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Building Roads to Save the Wilderness

Posted by Richard Conniff on March 21, 2013

A typically scene of illegal logging on an unplanned road into the Amazon

A typically scene of illegal logging on an unplanned road into the Amazon

A press release today from the University of Cambridge touts the argument that building roads “could help rather than harm the environment.”  It’s based on an article in the current Nature by William F. Laurence and Andrew Balmford.  Here’s how the press release puts it:

Two leading ecologists say a rapid proliferation of roads across the planet is causing irreparable damage to nature, but properly planned roads could actually help the environment.

But while this  idea has a certain man-bites-dog news value, it’s not what the scientific paper actually says.  And check out the weird choice of an image to illustrate the press release (below).  It’s like a car commercial about the joy of the open road.  Are you shocked?  I am shocked.  Laurence and Balmford aren’t talking about some ingenious scheme to road-build our way to better animal migratory routes.  They’re just trying to minimize the damage from the roads now extending willy-nilly into the wilderness.  Here’s the press release again:

Weirdly, the press release uses this happy face picture to illustrate the story.  The picture at top is the one that actually appears in Nature.  (Photo: © Iakov Kalinin / Fotolia)

Weirdly, the press release from the University of Cambridge uses this bucolic picture to illustrate the story. The picture at top is the one that actually appears in Nature. (Photo: © Iakov Kalinin / Fotolia)

“Loggers, miners and other road builders are putting roads almost everywhere, including places they simply shouldn’t go, such as wilderness areas,” said Professor Andrew Balmford of the University of Cambridge, UK. “Some of these roads are causing environmental disasters.”

“The current situation is largely chaos,” said Professor William Laurance of James Cook University in Cairns, Australia. “Roads are going almost everywhere and often open a Pandora’s Box of environmental problems.”

“Just look at the Amazon rainforest,” said Laurance. “Over 95 percent of all forest destruction and wildfires occur within 10 kilometers of roads, and there’s now 100,000 kilometers of roads crisscrossing the Amazon.”

The problem is that development now happens at the whim of the loggers and miners who build the roads, Laurence and Balmford write:

Often, agriculture follows roads created for other purposes, such as mining or logging. This can result in the expansion of farms into places with marginal soils or climates, or into locations that are too far from markets to be cost-effective. Conversely, well-planned roads can increase farmers’ access to markets, reducing waste and improving profits. Anecdotal evidence indicates that ongoing road improvements in parts of sub-Saharan Africa are gradually raising rural farmers’ access to fertilizers and increasing their capacity to transport crops to markets.

Several studies suggest that road improvements in areas suited to agricultural development can attract migrants away from vulnerable areas, such as the edges of pristine forests …

And that can concentrate human populations in areas that are actually more productive for agriculture.

But how to change where the mining and logging roads go?  The authors argue for a shift in public policy and a dollop of public shaming:

Large road projects are often funded by taxpayers, investors or international donors who can be surprisingly responsive to environmental concerns. For example, if corporations that build environmentally bad roads are publicly named, they can lose customers and shareholders. Concord Pacific, a Malaysian logging corporation, was publicly castigated in the early 2000s for bulldozing a 180-kilometre-long road into the highlands of Papua New Guinea — ostensibly to aid local communities. After the company grabbed more than US$60 million in illegal timber, it was fined $97 million by the national court of Papua New Guinea.

Their proposed alternative is a system of global mapping to plan roads more strategically.  (Parental advisory:  The following passage includes the Z word, widely regarded in the American West as a Stalinist intrusion on individual property rights):

We believe that a collaborative, global zoning exercise is needed to identify where road building or improvement should be a priority, where it should be restricted and where existing roads should be closed. A multidisciplinary team could integrate and standardize satellite data on intact habitats with information on transport infrastructure, agricultural yields and losses, biodiversity indicators, carbon storage and other relevant factors.

Finally, the paper suggests a way to limit the damage when roads are inevitable:

For transport projects that have high environmental costs but seem unavoidable, such as Brazil’s Manaus-Porto Velho highway — which is now under construction and has the potential to speed settlers and land speculators into the heart of the Amazon when complete — alternatives such as railways or river transport might be effective compromises. Trains and boats move people and products but limit the human footprint by stopping only at specific places.

All good ideas.  Now it needs statesmanship and public pressure to make logging and mining industries–and the national governments who view them as a ready source of short-term cash–to buy into such a scheme.

SOURCE: William F. Laurance, Andrew Balmford. Land use: A global map for road building. Nature, 2013; 495 (7441): 308 DOI: 10.1038/495308a

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