Amazon highway pits progress against environment

A road sign stands at the northern end of the BR-163 highway near the Amazonian city of Santarem, Brazil.
A road sign stands at the northern end of the BR-163 highway near the Amazonian city of Santarem, Brazil. Jack Chang/MCT

KILOMETER 129, HIGHWAY BR-163, Brazil — When the rains come to this patch of the Amazon forest, the bright red dirt road that passes farmer Luciano Costa’s house dissolves into a sticky mush so thick that neither cars nor people can pass.

Costa and his family are often stranded for days. In the case of emergencies, seeking help means risking getting stuck in the mud with no one but the monkeys and jaguars for company.

“We’re cut off from the rest of the world, and that’s the truth,” Costa said on a recent, dry afternoon outside his zinc-roofed house. “It’s like how people lived 50 years ago. We don’t have electricity. Sometimes we don’t have a road. We’ve been forgotten.”

Costa and thousands of other Amazon residents would like to see the government finish paving the 1,100-mile road, known as Highway BR-163. The Brazilian government has been promising to do so for more than 30 years.

Yet others oppose paving the more than 500 miles of BR-163 that are still unfinished. They fear that a reliable road would spark a land rush and lead to the destruction of still more of Brazil’s environmentally sensitive rain forest.

The debate symbolizes the dilemma facing Brazilian Amazonia, as the zeal for economic development in the region butts up against worries that the world’s largest rain forest is rapidly disappearing.

The rhetoric intensified this year when Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva earmarked about $800 million to pave the entire highway by 2010. So far, work has gone slowly, and Brazilian army engineers said they were paving only 12 miles of road a year.

Pressure is growing, however, to finish the project. Soybean production is booming in Brazil, and a paved BR-163 would connect soy growers near Cuiaba in central-western Brazil to a port that the U.S. agricultural giant Cargill opened four years ago in the northern, Amazonian city of Santarem. Already, tons of soy are loaded at the port bound for U.S. and European markets.

Many fear that paving the highway will encourage farmers to clear more forest in favor of greater soy production.

“Just with the news of the paving, people from all over Brazil have started coming to this area, and deforestation is already growing,” said Fernanda Ferreira, a Santarem-based activist at the nonprofit Amazon Institute for Environmental Research.

“We think paving the road will improve people’s lives, but we need to avoid what’s already happened all over Brazil.”

Since the country’s military government opened the Amazon for development in the 1960s, new highways have without fail brought slash-and-burn farmers, illegal wood merchants and agro-industry into previously isolated parts of the jungle.

Brazil’s government estimates that about a fifth of the Brazilian Amazon, or 227,000 square miles, has been burned or cleared, mostly after 1970. That’s a bit smaller than the state of Texas.

The Brazilian environmentalist group Amazon Institute of People and the Environment found that the toll is even higher, with about half of the Amazon’s ecosystem destroyed or threatened by human activity.

The institute also found that 80 percent of deforestation occurred within 19 miles of official highways.

Environmentalists argue that the cost of deforestation is global. Greenhouse gases once trapped by Amazon vegetation now are released into the atmosphere, contributing to global warming. Gone are uncounted plant and animal species. Indigenous tribes have been pushed from their native lands.

“A lot of people are rooting for this project although they don’t understand what the consequences will be,” said Maria Rosa Almeida, head of a small farmers union in Santarem. “We believe it will bring more bad things than good.”

Farmers, politicians and businesspeople in the region said they share such concerns but insisted that this time around they would prove that economic development is compatible with protecting the environment.

To that end, the federal government has released what it calls Sustainable Plan BR-163, which sets up protected forest areas along the highway and strengthens enforcement of environmental laws in the region, among other measures.

“We’re defending a model that restores biological diversity but has man at the center,” said Santarem Mayor Maria do Carmo Martins Lima. “Here, we have 20 million people in Amazonia, and they’re people with a right to be part of the country’s development project.”

On Monday, President Lula said Brazil could balance economic growth and environmental protection. He pointed to figures released last week showing that about 5,400 square miles of the Amazon, about the size of Connecticut, was deforested in the 12 months leading up to July 2006, a quarter less than the previous 12-month period.

Residents who’ve scratched out a living along the dirt road for decades have no doubt that the highway should be paved. The lack of a reliable road has blocked them from selling their crops in Santarem and forced them into a subsistence lifestyle.

“This road is a national shame!” ranted 53-year-old Jorge Luiz Calvacanti, who raises crops and cattle on 494 acres about 115 miles down the road from Santarem. “How could they be so irresponsible as to ignore the country’s main artery that connects its north to its south?”

Truck driver Francisco das Chagas Nunes, who lives in the town of Ruropolis, makes the 270-mile, round-trip haul from home to Santarem twice a week when road conditions permit. During the rainy season, he can be confined to home for as long as three months.

“When this famous progress arrives, everything will change,” the 23-year-old said. “Everyone’s been waiting for this asphalt for as long as I can remember.”

Adding to their anger, many said the unpaved road represented a long-standing betrayal by Brazil’s government, which lured hundreds of thousands of people to the Amazon during the 1960s and 1970s with promises of land and infrastructure.

Costa, the farmer, and his family left industrial southeastern Brazil in 1973 with the belief that they were the vanguard of a new wave of development. BR-163 and other highways would help settlers reach into the heart of the Amazon and build new lives, the government had said.

But the plan was abandoned in the 1980s when Brazil’s economy collapsed, and people like Costa were left to fend for themselves. To this day, electrical and telephone lines stop with the asphalt 60 miles outside Santerem.

“Nobody wanted to come here,” Costa said. “They had to induce us to come, and once we got here, we were on our own.”

Such stories make for a strong case for paving the road, even to environmental advocates such as Ferreira, who said she believed the asphalt would come sooner or later.

“It’s a historic demand of everyone who lives here,” Ferreira said. “I see it as almost certain. The money is already there, and with this Cargill port, so is the incentive. All we can do now is hope some good planning can stop the worst from happening.”

Francinalva de Sousa Silva, 26, who operates a restaurant with her husband 90 miles down the highway from Santarem, said she can’t wait for the better business a paved highway will bring.

“It’s going to deforest this area a bit, but it’s an inevitable thing,” she said. “Sad at the same time, but inevitable.”

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