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Concept: Peruvian Amazon


State-controlled protected areas (PAs) have dominated conservation strategies globally, yet their performance relative to other governance regimes is rarely assessed comprehensively. Furthermore, performance indicators of forest PAs are typically restricted to deforestation, although the extent of forest degradation is greater. We address these shortfalls through an empirical impact evaluation of state PAs, Indigenous Territories (ITs), and civil society and private Conservation Concessions (CCs) on deforestation and degradation throughout the Peruvian Amazon. We integrated remote-sensing data with environmental and socio-economic datasets, and used propensity-score matching to assess: (i) how deforestation and degradation varied across governance regimes between 2006-2011; (ii) their proximate drivers; and (iii) whether state PAs, CCs and ITs avoided deforestation and degradation compared with logging and mining concessions, and the unprotected landscape. CCs, state PAs, and ITs all avoided deforestation and degradation compared to analogous areas in the unprotected landscape. CCs and ITs were on average more effective in this respect than state PAs, showing that local governance can be equally or more effective than centralized state regimes. However, there were no consistent differences between conservation governance regimes when matched to logging and mining concessions. Future impact assessments would therefore benefit from further disentangling governance regimes across unprotected land.

Concepts: Evaluation, Assessment, Rainforest, Amazon Basin, Peru, Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests, Amazon Rainforest, Peruvian Amazon


The Amazon basin is the largest and most species-rich tropical forest and river system in the world, playing a pivotal role in global climate regulation and harboring hundreds of traditional and indigenous cultures. It is a matter of intense debate whether the ecosystem is threatened by hunting practices, whereby an “empty forest” loses critical ecological functions. Strikingly, no previous study has examined Amazonian ecosystem resilience through the perspective of the massive 20th century international trade in furs and skins. We present the first historical account of the scale and impacts of this trade and show that whereas aquatic species suffered basin-wide population collapse, terrestrial species did not. We link this differential resilience to the persistence of adequate spatial refuges for terrestrial species, enabling populations to be sustained through source-sink dynamics, contrasting with unremitting hunting pressure on more accessible aquatic habitats. Our findings attest the high vulnerability of aquatic fauna to unregulated hunting, particularly during years of severe drought. We propose that the relative resilience of terrestrial species suggests a marked opportunity for managing, rather than criminalizing, contemporary traditional subsistence hunting in Amazonia, through both the engagement of local people in community-based comanagement programs and science-led conservation governance.

Concepts: Ecosystem, Amazon River, Brazil, Rainforest, Amazon Basin, Indigenous peoples, Amazon Rainforest, Peruvian Amazon


Gold mining has rapidly increased in western Amazonia, but the rates and ecological impacts of mining remain poorly known and potentially underestimated. We combined field surveys, airborne mapping, and high-resolution satellite imaging to assess road- and river-based gold mining in the Madre de Dios region of the Peruvian Amazon from 1999 to 2012. In this period, the geographic extent of gold mining increased 400%. The average annual rate of forest loss as a result of gold mining tripled in 2008 following the global economic recession, closely associated with increased gold prices. Small clandestine operations now comprise more than half of all gold mining activities throughout the region. These rates of gold mining are far higher than previous estimates that were based on traditional satellite mapping techniques. Our results prove that gold mining is growing more rapidly than previously thought, and that high-resolution monitoring approaches are required to accurately quantify human impacts on tropical forests.

Concepts: Amazon River, Tropical rainforest, Amazon Basin, Recession, Peru, Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests, Madre de Dios Region, Peruvian Amazon


Several independent lines of evidence suggest that Amazon forests have provided a significant carbon sink service, and also that the Amazon carbon sink in intact, mature forests may now be threatened as a result of different processes. There has however been no work done to quantify non-land-use-change forest carbon fluxes on a national basis within Amazonia, or to place these national fluxes and their possible changes in the context of the major anthropogenic carbon fluxes in the region. Here we present a first attempt to interpret results from ground-based monitoring of mature forest carbon fluxes in a biogeographically, politically, and temporally differentiated way. Specifically, using results from a large long-term network of forest plots, we estimate the Amazon biomass carbon balance over the last three decades for the different regions and nine nations of Amazonia, and evaluate the magnitude and trajectory of these differentiated balances in relation to major national anthropogenic carbon emissions.

Concepts: Climate change, Amazon River, Rainforest, Tropical rainforest, Tropical and subtropical moist broadleaf forests, Amazon Rainforest, Slash and burn, Peruvian Amazon


The El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) is the main driver of interannual climate extremes in Amazonia and other tropical regions. The current 2015/2016 EN event was expected to be as strong as the EN of the century in 1997/98, with extreme heat and drought over most of Amazonian rainforests. Here we show that this protracted EN event, combined with the regional warming trend, was associated with unprecedented warming and a larger extent of extreme drought in Amazonia compared to the earlier strong EN events in 1982/83 and 1997/98. Typical EN-like drought conditions were observed only in eastern Amazonia, whilst in western Amazonia there was an unusual wetting. We attribute this wet-dry dipole to the location of the maximum sea surface warming on the Central equatorial Pacific. The impacts of this climate extreme on the rainforest ecosystems remain to be documented and are likely to be different to previous strong EN events.

Concepts: Amazon River, Brazil, Rainforest, Tropical rainforest, Amazon Basin, Deforestation, Amazon Rainforest, Peruvian Amazon


The vast extent of the Amazon Basin has historically restricted the study of its tree communities to the local and regional scales. Here, we provide empirical data on the commonness, rarity, and richness of lowland tree species across the entire Amazon Basin and Guiana Shield (Amazonia), collected in 1170 tree plots in all major forest types. Extrapolations suggest that Amazonia harbors roughly 16,000 tree species, of which just 227 (1.4%) account for half of all trees. Most of these are habitat specialists and only dominant in one or two regions of the basin. We discuss some implications of the finding that a small group of species–less diverse than the North American tree flora–accounts for half of the world’s most diverse tree community.

Concepts: Amazon River, Brazil, South America, Amazon Basin, Manaus, Amazon Rainforest, Peruvian Amazon, Regions of South America


The western Amazon continues to be an active and controversial zone of hydrocarbon exploration and production. We argue for the urgent need to implement best practices to reduce the negative environmental and social impacts associated with the sector. Here, we present a three-part study aimed at resolving the major obstacles impeding the advancement of best practice in the region. Our focus is on Loreto, Peru, one of the largest and most dynamic hydrocarbon zones in the Amazon. First, we develop a set of specific best practice guidelines to address the lack of clarity surrounding the issue. These guidelines incorporate both engineering-based criteria and key ecological and social factors. Second, we provide a detailed analysis of existing and planned hydrocarbon activities and infrastructure, overcoming the lack of information that typically hampers large-scale impact analysis. Third, we evaluate the planned activities and infrastructure with respect to the best practice guidelines. We show that Loreto is an extremely active hydrocarbon front, highlighted by a number of recent oil and gas discoveries and a sustained government push for increased exploration. Our analyses reveal that the use of technical best practice could minimize future impacts by greatly reducing the amount of required infrastructure such as drilling platforms and access roads. We also document a critical need to consider more fully the ecological and social factors, as the vast majority of planned infrastructure overlaps sensitive areas such as protected areas, indigenous territories, and key ecosystems and watersheds. Lastly, our cost analysis indicates that following best practice does not impose substantially greater costs than conventional practice, and may in fact reduce overall costs. Barriers to the widespread implementation of best practice in the Amazon clearly exist, but our findings show that there can be great benefits to its implementation.

Concepts: Hydrogen, Petroleum, Carbon, Amazon River, Natural gas, Best practice, Peru, Peruvian Amazon


The massive forests of central Amazonia are often considered relatively resilient against climatic variation, but this view is challenged by the wildfires invoked by recent droughts. The impact of such fires that spread from pervasive sources of ignition may reveal where forests are less likely to persist in a drier future. Here we combine field observations with remotely sensed information for the whole Amazon to show that the annually inundated lowland forests that run through the heart of the system may be trapped relatively easily into a fire-dominated savanna state. This lower forest resilience on floodplains is suggested by patterns of tree cover distribution across the basin, and supported by our field and remote sensing studies showing that floodplain fires have a stronger and longer-lasting impact on forest structure as well as soil fertility. Although floodplains cover only 14% of the Amazon basin, their fires can have substantial cascading effects because forests and peatlands may release large amounts of carbon, and wildfires can spread to adjacent uplands. Floodplains are thus an Achilles' heel of the Amazon system when it comes to the risk of large-scale climate-driven transitions.

Concepts: Amazon River, Brazil, Rainforest, Tropical rainforest, Amazon Basin, Amazon Rainforest, Slash and burn, Peruvian Amazon


Reduced rainfall increases the risk of forest dieback, while in return forest loss might intensify regional droughts. The consequences of this vegetation-atmosphere feedback for the stability of the Amazon forest are still unclear. Here we show that the risk of self-amplified Amazon forest loss increases nonlinearly with dry-season intensification. We apply a novel complex-network approach, in which Amazon forest patches are linked by observation-based atmospheric water fluxes. Our results suggest that the risk of self-amplified forest loss is reduced with increasing heterogeneity in the response of forest patches to reduced rainfall. Under dry-season Amazonian rainfall reductions, comparable to Last Glacial Maximum conditions, additional forest loss due to self-amplified effects occurs in 10-13% of the Amazon basin. Although our findings do not indicate that the projected rainfall changes for the end of the twenty-first century will lead to complete Amazon dieback, they suggest that frequent extreme drought events have the potential to destabilize large parts of the Amazon forest.

Concepts: Amazon River, Brazil, South America, Rainforest, Amazon Basin, Manaus, Amazon Rainforest, Peruvian Amazon


Reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (REDD+) is considered one of the most cost-effective strategies for mitigating climate change. However, historical deforestation and emission rates-critical inputs for setting reference emission levels for REDD+-are poorly understood. Here we use multi-source, time-series satellite data to quantify carbon emissions from deforestation in the Amazon basin on a year-to-year basis between 2000 and 2010. We first derive annual deforestation indicators by using the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer Vegetation Continuous Fields (MODIS VCF) product. MODIS indicators are calibrated by using a large sample of Landsat data to generate accurate deforestation rates, which are subsequently combined with a spatially explicit biomass dataset to calculate committed annual carbon emissions. Across the study area, the average deforestation and associated carbon emissions were estimated to be 1.59 ± 0.25 M ha•yr-1 and 0.18 ± 0.07 Pg C•yr-1 respectively, with substantially different trends and inter-annual variability in different regions. Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon increased between 2001 and 2004 and declined substantially afterwards, whereas deforestation in the Bolivian Amazon, the Colombian Amazon, and the Peruvian Amazon increased over the study period. The average carbon density of lost forests after 2005 was 130 Mg C•ha-1, ~11% lower than the average carbon density of remaining forests in year 2010 (144 Mg C•ha-1). Moreover, the average carbon density of cleared forests increased at a rate of 7 Mg C•ha-1•yr-1 from 2005 to 2010, suggesting that deforestation has been progressively encroaching into high-biomass lands in the Amazon basin. Spatially explicit, annual deforestation and emission estimates like the ones derived in this study are useful for setting baselines for REDD+ and other emission mitigation programs, and for evaluating the performance of such efforts.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Climate change, Amazon River, Amazon Basin, Emission standard, Peru, Amazon Rainforest, Peruvian Amazon