BR-319 - Amazon's Highway to Hell

An old road through central Amazonia, that became overgrown and impassable in the 1980s, may get reopened and fully paved -- threatening to escalate destruction of one of the world's last remaining stands of tropical rainforest

To date, one fifth of the Amazon forest has been destroyed, that's an area the size of France. Will it stop? It must, but will it? To stop it will require planning, foresight, and political and consumer awareness, determination and restraint. If the choice is left to industry alone, they won't stop until it's all gone.

Unfortunately, rather than decreasing, Amazon deforestation is still moving ahead apace. Economies must grow, they say, and demands from developed and developing nations for more meat, in particular, are increasing (where nations aren't importing Brazilian beef, they're importing Brazilian grown soy to feed their own livestock). Another reason is the burning of forest to make way for sugar plantations, for ethanol production. The forest is literally going up in smoke.

Up until now, however, Amazon deforestation has taken place by working from the outside, the edges, inwards, and largely from the more populous eastern and southern regions. The central parts of the forest have been difficult to access to destroy, due to the nature and expense of building new roads in this difficult terrain. Now an alarming report from the Institute for Conservation and Sustainable Development of Amazonas (IDESAM) alerts us to a new threat that, if ignored, will see the Amazon essentially cut in half by road, with whole new opportunities for destruction as the Amazon's heart is laid bare.

The following image shows the obvious -- that deforestation occurs principally where there is access, i.e. where there are roads and waterways that enable people and machinery to move in and push the 'front line' forward in our war on nature. Marked with red dots, you can see BR-319, the old 543 mile (875km) road that may become a highway to hell, potentially completed by 2012.

The Brazilian government are moving forward with these plans, despite it being effectively illegal, in that alternatives to roads, like trains, have not been examined:
The Federal Government identified paving the highway as a priority for Brazil’s national transport infrastructural development. However, the Federal government never considered other alternative modes of transport, such as railroads or waterways. The failure to examine these alternatives is in direct violation of the National Counsel for the Environment’s (CONAMA) Resolution # 01/1986, which mandates that environmental impact studies must consider other alternatives.

... There is consensus within the scientific community that the building of paved roads is the major driver of deforestation in the Amazon. According Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment own data from the 1970s to the end of the 1990s, approximately 75% of the deforestation in the Amazon occurred along the sides of paved roads. -- IDESAM Press Release (PDF)

It's not only the forests, along with its critical biodiversity, that are under threat here. It's not only the CO2 emissions associated with it, and the continued drying and burning of the forests due to its shrinking ability to water itself through cycles of evaporation and cloud cover. As we've written before, people with machinery have money, and power. People that live sustainably in the forest do not. The former oust the latter, often violently. In the last two decades thousands of indigenous peoples in the Amazon have been killed in conflicts over land and resources. This road will bring more of the same. The implications are thus local and global.

Computer simulated projection of forest cover by 2050 Deforestation is marked in black -- at left the results if BR-319 gets paved, at right if the road is left as it is (area shown is same as red box above)

The alternative is to build a railroad system instead of a highway. Building a railway system would have considerably less impact, avoiding a great deal of the forest loss predicted for the future, while still achieving the economic benefits associated with improving the transportation infrastructure within the Brazilian Amazon. The State Government of Amazonas has commissioned a pre-feasibility study that demonstrated the technical viability of the railroad and identified the associated economic and environmental benefits. Although there is still a need for additional, more detailed studies and consultations, the study shows that the railway proposal merits serious consideration. -- IDESAM Press Release (PDF)
Let's hope they decide to take the train.




If you see any unhelpful comments, please let us know immediately.

Milena (anonymous)

Hello, I´m a brazilian citizen and I'm worried as well with the idea of pavimenting that old road. But I must criticize one idea that is implicit there that I don't think is really fair: the idea that a way to make our government take care of the environment is not buying our products.
First of all, if you know a little tiny bit of the sugarcane planting you will know Amazonia is a terrible place for that culture - the main production of sugarcane is located in Sao Paulo and on the northeast, far away from the forest.
Which still leaves us with the soy problem and the beef problem. I agree they are taking pieces of the jungle. But why in the world wouldn't you buy beef from Rio Grande do Sul, Sao Paulo, or specially Mato Grosso do Sul, where the cattle is created free in harmony with the beautiful Pantanal?
Why wouldn't you buy soy from planters that are located away from the jungle?
Boycotting our products will only bring more social problems, that are the root of the ignorance of those people living by the margin of the road that are pressuring the government to rebuild it.
If we really want to save the forest we have to figure out a way to make possible for those living near to it to make a living without destroying it. Making our budget short will help us in nothing.

Written in July 2009

Mauricio Carvalho (anonymous)

Unfortunately the author of this article is blinded by environmental anti-humanism. Deforestation is not caused by roads, but by lack of development, lack of access to capitalism and modern efficient food production techniques. Driving people to poverty will only make things worse, but even if poverty did "save the forest" I suggest you then drive yourself to poverty and misery before requiring entire populations who consume far less energy than even required by power this blog's server to live in muddy isolated backwaters denying their children access to superior civilized lifestyles (nature is only cute on the Discovery channel, you hypocrite).

Written in September 2010

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  • Posted on March 27, 2008. Listed in:

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