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Could new interactive maps help preserve last “roadless” areas?

Google, European Environmental Agency, Society for Conservation Biologists, the European Parliament create remarkable map of the Amazon.
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The dark green areas show roadlesss area in the Amazon, Brazil. Photo from  Google maps.
The dark green areas show roadlesss area in the Amazon, Brazil. Photo from Google maps.

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Latin America - RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (02 July 2012)_A movement aiming to preserve the earth’s last roadless areas hopes their new set of online maps will inspire policy makers to avoid building highways through places of high biodiversity, and find less destructive ways to connect isolated communities.

The interactive online maps, developed by the European Environmental Agency, Google, the Society for Conservation Biologists, and a member of the European Parliament – and launched at the Rio +20 summit in Brazil – highlights parts of the world not yet penetrated by man-made thoroughfares.

“It’s for the policy makers now to move ahead and use these interactive maps, make them tools for the protection of both biodiversity and the property rights of indigenous people – and make ‘no roads’ a road to the green economy,” said MEP Kriton Arsenis, the European Parliament’s Special Rapporteur on Forests and coordinator of the ‘roadless-ness’ campaign.

“Conservation biologists have found that where new roads are developed, we lose forests and biodiversity,” he said.

“So the idea was that if we could know more about the existing roadless areas, then we can start providing tools for their protection.”

Speaking on the sidelines of Forests: The 8th Roundtable at Rio +20, organized by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), Arsenis says the effect of roads can be devastating.

“Once you have a road, anyone can take a bulldozer and open another road, creating a spider web effect,” he said.

“The initial road gives access not only to the specific part of the forest that was the original intention, but all the area around it, and just continues to expand.”

Research by the Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) has shown that paved highways in the Amazon are having an extensive impact on forest ecosystems and social development.

In many cases, they have fragmented habitats, leading to wildlife mortality and loss of species; degraded streams and water quality; and caused and social conflicts over land and natural resources.

In the Brazilian state of Acre, the CIFOR study demonstrated that deforestation levels increase near paved roads, and drop off only after a radius of 45 kilometres either side.

As forests become fragmented, Arsenis said, patrolling and managing them becomes more difficult and expensive.

He says the push for roadless-ness is not about cutting people off from the world, but finding other ways to link them – especially those who live in areas important for biodiversity.

“Go for public infrastructure – which is by the way less harmful for the climate also – go for railways, use the river and sea routes that are available,” he said, adding that would not only protect the forest, but indigenous rights as well.

“It’s often the case that these roads are built without the permission of those that have the property rights which are the indigenous people in this forest,” he said.

“No one could say no if an indigenous community wants a road in this area – but we also have to respect the rights of indigenous communities that do not want roads, for example those in the [Isiboro-Secure Indigenous Territory and National Park (Tipnis) in the] Bolivian Amazon.

In 2011 Bolivian President Evo Morales abandoned controversial plans to build a highway through the Tipnis reserve, after intense opposition to the project by indigenous campaigners from the region who feared an influx of illegal loggers, oil and gas companies, and coca growers.

The Tanzanian Government last year backed down from plans to build a tarmac road through the Serengeti National Park after studies showed it could seriously affect wildebeest and zebra migration patterns – although there are concerns work to upgrade the existing dirt track is still continuing.

And construction continues apace on the Transoceanic Highway from Brazil to Peru, 6000 kilometers of asphalt that will eventually cut through the Amazon to connect ports with Brazil with ones in Peru.

Arsenis hopes the new online maps will help to build momentum behind the idea of roadless-ness – and convince policy makers to look at other options.

“Once we had the excuse that we didn’t know where these areas were…Now we do know, we have no excuse”.

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