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Amazon Forests Are Being Razed at Breakneck Speed, and Not Only in Brazil

EntertainmentAmazon Forests Are Being Razed at Breakneck Speed, and Not Only in Brazil

Three years of relative peace with rebels in Colombia has opened once-forbidding jungles to settlers. Illegal gold mining is fueling forest loss in Peru. Cattle ranchers in Bolivia are razing rainforest to meet beef demand in China.

Deforestation at breakneck rates is depleting the vast expanses of Amazon forest contained in South American countries neighboring Brazil. Forest loss in these nations, which host roughly 40 percent of the Amazon, underscores how the fires now ravaging parts of Brazil are just one piece of a broader regional crisis.

The push by land speculators, ranchers and miners into forests around the Amazon basin also shows how advances in political stability and economic integration can drive deforestation, especially when safeguards remain weak.

“We’ve gone in Colombia from gunpoint conservation under the guerrillas to a massive deforestation spike,” said Liliana Dávalos, a field biologist at Stony Brook University who estimated that deforestation climbed 50 percent from 2017 to 2018 in Colombian national parks formerly controlled by armed rebels.

“Military and judicial authorities delay taking action, then comes the enforcement,” Mr. Sánchez continued. “But by that time, the damage is done.”

Venezuela, which has endured a severe economic crisis, has a relatively low deforestation rate compared with other countries sharing the Amazon forest. “Deforestation levels dropped the past two years, but could be in danger of rebounding amid Venezuela’s instability,” said Matt Piotrowski, a senior analyst at Climate Advisers, a Washington policy group.

Responding to deforestation in the Peruvian province of Madre de Dios, President Vizcarra declared a state of emergency in the region in February and deployed 1,500 police officers and soldiers to crack down on illegal mines.

Luis Hidalgo, the governor of Madre de Dios, said in a telephone interview that his government was also struggling to respond to fires now burning in remote parts of the region.

“We are not prepared to respond to a fire of great magnitude,” he said, emphasizing that the entire province had only one firefighting unit, and it was based in the capital, Puerto Maldonado.

Mr. Hidalgo added that the fires in his region involved internal migration driven by economics: Settlers from the highlands had moved to lowlands for greater opportunities and, once there, had set fires to plant crops on small plots of land.

Environmental leaders in Peru are also bracing for the effects of the Interoceanic Highway. The project, intended to foster greater trade between Peru and Brazil, is already fueling forest loss in adjacent areas now open to farming.

Agriculture and ranching are also producing a surge in deforestation in Bolivia, where President Evo Morales has made expanding the country’s agricultural frontier a priority, sometimes by distributing land to farmers.

The opening of China’s beef market to Bolivian exporters is thought to be driving some of the forest loss this year as ranchers seek pastures for expanding herds. After trying to play down fires in the Amazon, Mr. Morales shifted his position last weekend and sent soldiers to fight them.

And on Tuesday Mr. Morales said his government had suspended land sales in Chiquitania, the region hit by fires this month. Still, the blazes provided an opening to political rivals and environmental groups critical of Mr. Morales.

“Let’s be clear: This is no natural disaster,” said Carlos Mesa, a leading opposition candidate who is running for president against Mr. Morales. “These fires were caused by Evo Morales and his policies.”

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