be under threat due to climate change

Experts warn a tipping point could soon be reached where the deforestation becomes irreversible and much of the Amazon turns into dry savannah, known as ‘cerrado’, transforming from a vital sink for global emissions to releasing tens of billions of tonnes of carbon into the air.

“Forests are crucial to our planet’s health and crucial to human health,” says Tanya Steele, chief executive of WWF UK. “They are carbon sinks that act as a shield against climate change. This isn’t just about scientific data there is an enormous human and environmental impact – and that impact is growing.”

The 'Forest Guardians' – a volunteer collective of local residents, farmers and concerned inhabitants which is financed by overseas aid and administered by the WWF – aim to monitor wildlife and rare trees Credit: David Rose/The Telegraph

Logging, food production and illegal mining are all hastening the destruction of the forest: a fortnight ago a community leader was stabbed to death after gold miners invaded an indigenous reserve in the Brazilian Amazon.  

In Colombia’s Guaviare province – one of the worst affected regions for deforestation – the acceleration is the result of cattle ranchers moving on to land previously controlled by FARC guerrillas.

Some farmers are choosing to sell up, in other cases they are simply being forced off their land in a country where who owns what is sparsely monitored.

So much land is being so rapidly cleared that it is beginning to encroach on the Chiribiquete National Park, Colombia’s largest and most pristine swathe of the Amazon spanning 4.2m hectares.

From a helicopter above it is apparent huge portions of the forest buffer zone surrounding Chiribiquete have already been cleared. The loggers use a combination of chainsaws and bushfires to level the trees, whose charred trunks stand out like headstones amid what is now cattle pasture.  

Deforestation, both for timber but mainly for pasture for cattle, are major threats in the region Credit: David Rose /The Telegraph

Over the past year an estimated 21,000 hectares of deforestation has been recorded actually inside Colombia’s national parks, 10 per cent of which is in Chiribiquete.

“We are seeing huge scale illegality and a lot of pressure on households to sell what lands they have,” says Tanya Steele of the situation in and around the national park. “There is no doubt we are seeing the pressure evidently on areas put to one side for future generations.”

In an interview in his offices in the Colombian capital, Bogota, the environment minister Ricardo Lozano Picón insists the country’s conservative president Iván Duque has been prioritising the Amazon since his election last year.

He says the government is on course to meet its goal of reducing deforestation by 30 per cent nationwide by 2022, although declines to comment on the Brazilian president Bolsonaro’s push to develop the Amazon which has spawned the nickname ‘Captain Chainsaw’.

“I am the environmental authority in Colombia, not Brazil, but it is very important to say that we are setting an example in the fight with deforestation that other countries can copy,” he says.

Back in Guaviare, Marco Zapata has already received several offers for his land from middlemen acting for outside buyers. 

He has so far refused, but with his three sons living in Bogota and showing no desire to return to the countryside to take over when he retires, he fears the forest he has cherished for decades will soon be flattened around him.

“There is more and more pressure in this region and I am now an old man,” he says. “People like us want to preserve the lands but to do that we need the world to help.”

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