A Perfect Storm in The Amazon Wilderness. Success and failure in the fight to save an ecosystem of critical importance to the planet

Timothy J. Killeen introduces his important new Open Access monograph, which will be published serially by The White Horse Press from Spring 2021 and in two e-volumes and a print edition in 2022. The master ISBN for the serial publication and e-volumes will be ISBN 978-1-912186-22-8.

The book is essential reading for all those interested in the conservation of the world’s most important ecosystem, and that should include every one of us. In a lucid style backed by encyclopaedic knowledge, Killeen unpicks the extremely complex ecological and socio-political threads that comprise the recent history and the vital future of the Pan Amazon region. The fight to save the Amazon is a fight for sustainability that is emblematic of the entire future of human co-existence with Nature on Earth.  Killeen is an authoritative and impassioned guide, eschewing soundbites in favour of a clear-sighted and highly nuanced picture of the realities on the ground. Only in understanding present realities and how they came to pass, he argues, can we proceed hopefully into the future.

Timothy J. Killeen is an environmental polymath with broad expertise in botany, ecology, geography, conservation, climate change science, natural resource economics and sustainable development. He has resided in the Bolivian Amazon since 1984, where he has forged friendships with individuals from all elements of Amazonian society, including indigenous families, migrant settlers, foresters, cattle ranchers, soybean farmers, gold miners, geologists, petroleum engineers and owners of construction and timber companies. Timothy had the good fortune to be employed by academic and conservation institutions in the United States (Missouri Botanical Garden, Conservation International, World Wildlife Fund), while organising his research and consulting activities at Bolivian universities and civil society organisations (Museo de Historia Natural Noel Kempff Mercado, Instituto de Ecología, AGTECA- Amazonica). His perspective on Amazonian development has been informed by these personal and professional relationships, as well as by collaborations that took him to other Amazonian nations. His writing has been supported by the Andes and Amazon program of the Gordon and Betty Moore foundation

Most publications on the Amazon are authored by conservation advocates who provide a one-sided view of the economic forces that drive environmental degradation.  Many present potential solutions based on an overly optimistic assumptions that reflect a policy bias or the technical expertise of their authors. A Perfect Storm in The Amazon Wilderness has been written by an advocate for the conservation of the Amazon, but provides a clear-eyed evaluation of the social and economic forces at play in the region.  The narrative, informed by the author’s decades of experience living and working in the region, does not demonise the stakeholders responsible for the current development trajectory, but instead explains the economic and social realities that motivate them to pursue conventional business models.  Similarly, the book describes the various policies deployed over the years by governments, multilateral agencies and civil society that seek to reconcile the need to conserve the natural resources of the Amazon and discover a sustainable pathway for economic development that will benefit all of the region’s inhabitants.

The Amazon is home to the largest tropical forest on the planet, an irreplaceable natural asset with enormous biodiversity and a critically important component in global carbon and water cycles. The Pan Amazon, which includes the full watershed and the rainforests of the Guiana Shield, is a geopolitical territory that spans nine nations that have been entrusted with the stewardship of its natural resources.

 The Human Modified Landscapes of the Pan Amazon can be stratified according to geographic regions (a) and level of economic development (b).

Fortunately, the citizens of the Amazonian nations were aware of the damage being caused by uncontrolled development and demanded that their governments intervene to halt, or at the very least, slow the destruction. They were joined by concerned individuals from across the planet who supported conservation and sustainable development initiatives organised by public and private institutions.  The Pan Amazonian nations now boast the most extensive network of protected areas of any region on Earth and have recognised the legal rights of indigenous communities by formalising their claims to ancestral lands. These two parallel efforts were implemented in a remarkably short span of time, which reflected the support of its constituent populations and the capacity of global society to mobilise financial resources for environmental action and social justice.  Simultaneously, a dramatic reduction in deforestation rates gave hope to advocates seeking systemic changes in development paradigms, particularly in Brazil where the agribusiness sector reformed their production systems after recognising their commercial interests were best served by improving environmental performance. 

Ten years ago, the prospects for conserving this globally important natural asset were very much in doubt. Rampant deforestation driven by multiple social and economic phenomena threatened to transform its landscapes, degrade its hydrological resources and overwhelm its indigenous communities. The construction of large-scale infrastructure projects was accelerating due to global demand for mineral and agricultural commodities, which had stimulated migration and investment that were expanding the footprint of modern society.  Global climate models predicted that a warmer planet would negatively impact ecosystem function and disrupt moisture flows over the continent. The combination of threats was referred to as A Perfect Storm in the Amazon Wilderness,[1] a phrase borrowed from popular culture that described the destructive synergies among multiple forces of change.

The success of conservation initiatives and the decline in deforestation are essential for the long-term conservation of the Amazon, but they have not changed the long-term trajectory of the Pan Amazon.  Fully sixty per cent of the region remains open to non-sustainable activities, including logging, artisanal gold mining and settlement by small-scale farmers.  Deforestation rates have been creeping upwards across the region and have registered historical highs in Colombia, Peru and Bolivia; meanwhile a political backlash in Brazil has empowered farmers to defy the law and clear forest land for pastures and crops.  Worse still, the predicted impacts of climate change have become manifest, in part due to increasing temperatures but more ominously by modifying precipitation regimes that threaten to tip the region – or at least its southern half – into a cataclysmic shift in ecosystem function that could lead to widespread forest dieback.[2]

Deforestation in the Andean foothills is particularly damaging due to high rainfall and soil erosion on steep slopes that limits the productive life span of cleared fields; settlers tend to be small farmers producing basic food stuffs for the domestic market. Photograph: Peru, by Christian Vinces/shutterstock.com.

Recent events, particularly the increase in forest fires and an election in Brazil, have placed Amazonian conservation once again in the forefront of the global media, which is now dominated by social networks that have succeeded in dramatising the issue at the local, national and international level. Societies are demanding solutions, but these will be neither easy nor simple, because the causes of environmental degradation in the Amazon are complex and span infrastructure, agriculture, minerals, finance and governance. Meaningful reform is impeded by deeply ingrained cultural attitudes, corruption and inequality.

Changing the development pathway of the Pan Amazon is like turning an ocean liner; the momentum from conventional business models will require slow but steady pressure and incremental change across multiple sectors. Economic incentives must be aligned with conservation outcomes and this will require profound reforms in financial and commercial markets, as well as real change in regulatory systems and law enforcement. Unfortunately, new paradigms in forest and fisheries management have not yielded the economic returns needed to make them competitive with conventional extractive models. Even worse, the monetisation of ecosystem services has generated a mere fraction of the resources required to change human behaviour on the forest frontier, much less subsidise reforestation efforts that climate scientists view as essential for stabilising the hydrological regime of the Southern Amazon.

Figure 1.5.   The GDP of the Pan Amazon stratified by political jurisdiction and sector (a) and subsector (b). Agriculture & Forestry: Agriculture (AG), Fisheries & Aquaculture (FI), Forestry (FO), Livestock (LI);  Industry: Extractives (EX), Manufacturing (MA), Construction (CN);  Services (Private Sector):  Real Estate (RE), Commerce (CO), Transportation (TR), Hospitality (HO), Telecommunications (TE), Finance (FI), Professional Services (PS), Other services (OS);  Services (Public Sector): Public Administration (PA), Utilities (UT);  Illicit Activities: Coca/Cocaine (CC), Artisanal Gold (Au)

The second and greatly expanded edition of A Perfect Storm in the Amazon Wilderness provides an overview of the topics most relevant to the conservation of the region’s biodiversity, ecosystem services and indigenous cultures, as well as a description of the conventional and sustainable development models that are vying for space within the regional economy.  Events of the last ten years are discussed in detail, because future events will have to build upon – or modify – the cultural and economic forces driving events in the Pan Amazon.  Nonetheless, the text provides a longer historical perspective to show how policies create legacies that reverberate over decades, long after they have been recognised as being fundamentally flawed.

The broad scope and descriptive detail of the narrative provides the reader with an understanding of the synergies among the multiple complex phenomena that threaten the conservation of the Amazon, as well as an objective analysis of the alternative production models and regulatory reforms that are essential to bend the arc of history and save the most important ecosystem on the planet.


1.   Introduction: The State of the Amazon

      Drivers of Environmental Degradation

      The Geography of Environmental Degradation

      The Political Economy of the Pan Amazon

      The Natural History of the Amazon Rainforest

      Environmental Policy and Action on the Ground

      The Challenge of the Future and Lessons from the Recent Past

2.   Infrastructure Defines the Future 

      Roads: Primary Vectors of Deforestation

      Hydropower: A Shift Towards Reduced Impact Facilities

      Global Competition Drives Investment in Bulk Transport Systems

      Finance: What is new and What is not

      Sustainable Infrastructure: In need of an Oxymoron

3.   Agriculture Determines Land Use 

      Beef Production Models

      Soy and Feed Grains

      Palm Oil

      Coffee and Cacao

      Local and National Food Crops

      Coca: The Anti-Development Crop

      Roundtables, Boycotts and Moratoria

4.   Land, the Ultimate Commodity

      Land Speculation and Land Grabbing

      Agrarian Reform, Land Tenure Registry and an Enormous Mess. 

      Land Use Planning: An Idealized Tool with Mixed Results

      Will Intensification Reduce Extensification?

5.   Mineral Commodities: A Small Footprint with a Large Impact

      Investment Criteria and Legal Frameworks

      Revenues and Royalties


      Environmental Management

      Mineral Hotspots 

 6.   Culture as a Driver of Environmental Degradation


      The Legacy of Migration

      Geopolitics and Development Strategies

      Inequality and Informality

      A Culture of Corruption

7.   Governance: Much Improved but Far from Adequate

      Environmental and Social Review: Better Than It Used to Be

      Decentralization is a Double-Edged Sword 

      Environmental Law: The Best on the Planet but Seldom Enforced

      Law Enforcement: In Search of the Proverbial Stick

8.   The Quest for Sustainability

      Forest Livelihoods: Poverty Redux.

      The Amazon Fishery: Surprisingly Sustainable 

      Aquaculture: The Epitome of a Sustainable Production Model

      Sustainable Timber versus the Pervasiveness of Illegal Logging

      Agroforestry, Plantation Forestry and Forest Restoration

      The Travel Industry and the Unrealized Potential of Ecotourism

9.   Advances in Biodiversity Science 

      Scientific Institutions: The Infrastructure of Knowledge 

      The Geography of Biodiversity: Hotspots, Ecoregions and Wilderness Areas

      Biological Inventory 

      Evaluating the Threat of Extinction

      Forest Ecology and Dynamics

10.   Knowledge is Power

      Monitoring Deforestation and Forest Degradation

      Biomass Maps and Carbon Models

      Hydrological Cycles and the South American Monsoon 

      Drought, Wildfire and the Threat of Large-Scale Forest Die-Back 

      How Close is the Tipping Point?

11.   An Indigenous Awakening

      Indigenists, Ethnographers and the Parque Indígena do Xingu

      Catholic Missionaries and Evangelical Linguists

      Brazil: Operação Amazônia and the Constitution of 1988

      The Andean Republics: Colonization, Armed Conflict and Cocaine

      Indigenous Organizations and the Existential Fight for Territory 

      Demographics and Cultural Survival in the 21st Century

12.   Conservation Report Card

      The Pan Amazon Protected Area Network 

      Multiple Use Areas and the Conundrum of Sustainability 

      Corridors and Connectivity

      The Value of Natural Capital

      Conservation Finance

13.   What Next?

      What Will Almost Certainly Happen

      What Might Possibly Happen

      What Should Never Happen

      What Absolutely Must Happen

[1]  T.J. Killeen, A Perfect Storm in Amazon Wilderness, Conservation and Development in the Context of the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA) (Washington DC: Conservation International, 2007).

[2]  Thomas E. Lovejoy and Carlos Nobre, ‘Amazon tipping point’, Science Advances (2) (2018): eaat2340

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