In August, the Bolivian government downgraded legal protections for the nation's most iconic national park, paving the way for a new highway to cut straight through a prime biodiversity hotspot. Now, research published in Current Biology confirms the fragile ecosystem will be greatly harmed by the planned development.
The area "represents one of the most biodiverse regions not only in Bolivia, but on Earth," said author Alvaro Fernandez-Llamazares of the University of Helsinki to IFLScience. "We are extremely worried about this deforestation."
The proposed road will bisect through the park, dividing it in two and stripping it of protections won in 2011. It is part of a nearly 306-kilometer (190-mile) trans-Amazonian highway initiative through South America.
Using satellite imaging, his team found that The Isiboro-Secure National Park and Indigenous Territory (TIPNIS) has lost more than 46,000 hectares of mostly old-growth forest between 2000 and 2014.
The Bolivian government says the road will bring food security to one of South America's poorest countries, but researchers report that almost 58 percent of deforestation is found within 5 kilometers (3 miles) of existing roads. New construction also encourages further extractive industries in the region, such as oil production, timber harvesting, and coca cultivation.
A 2011 study by the Bolivian Institute for Strategic Research found that the road would likely advance deforestation because it increases access to land used for illegal logging and coca cultivation. By 2026, an estimated 64 percent of the park could be lost due to deforestation if the road is built, as opposed to 43 percent without the construction.
At almost 10,400-square-kilometers (4,000-square-miles), the national park is about the size of Jamaica and home to 3,000 species of plants and 11 endangered animals, including emblematic species like the jaguar, marsh deer, and giant otter.
"One of the reasons why TIPNIS is so important is because of its strategic position converged between the Andes and the Amazon," said Fernandez-Llamazares. "It has a huge topographic and geographic diversity and complexity."
Also threatened are four dwindling indigenous cultures, including a tribe believed to be living in voluntary isolation. Protesters made headlines in August, after the new law threatened the home of almost 14,000 indigenous people and one of the most unique ecological areas in the Amazon.
TIPNIS is just one example of a much bigger problem.
"We definitely see there is a global pattern [of deforestation]," said Fernandez-Llamazares. "Sadly, there are many cases that are very similar or that resemble each other. What's worrying is that these very visible examples have a risk of setting precedent in the region."
Using a technique called protected area downgrading, downsizing and degazettement (PADDD), researchers are able to analyze decreases in legal protections, downsizing of protected areas, and estimate the functional loss of national parks and nature reserves globally. Current estimates suggest that approximately 500,000 kilometers (311,000 miles) of protected lands in more than 55 countries are negatively impacted by PADDD.
Fernandez-Llamazares says that roads are not the only means of transportation and that alternative routes should be proposed and tested for viability.
"Roads should be built in places that are not of such high biodiversity values," said Fernandez Llamazares.
He also notes that areas of high conservation should be kept as road-free as possible.