How roads threaten ecosystems

Michelle Nijhuis writes: 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.” [Continue reading…]

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