Skip to content

Climate Change and Heritage Landscapes

By Brenda Barrett December 18, 2019
Blackwater National Wildlife Sanctuary Photo Courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Program

Our changing climate is causing radical alteration to the earth’s ecosystems and the focus has been on the impact to flora and fauna.  Less recognized have been the impacts that are wrought on our treasured cultural landscape. However, as the climate threat looms larger the discussion is broadening to look at cultural heritage impacts.  Recently, the Cultural Landscape Foundation  issued a compelling report highlighting the risk faced by some of our nation’s is iconic cultural landscapes. 

Harriet Tubman National Monument Visitors Center Courtey Accroian

  For example, on the Eastern shore of Maryland in  Dorchester County the Harriet Tubman National Monument commemorates the story of the legendary abolitionist. It was into this landscape that she was born, from which she escaped, and to which she returned many times to lead other enslaved people to freedom. It is also the location of the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge designated in 1933 as a sanctuary for birds migrating along the Atlantic Flyway. Today although this landscape has been designated as a protected area both its cultural and natural values are threatened by inexorable forces of climate change. Sea level rise and land subsidence have caused the refuge to lose over 5,000 acres of wetlands since its creation. There has been a marked increase ‘sunny day flooding’ that disrupts life throughout the region. These rising waters also cause increased salination of the soil that threatens both farming and forestry and makes storm surges more destructive.

 The Cultural Landscape Foundation’s 2019 edition of Landslide draws much needed attention to ten examples of landscapes across the nation endangered  by flooding, wildfires, regional drought, and other effects of human-induced climate change. As Charles A. Birnbaum, the Foundation’s President & CEO noted “Climate change is a widely acknowledged threat to natural and ecological systems, but the dire potential impacts on irreplaceable cultural systems and historic resources need greater attention and it requires action, now.”

It is also appropriate that former National Park Service Director John Jarvis wrote the introduction to this report. As the agency under his leadership rang early alarm bells about the risk of climate change to our National Parks and cultural resources specifically. In 2010 Jarvis called out climate change as “the greatest threat to the integrity of our national parks that we have ever experienced” in 2014 the service issued Policy Memorandum 14-02, Climate Change and Stewardship of Cultural Resources. This included the following key points:  “(1) cultural resources are primary sources of data regarding human interactions with environmental change; and (2) changing climates affect the preservation and maintenance of cultural resources”.

The National Park then published a follow-on report Cultural Resource Climate Change Strategy   January 2017.  This report detailed a comprehensive strategy to gather information, asses the impacts, consider adaptation and mitigation, as well as communicate the seriousness of the threat to the public. It recognized that cultural resources and the stories and understanding they represent play an essential role in climate change communication. It also highlighted some of the cultural resources impacted by climate change including cultural landscapes such as Point Reyes National Seashore. 

This report, outlining a strategy for the park service to address climate change impact on cultural resources, was issued in January 2017. It was issued just in time, as the incoming national leadership made it clear it not taking the climate challenge to heart. However, these reports and other information are still accessible and the lack of action at the national government level does not mean nothing can be done.  In the United Sates, individual states, cities, and many nongovernmental organizations are now picking up the banner of responding to climate change overall. See such coalitions as America’s Pledge. And in further encouraging news, there is a lot happening on the international stage to focus attention on climate and heritage resources.

What follows is just a sampling of this forward momentum. At a recent gathering (October 24-25, 2019) in Edinburgh Scotland, arts, culture and heritage organizations from around the  world announced the formation of the Climate Heritage Network   The organization’s moto is “Cultural Heritage is a Climate Action Issue;  Climate Action is a Cultural Heritage Issue’. The International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) is staffing this new network. This event was followed by the recent COP25 meeting in Madrid where the  new Network released its first action plan to help mobilize the arts, culture and heritage community. Dubbed the Madrid-to-Glasgow Arts, Culture and Heritage Climate Action Plan, its release kicks off a year of culture-based climate action that will culminate in 2020 at COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland. 

Arts, culture or heritage related business, university, nongovernmental organization or government office, all are invited to join the Network.   This is a great opportunity for those interested in conserving cultural landscapes to weigh in and become part of this worldwide effort.

 

 

Share

Mesa Verde National Park: Reinterpreting a Landscape

By Brenda Barrett October 31, 2019
Ranger tour of Cliff Palace Mesa Verde National Park

The word landscape jumps out at you on many of the interpretative signs at Mesa Verde National Park and the real thing is before you at every overlook.  The park established in 1906, ten years before the creation of the National Park Service, was later designated as the first World Heritage cultural site in the United States (1978). The original motive for creating the park came out of a growing interest in the archaeology of the Southwest that also lead to the creation of national monuments such as Chaco Canyon, Bandelier, Hovenweep and Aztec Ruins.  What made Mesa Verde standout to the early settlers and explorers were the extensive ‘cliff houses and ancient ruins’. In 1892 the writer Frederick Chapin visited one of the larger sites and described it as “occupying a great oval space under a grand cliff wonderful to behold, appearing like an immense ruined castle with dismantled towers.” 

Mesa Verde National Park’s World Heritage Plaque prominently displayed at the entrance to the park’s Chapin Museum

 In part it was this cross-cultural comparison of the structures to European building types that focused attention on Mesa Verde as something special in North America – a place that needed to be preserved. This was not to say the that the artifacts associated with the site were not seen as important. In fact, the designation was made more urgent by the continued threat of pothunting and vandalism of the sites in the cliffs and on the mesa tops.

For years Mesa Verde National Park was described as a place shrouded in mystery. The people who lived there were portrayed as having suddenly abandoned the cliff dwelling and just disappeared. The builders were labeled the Anasazi a term derived from the Navajo word meaning ‘ancient ones’ or alternatively ‘ancient enemies’, which added to the confusion. Now we know that these people did not disappear, but migrated south to become the ancestors of the modern-day pueblo and Hopi people.  Today park interpretation refers to the cliff dwellers as Ancestral Puebloans who like so many people around the globe migrated to other places for other opportunities. 

Just as importantly, current research places the people of Mesa Verde in a much larger regional context. Settlements that date from between 350 BC and AD 1300, the span of settlement on Mesa Verde, are found throughout southwestern Colorado and in the Four Corners region. Current research also links the people of Mesa Verde to one of the centers of Puebloan culture Chaco Cultural National Historical Park  another World Heritage site (1987).  As our ranger said on a recent tour of Cliff Palace, by the 1200s the region had a larger population than live here today. He told us that if we could have looked out from the tops of the mesas at night, we would see the fires from towns and villages that spread to the horizon. This image helps visualize the peopling of the region at a landscape scale. 

Burned landscape on Wetherill Mesa

The newer interpretation gives visitors a better understanding of the past population of Mesa Verde, but does not answer the question of why did they leave the region after 1300s? Possibly for some the same threats that hover over the Mesa Verde today – changes in the environment and changes in climate. The park has not shied away from this topic. A recent study has shown that today’s hot and dry conditions in Mesa Verde have exceeded climates fluxes in the past.  A park resource manager noted that nearly 70% of the landscape in the 52,485-acre park has been altered in just the last few decades for reasons that tie directly back to climate change. Namely, drought-driven fires.h

This has had a severe impact on the mesa top landscape fires have been able to take hold that have burned off acres and acres of the pinon-juniper forests. While periodic droughts were common to the region in the past, the current level is unprecedented. A 2016 UNESCO report on World Heritage and Tourism in a Changing Climate hspecifically identified the park as facing serious risks rising temperatures and declining rainfall. A combination could cause increased wildfires that might irreversibly damage the park. 

Banner at the entrance to the Park Museum

How is the park telling these newer stories? First, by recognizing the ancestral Puebloan roots of the people of Mesa Verde in park waysides and in ranger talks and programs,  and  also by offering  forthright statements on climate change. A prominent banner in the Chapin Museum states that while climate change has always been with us “Today the rate of change is greater than in any other time in the earth’s history.”

Mesa Verde National Park has relatively lower visitation (563,000 in 2018) compared to some other parks on the Colorado Plateau with over 1.5 million visors a year. However, it is no backwater when it comes to sharing the latest findings in history and science. 

Congratulations to all! 

Share

The Green River Drift: Transhumance in the America West

By Guest Observer June 30, 2019

By Bethany Kelly

Green River Drift Association

Transhumance – the practice of seasonally moving livestock from winter pastures in the lowlands to summer grazing in the mountains – is an ancient intangible and cultural tradition practiced all over the world.  Also known as pastoralism, the term usually invokes quaint and idyllic images of sheepherders in the European Alps or Pyrenees Mountains and not Wyoming cowboys, but the term is applicable to both.   Cowboys from the Upper Green River Cattle Association have moved their herds by horseback along the Green River Driftfor over one hundred and twenty years. Although the practice is not as oldin Wyoming as many European countries, transhumance in Wyoming is equally invaluable to the landscapes, the livelihoods, and the cultural traditions of the American West.   Traditional transhumance is also an inherently environmentally sustainable practice and necessary for the continued health of mountain forests and marginal use lands. 

Beginning at the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) allotments on the Little Colorado Desert or the Mesa in Sublette County, Wyoming and ending at U.S. Forest Service allotments in the Bridger-Teton National Forest (BTNF), the Green River Drift– established in 1896 – is the oldest continual use cattle corridor in the United States. The Drift is the first ranching related listing on the National Historic Register as a Traditional Cultural Property; it was listed in 2013. 

Every May, cattle are moved from their spring grazing on the high desert BLM land of the Upper Green River Valley along smaller trails – known as spur lines – to the main trail at Middle Mesa Wall.  From here, cowboys push livestock nearly sixty miles north along the Green River and the New Fork River.  After passing over private properties and land managed by the BLM, U.S. Forrest Service, and the State of Wyoming, the herds reach their summer grazing on the Upper Green River Cattle Allotment – a 127,000-acre U.S. Forest Service allotment in BTNF.  The trip takes three to four weeks to complete.  Cattle will graze on the BTNF until the middle of October. When the weather begins getting markedly colder, the cattle will “drift” – or naturally migrate – back down south along the route they traversed in the early summer. Cowboys round up the strays and return the herds to the ranches for winter.

The Drift consists of both natural and man-made elements.  In some places the topography of the land funnels livestock along the route; creeks and man-made reservoirs provide water; roads, underpasses, and bridges ensure safe passage over rivers and roadways.  The corridor follows a large ungulate seasonal migration route as well and crosses through “Trapper’s Point”– a section of a 7000-year-old migratory route used by pronghorn and mule deer and containing several archeological sites.   

Transhumance and Sustainability on the Drift

Like its European counterparts, transhumance on the Green River Drift is under threat. Encroachment from oil and gas production and rural sprawl gradually squeeze the corridor tighter.  Agricultural homogenization makes smaller scale, traditional beef production more expensive.  Federal changes in land use prioritization are a constant threat.  And climate changealters the rangeland.  Finally, ranching families depend upon one another, but as more ranches are sold and subdivided, the number of families pushing cattle up the Drift decreases and endangers the sustainability of transhumance in the Green River Basin (more on the challenges of Western transhumance here).  

The disappearance of transhumance has a wide range of potential ramifications.  While beef production – even organic, grass-fed beefproduction – has rightfully become increasingly scrutinized for its deleterious environmental impacts, cattle raised on mountain pastures and marginal use lands are different than traditional grass-fed livestock; they are environmentally beneficial.  Among other things, mountain cattle herds increase forest biodiversity and help prevent forest fires and soil erosion.  Studies done on European transhumancehave found that the overall health of forests drop when livestock are removed. Finally, cattle corridors often run along the same trails as other migratory animals; when we preserve the corridor for seasonal livestock use, by extension, we are also preserving it for migratory wildlife. 

As climate change accelerates and the world faces greater and greater environmental consequences as a result, traditional intangible and cultural practices – such as transhumance – might provide a roadmap towards an environmentally sustainable future.  But only if we can keep them.  So, next time you are driving through the Rockies and you see a herd of cattle remember that those lovely beasts and the cowboys that drove them there are producing environmentally sustainable beef products, maintaining the health of the forest, protecting migratory routes for large ungulates, and – if they are cattle from the Upper Green River Cattle Association – preserving over a hundred years of western intangible and cultural heritage. 

References

Battaglini, L, S. Bovolenta, F. Gusmeroli, S. Salvador, E. Sturaro (2014). Environmental 

Sustainability of Alpine Livestock Farms.Italian Journal of Animal Science, 13:2, 3155, DOI: 10.481/ijas.2014.3155. Retrieved from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.4081/ijas.2014.3155#aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cudGFuZGZvbmxpbmUuY29tL2RvaS9wZGYvMTAuNDA4MS9pamFzLjIwMTQuMzE1NT9uZWVkQWNjZXNzPXRydWVAQEAw

Capper, J.L. (10 April 2012). Is the Grass Always Greener? Comparing the Environmental 

Impact of Conventional, Natural and Grass-Fed Beef Production Systems. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4494320/

Green River Drift(n.d.) Retrieved from http://www.greenriverdrift.org/

Huntsinger, L. & C Forero, L. & Sulak, A. (2010). Transhumance and pastoralist 

resilience in the western United States. Pastoralism: Research, Policy, and Practice. 1. 1-15. 

Kauffman, M., J. Meacham, H. Sawyer, A. Steingisser, W. Rudd, & E. Ostlind (2018). Wild 

Migrations: Atlas of Wyoming’s Ungulates. Retrieved from http://migrationinitiative.org/content/atlas

Liechti, K., Biber, JP. (1 November 2016). Pastoralism in Europe: characteristics and 

challenges of highland-lowland transhumance.Retrieved from https://europepmc.org/abstract/med/27917971

Manrique, E, Olaizola, A.M., Bernues, A., Maza, M.T., Saez, A., (1999). Economic diversity of 

farming systems and possibilities for structural adjustment in mountain livestock farms. Retrieved from http://om.ciheam.org/om/pdf/b27/99600301.pdf

Mitloehner, F. (25 October 2018). Yes, eating meat affects the environment, but cows are not 

killing the climate.Retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2018-10-meat-affects-environment-cows-climate.html

National Park Service (2013). National Register of Historic Places: Green River Drift Trail 

Traditional Cultural Property. Retrieved from https://www.nps.gov/nr/feature/places/12001224.htm

Reeves, C. & K. Bagne. (May 2016). Vulnerability of Cattle Production to Climate Change on 

U.S. Rangelands.Retrieved fromhttps://www.fs.fed.us/rm/pubs/rmrs_gtr343.pdf

Bethany Kelly is a pursuing a Master’s in Cultural Heritage Management from Johns Hopkins University.  Raised in Cody, Wyoming and currently living in Cheyenne, she holds a BA in History from the University of Wyoming.  She is interested in the sustainability and preservation of large working Western landscapes.

Share

National Academy releases report on Large Landscape Conservation   

By Brenda Barrett January 15, 2016

Yellowstone to Yukon Landscape Credit: Harvey Locke

Yellowstone to Yukon Landscape Credit: Harvey Locke

In November 2015 the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) released a report “An Evaluation of the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives”, which concluded that a landscape approach is needed to meet the nation’s conservation challenges and that the Landscape Conservation Cooperatives (LCCs) provide a framework for addressing that need. The NAS undertook the study pursuant to a Congressional directive to evaluate the LCC program.

For those not familiar with the LCCs, the initiative was launched by a Department of Interior Secretarial Order in 2009 specifically to enhance the landscape-level approach to conservation. The intent of the Secretarial Order was to design a cooperative effort to bridge jurisdictional boundaries across agencies within DOI as well as across other federal, state, and tribal agencies and private lands. The LCCs consists of 22 individual, self-directed conservation areas that cover all of the U.S. including islands, and parts of Canada, Mexico and Pacific Islands. A LCC Council composed of federal, state, local, tribal, and nongovernmental organizations manages the network and has adopted an overall strategic plan.

Landscape Conservation Cooperatives

Landscape Conservation Cooperatives

What were the highlights of the recent NAS evaluation? Most importantly the report identified the need for a landscape approach to resource conservation. The geographic scale and the complex web of management responsibility for natural and cultural resources demand a collaborative approach to conservation. And that this is especially true in a time of scarce resources. The committee concluded that given this national need to work at a landscape scale, Landscape Conservation Cooperatives were an appropriate way for the Department of Interior to address this need.

The NAS was also charged with examining other Federal programs with similar goals to assess overlaps and issues of coordination. The report concluded that the LCCs were uniquely positioned to address landscape conservation needs at a national scale, for all natural and cultural resources, in a way that bridges research and management efforts. For those interested in learning more about the range of Federal landscape programs, the report is valuable resource offering a catalog of 20 other federal agency landscape initiatives and providing an in depth analysis of four of them.

Finally, the report stated that after a little more than five years, it is too early to assess the outcomes of the program or to expect to see much in ways of improving the management and conservation of habitat and fish and wildlife species. The evaluation process needs to be improved such that the Network as a whole can measure and demonstrate how they have advanced the goals of the Network and its partners. However, it noted that the LCCs had achieved numerous objectives and milestones, especially related to developing collaborative governance and shared conservation goals.

 The NAS concluded that the LCCs and the LCC Network have the necessary  elements and structure to deliver on the national need for a landscape approach the individual LCCs can point to many early accomplishments, and have made progress toward the LCC Network’s high-level goals related to addressing conservation strategy, developing collaborative conservation, and advancing science for conservation.

The report is an important affirmation that resource conservation must be tackled on a landscape scale. Also of interest to on-the-ground practitioners are the case studies profiling the evaluation and outcomes of some longer running landscape scale initiatives (Chapter 6). These include National Heritage Areas, Pennsylvania Conservation Landscapes, Yellowstone to Yukon, and the Atlantic Coast Joint Venture. The report notes the important lessons to be learned from these programs that have been in existence for much longer period of time than the LCCs. These include such critical components as a unifying theme, strong stakeholder engagement, adaptive management, strategic planning efforts, metrics to aggregate project impacts, leveraging, and a lead agency that provides resources and/or leadership.

 

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are private, nonprofit institutions that provide independent, objective analysis and advice to the nation to solve complex problems and inform public policy decisions related to science, technology, and medicine.  The Academies operate under an 1863 congressional charter to the National Academy of Sciences, signed by President Lincoln.  For more information, visit www.nationalacademies.org.

 

 

Share

Taking on Large Landscape Conservation in the Amazon – Part II

By Guest Observer October 30, 2012

In Part I of this series, Amy Rosenthal described the current challenges for environmental and human health in the southwest Amazon. In Part II, she addresses some of the most promising solutions.

What can we do?

First, we need to admit that we don’t know the single right answer – the silver bullet that will shift the balance between development and environment from discord to harmony. Challenges continue to confront the region, and solutions elude us. But, we can point to some early successes at the landscape scale that can be sustained and replicated.

The Amazon Conservation Association (ACA), a consortium of Peruvian, Bolivian, and U.S. conservation organizations with a joint mission, is at the forefront of this work. In 2008, ACA pioneered an innovative strategy to address the changes on the landscape and the threats to the Amazon forest and human welfare. Bringing together a range of stakeholders from civil society, government and private industry, the team laid out a plan to avoid or minimize each threat at a scale that could preserve the benefits from nature that people and animals depend on: pure drinking water, clean air, plentiful and healthy fish, access to forest products like Brazil nuts, stable water supply, forest landscapes that protect from flooding and erosion, and natural beauty that gives us peace of mind, opportunities for recreation, and potential income from tourism.

The MAP[i] plan takes on threats at multiple scales – from the local to regional – by relying on a landscape approach. It incorporates several strategic areas of work:

  • seeding and supporting smart policy – locally to nationally,
  • engaging local communities through education and organization,
  • fostering and investing in sustainable economic activities and sectors, and
  • directly protecting critical resources through conservation and improved land management.

What does the MAP plan look like?

To communities, it looks like a new community-managed forestry and agro-forestry systems – including 185,000 trees planted by ACA staff and communities in the Andean highlands and, in the Amazonian lowlands, 38,000 new trees and 80 families trained to care for them and earn revenue from native fruits and fibers.

To the local government, it looks like workshops to train representatives on the newest techniques and international policies they can now take advantage of and technical support developing maps for new regional parks – of which there are now more than 15 created or proposed.

To sustainable industry, it looks like improved management and quality control for supply that can now be sold for better prices locally and overseas – including dryers and processing plants for several associations of Brazil nut harvesters that serve 509 Brazil nut concessions on 600,000 hectares of forest, managed by 420 families.

To indigenous groups, it looks like more sovereignty over their traditional lands and more protection for their resources from invaders – including 2 new indigenous areas for the Wachiperi and Q’eros groups, and several more that are proposed.

To tourists, it looks like natural bounty never before seen: Forests full of exotic, rare birds – over 1000 species. Meadows of brightly colored butterflies and frogs. Hundreds of fresh, juicy tropical fruits. Waterfalls, cliffs, and blankets of forests. And, Indigenous-led tourism that showcases their rich cultural traditions. This includes more than 5 new tourism sites, focused on cultural tourism, science tourism, and ecotourism.

To those of us in environmental conservation, it looks like a new model – one that creates a holistic program that is greater than the sum of its parts. A model that creates allies from business, government, and communities, rather than enemies. One that has to potential to be built – albeit through great labor and skill – brick by brick into a new system for the southwest Amazon.

ACA calls it a mosaic-based conservation corridor initiative. On a map, like the one below, it looks like a patchwork of areas that radiate from a core – a trifecta of some of Peru’s most treasured protected areas: Manu National Park, Alto Purús National Park, and a National Reserve for uncontacted indigenous peoples. These corridors connect ecosystems that create spillover benefits for people – the clean air and water, the natural beauty and forest products mentioned above, as well as desperately needed stores of carbon to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and slow climate change – which also provide critical habitat for many species, including the jaguars, arapaima, Shihuahuaco trees and harpy eagles, and peccaries that have been under threat.

The three corridors are made of conservation areas – managed by government, communities, or civil society – and zones dedicated to sustainable uses, like agroforestry, Brazil nut harvest, fish farming, community forestry, and ecotourism. And each corridor is designed to confront a different set of threats and opportunities. The ManuTambopata Corridor limits the negative social and environmental impacts of the new Interoceanic Highway and destructive mining. The Castaña Corridor secures habitat for jaguars and traditional livelihoods for Brazil nut harvesting communities under threat from rapid in-migration, logging, and ranching interests. And the Andean Cloud Forest Corridor runs an elevational gradient from the lowlands to the tips of the glaciers to give people, plants, and animals refugia under the hard-to-predict changes of global warming (or, as I’ve heard it referred to, “global weirding”).

Although I’m really excited about these efforts, I can’t claim that the problem has been solved. We still face bureaucratic hurdles to managing corridors since they have no legal status in Peru and Bolivia. The forces that are degrading environmental and human health continue to multiply, and the partners that make the MAP plan a reality are comparatively resource-poor and politically weak. And, in some cases, there remain tradeoffs that can’t be harmonized among the immediate needs of people and the environment. If we want final solutions, we need to figure out ways to change the systems in which these activities are embedded. And, we’ll need to band together to push for the institutional building blocks that can make efforts like these accessible and sustainable over the long-term.

For more about these initiatives, check out Amazon Conservation Association or an upcoming article in the journal Ecological Restoration.

 


[i] Madre de Dios, Peru; Acre, Brazil; Pando, Bolivia. This is the southwest Amazon region, which faces similar threats and communities, outlined in Part I of this post. ACA’s MAP plan also includes critical initiatives in Cusco, Peru.

Share

What Makes Us Take on Large Landscape Conservation?

By Guest Observer June 27, 2012

Dealing with Threats (and Opportunities) at Sufficient Scale. (Part 1 of 2)

Editors’ note: In this first of a two part series, author Amy Rosenthal, secretary of the board of the Amazon Conservation Association, explores the history, contemporary challenges and benefits of working on a landscape-scale in the southwest Amazon. As the scale and rate of industrial development in the region grow exponentially, local communities and associations, place-based nonprofits and other collaborators have come together to plan and execute an ambitious initiative to address the environmental and human needs of this unique place.   

The southwestern Amazon has been a remote place for most of human history. It is a steamy region, where lush jungles support an incredible diversity of flora and fauna. Bands of monkeys swing through the trees. Jaguars and pumas hunt white-lipped peccaries and capybara. Harpy eagles and macaws nest in trees 16 stories tall. The giant, ancient arapaima vies with schools of piranha to rule the rivers. And, many-colored ants, butterflies, grasshoppers, and beetles number in the millions. We are still discovering new species today.

Unlike historically populous areas of the Amazon, this area now known as the MAP Region (Madre de Dios, Peru; Acre, Brazil; and Pando, Bolivia) is thought to have been inhabited by small, disperse bands of peoples. The first waves of non-Indigenous immigration took place in the late 1800s, when colonists sought to reap the benefits of the rubber and gold rushes. Yet, roads and urban construction – the hallmarks of the human footprint – were slow to appear. The first paved roads arrived only in the 1980s, accompanied by rampant violence and deforestation, and the world’s first eco-martyr, Chico Mendes.

The impacts of mining are visible in the Peruvian Amazon. Photo courtesy of Amazon Conservation Association

Today, the MAP Region is being transformed. From the air, instead of a rich green carpet, you see what appears to be a long spine, with a series of fishbone cuts deep into the jungle. Dusty red cities crop up –Cobija, Puerto Maldonado, Iberia – and one metropolis – Rio Branco – full of cars and shopping malls. Peri-urban zones are flat, yellow or grayish green and dotted with white cows; they spread in every direction and along the spine as far as you can see. On the Peruvian side, smoke wafts up from grey-brown holes in the forest – gold mines; these sites appear almost overnight, quickly fill with Andean migrants and mercury, and over days are dug down to sand and bedrock. On the ground, in many places, there is no reminder of the cathedral forests and the crouching jaguars, save the early morning sounds of macaws flying overhead or the lonely sloth that wanders into an urban downtown.

On the one side, this is a story of successful development: paved roads, modern bridges, sparkling new cities, and more jobs for the Andean poor.

On the other, it’s a calamity for people and for the environment. In 2009, the U.S. EPA measured urban air emissions of mercury in this region to be the highest found almost anywhere in the world. Waters, fish and birds are poisoned, and people are afraid to eat local foods. Indigenous groups have no alternative sources for their water and protein needs and so they suffer some of the worst health effects. The forest burning literally chokes the cities. Over the past decade, Rio Branco has had to close its airport numerous times because of low visibility due to smoke. While living in Rio Branco in the early 2000s, I saw ash fall from the sky like rain. Rates of respiratory illnesses – especially in children – are up. Hunting has decimated many monkey populations. The fishbone roads, towns, and mining camps disrupt critical migration pathways for jaguars, macaws, and peccaries.

And, the effects of climate change are beginning to be felt: the region has had successive years of devastating floods in the rainy season and sickening droughts in the dry season. Thousands of people have lost their homes, and rainy season emergencies have become the norm. In the dry months, many people fall prey to water-borne illness and diarrhea. Rates of dengue and malaria have increased, and some studies have demonstrated a relationship between rates of infection and deforestation.

What can we do? Learn more in Part II:  What Makes Us Take on Large Landscape Conservation? Dealing with Threats (and Opportunities) at Sufficient Scale.

Amy Rosenthal contributed this article. Ms. Rosenthal, an occasional observer for this website, isScience-Policy Interface Specialist with the Natural Capital Project, a collaboration among the WWF, The Nature Conservancy, Stanford University, and the University of Minnesota to create tools that map and value ecosystem services and help policy makers, companies, and multinational institutions make good decisions about development. From 2007 to 2010, Amy was Deputy Director for Projects at the Amazon Conservation Association (ACA), where she designed and managed major conservation initiatives and established ACA’s REDD program. Prior to her work with ACA, Amy contributed to the book The Last Forest: the Amazon in the Age of Globalization and established an environmental management training program with the Federal University of Acre in Brazil.

Share