Commodity boom extracting increasingly heavy toll on Amazon forests

Source: The Guardian Unlimited

A commodity boom has helped pull millions out of poverty across South America over the past decade. It has also unleashed a new scramble for oil, minerals and cropland that is accelerating deforestation and fuelling a new wave of land conflicts from Colombia to Chile.

Now, as prices for oil and other commodities slide, economists and environmental researchers warn that the loss of forest cover may be hastened, leading to new clashes as governments in the region try to maintain growth rates and spending levels by driving deeper into the jungle.

Satellite imagery of the Amazon basin, the world’s largest tropical forest and a critical bulwark against climate change, shows a stark divergence in the continent’s preservation efforts. In Brazil, the pace of deforestation has been cut by 75% since 2004, largely the result of tighter regulation and new environmental protections.

But in Colombia, Peru, Bolivia and the other five nations whose territories cover 40% of the Amazon basin, the loss of vegetation increased threefold in the same period, wiping out a combined area of forest cover of more than 32,000 sq km. Last year, the pace of deforestation in those nations leapt by 120%.

“Commodity prices, directly or indirectly, have increased deforestation in the Amazon,” said Kevin Gallagher, a development economist at Boston University who specialises in Latin America’s trade relations with China. “Price increases create the perception of scarcity, which pushes investors into new terrain,” he said.

More than 80 million Latin Americans were lifted out of poverty in the past decade, according to the World Bank, which reports that as of 2011, “for the first time in recorded history, the region has a larger number of people in the middle class than in poverty”.

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