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‘Ghost roads’ shouldn’t exist but they are killing forests

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‘Ghost roads’ shouldn’t exist but they are killing forests

A colossal manual mapping effort has led to the discovery of an impressive network of undocumented roads crisscrossing the forests of Indonesia, Malaysia and New Guinea. Australian and Indonesian researchers measured 1.37 million kilometers of routes, 3/7 times more than known.

These so-called “ghost roads” have shown a devastating impact: where they appear, deforestation intensifies enormously, leading to a loss of biodiversity and potentially ecological tipping points with catastrophic consequences. According to the team of Jayden Engert, an applied ecologist at James Cook University, and his colleagues, these roads represent one of the most serious direct threats to tropical forests.

The mapping work, conducted by a team of 210 trained volunteers and over 7,000 hours of work, revealed a vast network of roads spanning the islands of Borneo, Sumatra and New Guinea. In some places, international databases had documented less than 5% of the roads identified by researchers and volunteers.

These unmapped roads include bulldozed routes through intact forests and informal roads in the oil palm plantations, which account for between 35 and 45 percent of new roads found. The study’s senior author, Bill Laurance, pointed out that road construction almost always precedes forest loss (meanwhile, the Amazon is also disappearing).

In about 92% of study areas, nearby forest was cleared during or shortly after road construction. Protected areas have also proven vulnerable: Although they contained a third as many roads as unprotected areas, the loss of forest per kilometer of road was almost the same.

And the loss of these places could become a big problem.

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