A Map to Build Roads to a Better Future

When I learned that the pesticide DDT–widely toxic and now widely banned–has snaked its way into polar bears and beluga whales, I questioned if any environment remains pristine on terrestrial Earth.

Perhaps, the thick, hostile and unyielding rainforests of Borneo might prove a bastion? Then, in 2013, satellite images showed roads penetrating deep into Borneo. Roads have nailed the heart of Borneo, some seven times over.

Ancient giants wallow beside Borneo rainforests in the sick bay: Amazon Basin, Congo Basin, Siberia taiga. They may soon be pushed into the Emergency Ward.

Roads spearhead development. Against a seemingly impregnable fortress of trees, the first road chips into the wall, inching deeper, slowly but surely. Heavy machines roll in, chainsaws pick up, and soon cash begins to flow from the hacked bodies of ancient giants into the coffers of instant millionaires. While that first, principal road cuts ever deeper into the forests, many smaller ones grow from it, branching off into both sides of the assault.

Prof. William Laurance, Australian Laureate at James Cook University, described the Belem-Brasilia highway in eastern Amazon as a damning example of the cancerous nature of roads into jungles. Started in the 1970s to connect the two cities in Brazil, the highway now offers drivers hours of journey through a 400-kilometer wide of what Laurance describes as “horizon-to-horizon burnt remnants of dead trees, cattle pastures, and logged over forests.”. For more than three decades, Laurance has been studying deforestation in South America, Africa and Asia. To him, the Belem-Brasilia highway is “truly an environmental Armageddon.”

Deforestation in the Amazon. (credit: Wikimedia, Aug 2007)

Deforestation in the Amazon. (credit: Wikimedia, Aug 2007)

Laurance emphasizes that roads are necessary for development and improving farm yields to feed a predicted human population of 10 billion. Roads built in the right places, for example near market access or where development has already started, can link low-yield farms to facilities that improve their yields. However, some areas harbour very high environmental values (rich biodiversity and crucial ecological services like pollination and nutrient cycling) and are too remote for roads to improve farm yields, so these areas should remain road-free.

The conflict arises in areas where rich environmental values clash with productive road-building. Such conflict zones, painted black on Laurance’s recent published global map for road-building, darken massive swaths “in Sub-Saharan Africa, expanses of Central and South America, and much of the Asia-Pacific region,” Laurance wrote. These are the places where arguments for both environmental conservation and road-building hold strong.

About 17% of terrestrial Earth lies in the conflict zone, Laurance told me. “It’s really quite frightening.”

Seasoned by decades of working with policy-makers on conservation issues, Laurance is realistic about the influence of his map. “Look, we are not naive enough to say we put a map here and tell people that ‘you can roads and you can’t put roads there’,” he explains. “That’s not going to happen.” He does however, wants conservation biologists to “be very much part of the conversation about where roads are going to go in the future.” When asked if he’s convinced that his map will influence road-builders,  he replies “one can only hope.”

For the Earth Matters show on BFM 89.9, I interviewed Laurance when he was in Malaysia for the 3rd Regional Conference of the Society for Conservation Biology-Asia Section (Aug 19-22). We spoke about roads and his map. Before I ended our conversation, I told him that I’m very pessimistic about humanity’s will to solve our environmental crises. Listen to his words of wisdom, at minute 30:45 of the interview, culminated from years of hard work understanding human exploitation of nature and protecting our future against it.


William Laurance interviewed at BFM 89.9

Bill Laurance explains his map for road-building on The Conversation.


Laurance, W., Clements, G., Sloan, S., O’Connell, C., Mueller, N., Goosem, M., Venter, O., Edwards, D., Phalan, B., Balmford, A., Van Der Ree, R., & Arrea, I. (2014). A global strategy for road building Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature13717

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