Forest Maps

Maps represent selected features of the terrain to which they correspond. How much can a forest map show about what's really going on in the forest? The answer to this question depends on what instruments and data are available to the map maker, and on what she judges important to represent. Maps represent the concepts their makers use in designing them, as well as features of the terrain. The global forest cover map that opens this page was originally compiled by the World Conservation Monitoring Center, a research center created by a consortium of conservation organizations later incorporated into the United Nations Environment Program. It is a compilation of various other maps, including NOAA and Landsat satellite maps. Since no world-wide, uniform analysis of satellite images of the same scale, collected at the same time, exists, the WCMC map uses different maps, of differing scales, based on data collected at different times. Remote sensing scientists consider these data internally inconsistent, i.e., incomparable. [Read more about Measuring the State of the World's Forests] Most of the satellite image maps used in the global forest cover map are based on relatively coarse resolutions (1 km). Hence, on the basis of the data and available instruments for measuring forests, the map is quite limited in terms of the inferences, hypotheses, or still more, calculations that can be made from it. It is still however a very good symbolic representation approximating the extent of global forest cover — it is currently the best there is. The map also has selected biologically defined forest types as the key feature to be distinguished, e.g., "lowland evergreen broadleaf rain forest". Different colors represent different forest types. This reflects the priorities of the biological scientists and traditional conservation organizations (largely concerned with creating parks and other protected areas that exclude to the extent possible human occupation) who compiled it. The ultimate goal is the protection of representative parts of as many biologically distinct ecosystems as possible, by means of the creation of protected areas more or less along the lines of the kinds of parks and reserves that exist in the United States (see Schwartzman, Moreira and Nepstad, 2000).
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Amazonian Deforestation By contrast, look for example at the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) map of indigenous lands and deforestation in the Amazon. Image 1 shows indigenous territories and forest areas that have been cleared since the 1970s in the Brazilian Amazon. Since deforestation has been monitored using Landsat images in the Brazil since the early 1980s, there are relatively homogenous, mutually comparable data sets underlying this representation. One can, for example, compare areas deforested at the municipal (or county) level based on data of the same scale, collected contemporaneously (within the same year) The location of Indian lands is well known in Brazil, because indigenous communities and organizations and their allies nationally and internationally have pressured the government to comply with Constitutional guarantees of indigenous land rights. As a result, about 20% of the Amazon, or 1 million km2 (the green areas on the map), has been officially recognized as indigenous land, mostly over the last fifteen years. Image 1: Amazonian Indigenous Reserves & Deforestation Patterns (Data courtesy of Instituto Socioambiental / Macapa 1999 Seminar)

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Both the government agency responsible for the official recognition, or "demarcation" process (the National Indian Foundation, FUNAI), and ISA have systematically collected the geographic coordinates of the more than 540 indigenous areas in Brazil, so that they can be accurately mapped (in fact, that ISA and its predecessor indigenous rights organizations were able to accumulate these data over the last twenty years, independently of the government, was of strategic importance to the indigenous peoples' struggle for the land.) ISA, and Environmental Defense, maintain that official recognition of indigenous land rights, demarcation of indigenous lands, and support for the sustainability of indigenous lands are critically necessary to the protection of tropical forests on any but a miniscule scale. We see indigenous peoples and their organizations as key allies for sustainability in tropical forests, since they occupy large parts of the remaining tropical forests; are a political constituency that opposes the most destructive forms of development; and have very substantial interests at stake in the outcome. This understanding is reflected in the Amazon maps. Roads to Ruin Look at the map labeled IMAGE 2. Along with deforestation, the map shows the routes of roads, industrial waterways and pipelines planned for the Amazon in the Brazilian government infrastructure development program, Avança Brasil. Interpretation of satellite data over more than twenty years shows conclusively that road building and road paving are the major vectors of deforestation in the Amazon.

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Image 2: "Brazil in Action" (Brasil em Ação) Federal Government Sponsored Development Projects and Deforestation Patterns (Data courtesy of Instituto Socioambiental / Macapa 1999 Seminar)

The routes of major federal highways are clearly visible in IMAGE 3. In regions of less deforestation — from Rio Branco in Acre state, the 364 highway can be seen going northwest, the Porto Velho — Manaus highway, the Transamazon in eastern Amazonas and northern Pará states, the Cuiabá — Santarém running north — south in Pará. The heaviest deforestation, along the "arc of deforestation" running from Maranhão through eastern Pará and northern Mato Grosso and Rondonia has similarly radiated out from roads.

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Image 3: Amazonian Deforestation Patterns (Data courtesy of Instituto Socioambiental / Macapa 1999 Seminar)

Virtually all of the deforestation from Cuiabá in Mato Grosso to Porto Velho in Rondonia for example, follows the BR-364 highway, and has mostly occurred since the road was paved in the notorious World Bank-financed Polonoroeste project. The most intensely deforested areas — Maranhão, eastern Pará, northern Mato Grosso — represent what can be expected along the Avança Brasil road corridors if they proceed without serious measures, and investments, to protect the forest and create the bases for sustainable use. Out to Pasture Look at the pattern of deforestation in northern Mato Grosso in IMAGE 4. Most of this land is now cattle pasture and soy plantations, large part of the reason that Mato Grosso is Brazil's second largest soy

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Image 4: Amazonian Conservation Areas & Deforestation Patterns (Data courtesy of Instituto Socioambiental / Macapa 1999 Seminar)

producer. Note the rectangular area of forest around the river, surrounded by red on three sides. Now look at the map in Image 1. The barrier to frontier expansion in Mato Grosso is the Xingu Indigenous Area. The adjacent Kayapo and Panará Indigenous Lands, in Pará, also mark the limits of deforestation. Even though the Kayapo in particular have allowed selective logging and gold mining in parts of their lands, the area of forest cover they have maintained is immense (over 10 million hectares, or about 25 million acres). Because the Indians of the Xingu (16 different ethnic groups), the Kayapo and the Panará control access to their lands, and because they have won official recognition of their rights to them, they have halted the expansion of deforestation.

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Conservation Barriers Now look at the map in Image 2. This map shows federal and state conservation units as well as deforestation and indigenous lands. Much more land in the Amazon is indigenous land than is conservation units (more than twice as much). In the most dynamic frontiers — eastern Pará, Mato Grosso, and Rondonia — Indian lands are much more extensive barriers to deforestation than conservation units. Access to land is the source of intense, often violent, conflict on the frontier. Because the indigenous peoples are there, and because they have won many of these conflicts, they have succeeded in protecting much more forest than traditional conservation units in these regions. Differing views of what is at issue in conservation, as well as differing priorities, inform and are visible in the WCMC and the ISA maps. The difference in this case is great. The WCMC protected areas maps or tables for South America count for a little more than 1 million km2 of protected forest areas for all of South America. None of the indigenous lands of the Amazon (in Brazil alone a million square kilometers) are included in their lists, because their categories of protected areas do not include indigenous lands. That these maps reflect different concepts of the issues underlying forest protection (and destruction) does not of itself necessarily mean that one map is better or more scientifically sound than the other. There are of course objective criteria with which to compare the two maps. Consistency of the underlying data is one, and in this respect the ISA map is more sound. The ISA map also includes data on many more topics than do WCMC maps, even those at the country scale. Using the different data layers of the ISA maps, one could frame and analyze questions or hypotheses on the process of deforestation. Tracking Colonization Look at Image 5, which represents deforestation and the colonization projects of the National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform. Would the number of colonization projects per county correlate with deforestation? How many of the colonization projects are within 25 kilometers of a major road? Such questions could be answered with this data (although these answers would remain provisional, since the INCRA colonization project data were obtained extra-officially and are regarded by the compilers of the map as suspect). Looking at the topics, or list of data layers, included in the interactive map one gets

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Image 5: “Brazil In Action” Projects, INCRA Settlements and Deforestation in the Amazon (Data courtesy of Instituto Socioambiental / Macapa 1999 Seminar)

an idea of some of what is not represented in many forest maps, either because the data have not been collected elsewhere, or were not available, or because the map-makers did not find them relevant. This is another very important criterion with which to compare forest maps: how transparent is the map about the assumptions and priorities it reflects, about the data that have gone into it, about what it chooses to represent and what it chooses not to represent? Looking at the WCMC map and table of protected areas in South America, one would never know that indigenous lands were not represented, or even that they existed.

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Frontier Forests Another organization (the World Resources Institute, WRI) has used the WCMC maps to identify what they call "frontier forest" — forest held to be ecologically intact — to be capable of maintaining its full complement of biological diversity over the long run as well performing the other ecological services forests provide us. These can be seen at www.globalforestwatch.org. WRI has made a very serious effort to define in a precise way what the idea of "natural" forest means. Hundreds of scientists and experts were consulted in an effort to specify for each region of the world which forest areas are "frontier" forests that are in no immediate danger, which are threatened, and which are no longer "frontier" forests. A key concept in this definition of naturalness is that intact forest is that which can be expected to support a genetically viable population of "top" predators through the naturally occurring disturbances over 100 years. "Top" predators are those at the top of the food chain - in forests, the largest carnivores, such as jaguars and harpy eagles. This definition is one that many conservation biologists feel best defines the highest priority areas for conservation. A region that can support a healthy population of top predators is presumed to be ecologically whole. The WRI text on "frontier" forests says that the exercise is intended purely to provide sound, accurate information on these forests, and makes no claim to define conservation priorities. The "frontier" forest maps tell a different story, however. We see clearly delineated the deep green of pristine natural forest beyond any immediate threat, the red of threatened "frontier" forest, and the dull brown of non-"frontier" forest. These, and a general non-forest category, are the only distinctions represented in the maps. Most Americans and Europeans think of nature as untouched by man, unaltered — what one expects to find in a North American park. The hierarchy of priorities assumed in the maps appears, for North Americans and Europeans at any rate, simple — the most pristine is most natural, the disturbed part is less so, and the non-"frontier" no longer natural at all. Conservation priorities follow, as it were, naturally. Differing Scales One problem with this kind of presentation is that of the underlying data. The WCMC maps, as noted, use data collected at different times,

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at different scales, using different methodologies. What appears as a homogeneous category (non-"frontier," say) may not be so. The maps say, in effect, that sufficient data exist to represent, at a scale of 1:5 million, where genetically viable populations of top predators reside in forests and where they do not. But there are very large tropical forest areas in which little if any research on this has been done, and similarly great areas where the status of the fauna is disputed. Neither of these issues are evident in the WRI maps. Another problem is that important assumptions behind the maps remain ambiguous and obscure. The text argues that the maps are works-in-progress, only approximations, and that actual conservation priorities and decisions require working at much more restricted scale. But what then are the continental-scale maps for, if not to identify which forest is intact and therefore should be saved and which is no longer natural and consequently not necessary to save? Other organizations - including the major grassroots organizations in the Amazon, and many southern NGOs — start from different presuppositions and have different priorities. The National Council of Rubber Tappers (CNS), the representative organization of Amazon forest communities that live from small-scale, sustainable harvest of forest products such as natural rubber, holds that the Amazon is much too large and governmental control over what goes on there too weak to imagine that any significant part of the remaining forest will be protected in uninhabited parks defended by guards. Only if forest communities can be assured land rights, and conditions created to allow them a decent living on a sustainable basis, will it be possible to preserve large expanses of the existing forest. Thus, the CNS proposed and is implementing extractive reserves — protected areas managed by forest peoples who live in them — as well as promoting public policies that favor forest communities. The CNS maintains that conservation is a political process, and that the local organizations and communities it represents are a key constituency in this process. Their forest map would include the existing extractive reserves (included in the Image 2 map among federal and state conservation units), as well as their 26 regional offices in seven Amazon states. It would also include the indigenous areas, since CNS allies itself with the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Brazilian Amazon (COIAB), the indigenous peoples' umbrella organization. It would not be a map that left people out altogether.

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Intact Forests ISA and the other members of consortium that produced the Amazon map similarly see forest peoples as part of the solution to forest destruction rather than as the problem. Strengthening and multiplying local constituencies for sustainability and forest protection — Indians, rubber tappers, fishing communities, increasingly, small farmers through their unions — in the forest and on the frontier are much higher priorities for these groups than determining which forest is "intact." The land deforested in the Amazon since the 1970s is already roughly the size of France. Amazonian environmentalists have already determined that unless frontier expansion can be halted or greatly slowed, and unless enduring prosperity for local people based on the forest can be achieved, all forest ecosystems will ultimately be at serious risk of large scale destruction. The interactive Amazon map thus reflects the goal of protecting very large areas of the remaining forest including indigenous lands and other inhabited areas, and includes the level of development pressure, or threat to, these area as an important criterion in setting priorities. The question posed by comparing the WCMC and "frontier forest" maps with the maps produced at the Macapá seminar is, who will ultimately set the priorities for conservation in the world's forests, by which criteria?

Environmental Defense | 2001