Deforestation in the Amazon has been a growing problem over the past five decades, with ranchers leading the way in clearing rainforest for cattle and cultivation. But while Brazil, the largest country in South America, seems on track to reduce deforestation, other major Amazonian countries like Peru are increasingly struggling to protect their share of the world’s largest rainforest.
In fact, a new wave of deforestation is underway in the Huanuco region of central Peru, which now has the highest concentration of the deforestation in the country, according to an Amazon Conservation Association (ACA) report published this month. The report is based on algorithms of satellite data from 2013 through 2015 and points to cattle grazing as the main culprit, Matt Finer, senior research specialist at the ACA told ThinkProgress. “We just hadn’t really dealt with that driver before. You hear that more in the context of Brazil.”
Last year Huanuco lost nearly 20,000 acres of rainforest, according to the ACA. An acre is roughly the size of a football field. Most of the deforested area — or 87 percent — is outside land zoned for agricultural use, Finer said, and 70 to 80 percent of the deforestation came from small-scale clearing. In high-resolution images “we were able to see that it went directly from forest to this grassland,” Finer said. “In some of the images you can actually see the cows.”
Covering some 40 percent of South America, the Amazon jungle is a prime player in staving off the effects of climate change by capturing carbon in its trees and plants. Peru has the largest expanse of the Amazon after Brazil — the Amazon River is born deep within Peru — and some 60 percent of Peru is rainforest. But like Brazil, Peru has increasingly turned to develop the resource-rich jungle since demand for oil, gas, minerals, as well as products like beef, cacao, and palm oil, climbed as the country exponentially grew after the end of a brutal insurgency. In recent years Peru has built a sprawling highway system in the jungle, which has helped the extraction industries and farmers reach areas previously too secluded or too costly to slash and develop. The country and local economies have benefited, particularly in the last decade, but affluence has come at a cost.
On the one hand, there have been oil spills in the north, while a gold rush has severely polluted the south. Agriculture and cattle grazing is, for its part, happening all over and usually comes through slash and burn, a practice that increases the risk of uncontrolled fires, harms wildlife and habitat, and exposes the soil to unprecedented degradation through erosion. More cattle also means more methane, a powerful greenhouse gas; while fewer trees hamper the Amazon’s capacity to capture carbon in a time when worldwide emissions continue to rise.
It’s unclear why cattle ranchers are moving into Huanuco, but some experts said that unlike other Amazon regions, the department of Huanuco — the equivalent to a U.S. state — is comparatively closer to large urban centers along the highlands, the coast, and to Lima, Peru’s capital and main market. “All the cattle raised in Huanuco is consumed in Lima, or Huanuco,” Wilmar Plasencia, who heads the Huanuco branch of the Institute of Development and the Environment, or IDMA, told ThinkProgress. He saw an increase in deforestation starting in 2013, and said often times migrants seem to be responsible. So while some of the local communities may follow ancestral systems to prevent over-exploitation, newcomers are less likely to know or follow the same practices.
“Communities often times use an area as another area rests, it’s like a rotation,” Plasencia said. “Land grabbers don’t have that and they argue they have to cover their necessities. This is a loaded social subject.” Poverty levels in Huanuco can be as high as 42 percent in the semi-urban centers, and higher than 50 percent in the rural areas, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Huanuco’s acute increase in deforestation comes as San Martin, a department just north of Huanuco that used to have the highest deforestation rate in Peru, is showing decreasing rates, said Jorge Fachin, a researcher at the environmental organization Amazónicos por la Amazonía, or AMPA. This is a sign of hope because it means efforts to curb deforestation by empowering local communities with land concessions for conservation are working, he said. However, there is a worrisome trend ongoing as well. “Many of the drivers that were present in San Martin are shifting to places like Huanuco, mainly because people are looking for new places to farm,” Fachin told ThinkProgress.
Huanuco, adjacent to the Andes and the rainforest, shows an overall loss of population to Lima and other departments in recent years. Yet out of the four Huanuco municipalities gaining people, three are located in the Amazon, according to OIM 2015 data. But Plasencia didn’t dismiss that locals are clearing trees, too. He said Peruvian meat demand may be driving natives to move away from traditional crops or expand their operations altogether. And they have reasons to do that. Raising cattle requires land but carries low capital costs, making it a low-risk investment relative to crops subject to price swings or infestations. “[Ranchers] see protected areas as an opportunity, not realizing they are harming nature.”
Organizations like IDMA are in the meantime trying to educate communities knowing this is a long term effort. Plasencia said one recent program is training rural school teachers in sustainable farming practices so the community holds that knowledge. “We are betting on the youth,” he said. For its part, the government has deforestation projects in place, according topublished reports. “We are going to see results in probably five years,” said Plasencia. “We are trying to stop this from growing any further.”
Calls to government officials in Huanuco and Lima were not answered by press time.