Smoke, ash cast black pall on large swaths of Peruvian Amazon

By Paula Bayarte

Puerto Maldonado, Peru, Sep 9 (EFE).- The Amazon may be known as the planet’s main green lung, but smoke and the charred remains of thousands of trees cleared away for crop production, cattle-grazing and illegal mining are lending a black tinge to the sky in Peru’s portion of the world’s largest rainforest.

Just a few minutes’ drive from Puerto Maldonado, capital of the southeastern Peruvian department of Madre de Dios, a haunting scene greets visitors: the ground full of ash, smoke rising from recently burnt leaves and trunks sprawled on the ground like corpses.

A desolate image, and one repeatedly encountered as one advances deeper into a vast expanse of land that had been virgin jungle.

The experience turns deforestation from an abstract concept or a word from a news article into a tangible reality that can be sensed and even permeates the skin.

Tatiana Espinosa, an environmental defender, told Efe in one of those Amazon clearings that the road to destruction begins when companies, small farmers or criminal gangs encroach on territory, including lands that are part of non-timber concessions.

“They cut everything they can,” said the co-founder of Arbio Peru, a non-profit organization that manages and protects more than 900 hectares (2,220 acres) of Amazon rainforest in the watershed of the Las Piedras river in the Madre de Dios region.

“And at the end, they start targeted fires that can get out of control and cause large fires, which has happened before. They burn around five or 10 hectares.”

When no trace of forest remains, they plant monocrops either of papaya, corn, palm oil or cacao, or they use the terrain for cattle-grazing, she said.

The expert added that because Amazon soils are very fragile and are accustomed to a wide diversity of vegetation they cannot support monocropping.

Planting just one species is not natural, causing the soil to become impoverished in two or three years and millenary forests to be destroyed for short-term gain.

“We know that most deforestation in Peru is the result of small farming, but before farming comes in to burn the forest the loggers have come in to cut down the large trees with commercial value,” Espinosa said. “Once the forest no longer has those trees, they say the forest no longer has value.”

Deforestation can result in the spread of numerous forest fires, with 19,765 fire hotspots observed between Aug. 1-22 in the Amazon region, the highest level in more than a decade.

And it also leads to growth in illegal logging and mining and the presence of dangerous and influential groups that threaten the lives of forest defenders.

In the Madre de Dios river basin, a constant flow of trucks can be seen traveling along dusty roads and carrying felled trees. Some stop in the small town of Planchon, which gets its name from the “planchas” (wooden boards) manufactured there.

Alberto Suarez, global sustainability manager at beverage company AJE, which supports Arbio Peru’s conservation efforts, said it is important to communicate the message that trees – because of their vital role in releasing oxygen and water vapor – are much more valuable alive than dead.

And both he and Espinosa agree on the need for the public and private sectors and civil society to unite in efforts to raise awareness and preserve the lush, green beauty of the Amazon for many generations to come. EFE


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