Progress, Destruction & Roads


A new study looks at the worldwide effects of habitat fragmentation. CREDIT PHOTOGRAPH BY GEORG GERSTER / PANOS

From the Elements section of the New Yorker’s website, this note on roads, a clear symbol (and tangible form) of what most of us would count as progress, related to development, is worth a two minute read. Another reminder that roads, like other signs of progress, can also have unintended and irreversible destructive consequences for nature, for habitat that also sustains human life:

The first paved highway across the Brazilian Amazon began, in the nineteen-seventies, as a narrow, hard-won cut through dense rainforest. The road, which connects the northern port city of Belém with the country’s capital, Brasília, twelve hundred miles away, was hailed as a huge step in the region’s development, and so it was: it quickly spawned a network of smaller roads and new towns, drawing industry to the Brazilian interior. But the ecological price was high. Today, much of the Belém-Brasília highway is flanked by cattle pastures—a swath of deforestation some two hundred and fifty miles wide, stretching from horizon to horizon. Across the planet, road construction has similarly destroyed or splintered natural habitats. In equatorial Africa’s Congo Basin, logging roads have attracted a new wave of elephant poachers; in Siberia, road expansion has caused an outbreak of wildfires; in Suriname, roads invite illegal gold mining; and in Finland, so many reindeer are killed by cars that herders have considered marking the animals with reflective paint.

“Roads scare the hell out of ecologists,” William Laurance, a professor at James Cook University, in Australia, said. “You can’t be in my line of business and not be struck by their transformative power.” Laurance has spent most of his career studying that power. Beginning in 1979, not long after the Belém-Brasília highway took shape, one of Laurance’s colleagues, Thomas Lovejoy, helped direct the selective clearing and burning of nearly four hundred square miles of intact forest in northwestern Brazil, near the city of Manaus—a deliberate act of habitat fragmentation that would become the world’s largest and longest-running experiment in tropical ecology. (Laurance joined the project in 1996.) Today, a study in Science Advances synthesizes results from Manaus with those from similar experiments worldwide, confirming what scientists have long suspected: no matter the ecosystem—forest, prairie, patch of moss—the effects of habitat fragmentation are ruinous.

The new study, led by Nick Haddad, a professor at North Carolina State University, and co-authored by Laurance and others, found that fragmented habitats lose an average of half of their plant and animal species within twenty years, and that some continue to lose species for thirty years or more…

Read the whole post here.


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