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Roads of Destruction: We found a lot of illegal “ghost roads” that were getting used to interrupt up pristine rainforest

One of Brazil's best scientists, Eneas Salati, once said: “The smartest thing you may do for the Amazon rainforest is to explode all of the roads.” He wasn't a joke. And he was right.

In one (n Article published today In Nature, my colleagues and I show that illegal, often out-of-control road construction is endangering forests in Indonesia, Malaysia and Papua New Guinea. The streets we examine don’t appear on legitimate maps. We call them “ghost streets.”

What's so bad a couple of road? A road means access. As roads into the rainforest are plundered, illegal loggers, miners, poachers and land grabbers arrive. Once they gain access, they’ll destroy forests, damage native ecosystems, and even displace or kill indigenous peoples. This plundering of the natural world deprives financially weak countries of useful natural resources. Indonesia, for instance, loses about 1.5 billion Australian dollars per yr exclusively on wood theft.

All countries have some unmapped or unofficial roads, however the situation is especially dire in biodiversity-rich developing countries where the variety of roads is increasing fastest pace in human history.

The Tapanuli orangutan is the rarest great ape species on the earth. It only occurs in northern Sumatra, where it’s endangered by roads and dams.
Maxim Aliaga, Provided by creator (no reuse)

Mapping ghost streets

For this study, my graduate student Jayden Engert and I worked with Australian and Indonesian colleagues to recruit and train greater than 200 volunteers.

These employees then spent around 7,000 hours manually mapping roads using fine-scale satellite imagery Google Earth. Our team of volunteers mapped roads across greater than 1.4 million square kilometers across the Asia-Pacific region.

When the outcomes got here in, we realized we had found something remarkable. First, there gave the impression to be unmapped ghost roads almost in all places. When we compare our results with two leading road databases, we discover that OpenStreetMap and that Global Road Inventory ProjectWe found that ghost roads in these regions are three to six.6 times longer than all mapped roads combined.

Maps of Northeast Borneo, one using the Openstreetmap database and the other with many more ghost streets added
Mapped roads in northeastern Borneo using a number one road database, OpenStreetMap (left), and adding the ghost roads identified on this study (right).
Author provided, CC BY-NC-ND

When ghost roads appear, deforestation of local forests increases – normally immediately after the roads are built. We found that road density was by far crucial predictor of forest loss, outperforming 38 other variables. No matter the way you judge them, Roads are forest killers.

What makes this case particularly dangerous for conservation is the proven fact that the roads are growing rapidly and yet remain hidden and beyond government control.

Roads and guarded areas

Not even Parks and guarded areas in Asia Pacific are completely protected from illegal roads.

But protecting parks has an impact. We found only a 3rd as many roads in protected areas as in nearby unprotected areas.

The bad news is that constructing roads inside protected areas ends in concerning the same level of forest destruction as constructing roads outside protected areas.

Our results suggest that it is vital to limit roads and their associated destruction inside protected areas. If we are able to find these streets using satellite imagery, so can the authorities. Once an illegal road is found, it could be destroyed or no less than mapped and managed as a correct legal road.

The preservation of existing protected areas is especially urgent as there are already over 3,000 protected areas shriveled or deteriorated worldwide for brand spanking new roads, mines and native land use constraints.

Photos of burning Amazon forests, illegal roads in Africa and the poaching of a forest elephant
Illegal roads cause destruction all over the world, from carbon emissions from burning the Amazon forest for livestock grazing (A) to road construction and forest destruction in Central Africa (B) to the poaching of rare animals like this forest elephant killed by poachers near A Road within the Congo Basin (C).
M. Andreae (A) and W. Laurance (B,C), CC BY-NC-ND

Hidden streets and the human footprint

The impact we’ve on the planet varies from place to position. To estimate how much influence we’ve, researchers use this Human Footprint Index, which brings together data on human activities resembling roads and other infrastructure, land use, nighttime lighting of electrified settlements, etc. You can use the index to create heatmaps that show where human influences are most or least pronounced.

We fed our ghost road discoveries into the index and compared two versions for East Borneo, certainly one of them without ghost road information and one with it. The differences are striking.

When ghost roads are included in mapping human impacts on East Borneo, the areas of “very high” human disturbance double, while the areas of “low” disturbance are halved.

This is what the human footprint heatmap for East Central Borneo looks like, first without ghost roads (A) and second with ghost roads (B).
Author provided, CC BY-NC-ND

Artificial intelligence

Researchers are investigating other species-rich developing regions resembling: Amazonia and that Congo Basin I also found many illegal, unmapped roads in these areas.

Ghost streets appear to be an epidemic. Worse still: these roads will be actively promoted, especially through aggressive infrastructure expansion programs China's Belt and Road Initiativenow energetic in greater than 150 countries.

Currently, mapping ghost roads could be very labor intensive. You might think AI could do that higher, but that's still not true – the human eye can still outperform image recognition AI software at mapping roads.

A golden dove in a Southeast Asian rainforest.
William Laurance

At our current pace, a one-time visual mapping of all roads – legal and illegal – on the Earth's land surface would require roughly 640,000 person-hours (or 73 person-years).

Given these challenges our group And other researchers are currently testing AI methods within the hope of providing accurate, global mapping of ghost roads in near real time. Nothing else can sustain with today's avalanche of accelerating roads.

We urgently must have the opportunity to map the world's roads accurately and incessantly. Once we’ve this information, we are able to publish it in order that authorities, NGOs and researchers working on forest conservation can see what is going on.

Without this essential information, we’re flying blind. Knowing what is going on within the rainforest is step one to stopping the destruction.


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