Paving of road brings change in the Amazon rainforest
AP
May 28, 2005

Road cuts deep into Brazil's Amazon
Settlers expect wealth, environmentalists disaster from paving
By Alan Clendenning
The Associated Press
Updated: 3:50 p.m. ET May 27, 2005


TUCURAPE, Brazil - Burly truckers share thermoses of sweet coffee, cook rice and beans on camp stoves and lounge in the sweltering shade of broad-leafed palms as they wait for a front-end loader to tow their rigs through a half-mile stretch of waist-deep mud deep in the Amazon jungle.

A pickup stuck in a muddy stretch of Brazil's BR163 highway reflects the battle over the Amazon. Settlers want to tame the forest by paving and clearing much of it, while environmentalists and Indians fear the development can't be sustained.
Photo by Alexandre Meneghini / AP
Help can take hours or even days to arrive on BR163, one of Brazil's worst national highways. But there's good money to be had hauling everything from exotic jungle hardwood to Coca-Cola in these parts, and there are rumblings that the highway is about to get a lot better.

One thing is on the lips of everyone from the truckers to the new settlers of roadside towns that appear on few maps: asphalt, and how it will soon bring growth and opportunity to a big swath of the world's largest wilderness.

In a controversial plan, Brazil's government is preparing to let private companies embark on a $417 million paving project to turn BR163 into a modern two-lane toll highway stretching 1,100 miles, nearly the distance between Philadelphia and Miami. That would link Brazil's most important soy-growing region with a deep-water Amazon River port.

Truck traffic will skyrocket as the country opens up a new export corridor for soybeans, Brazil's most important crop. Trips that now take weeks during the six-month rainy season will be cut to a matter of hours.

The pavement is bound to boost migration and is expected to lead to deforestation, prompting warnings from environmentalists of possible ecological disaster.

Truckers see comfort

A man prepares to tow a stuck truck across a muddy stretch of the BR163 highway between Novo Progresso and Itaituba. Truckers love the idea of paving the highway, but environmentalists and Indians fear the worst.
Photo by Alexandre Meneghini / AP
No longer will truckers have to snooze in hammocks beside dense forests of poisonous snakes and spiders, grunting monkeys and 140-pound rodents called capybaras that roam the road at night. Instead, they'll rest at the truck stops serving all-you-can-eat Brazilian barbecue that have already started to pop up in hamlets now separated by road sections impassable even for four-wheel-drive vehicles.

"I've been waiting for the pavement for 20 years," said trucker Honorato Gomes da Silva, waiting for a tow barefoot, his boots in his rig so they wouldn't get sucked into mud that acts like quicksand with any kind of shoes.

"We're used to sleeping in the forest, but that will be a thing of the past when the pavement comes," he said.

This jungle highway isn't the Trans-Amazon Highway, another mostly muddy road running east-west from the Atlantic Ocean to Colombia, which was scheduled to be completely paved decades ago.

The three-year paving project on the north-south BR163 could begin as early as this year. While asphalt has been laid down on 530 miles of BR163, the highway is useless for agribusiness until the private effort finishes the job.

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Chinese economy drives road-building and deforestation in the Amazon - 19-April-2005
Paving the Amazon rainforest to bring soybeans to China.

Once the paving is completed, Brazil — which has become an undisputed agricultural superpower over the last decade — will be able to drastically reduce the price of sending its crops abroad.

"The Trans-Amazon is last-century stuff," said Riordan Roett, director of Western Hemisphere studies at Johns Hopkins University's school of international studies in Washington, D.C. "The north-south route is where you get the soybeans, and it is a logical route for inland migration as well," from Brazil's populous south to the relatively uninhabited Amazon.

More logging, violence predicted

Environmentalists and Indians warn the pavement will eliminate even more rain forest, and bring crime, drugs and prostitution to an area whose remoteness has largely protected it from such problems.

And unless the growth is controlled under strict federal oversight, they say, the road could also bring violent land conflicts. In Para, the Brazilian state where most of the paving will take place, those are often solved by gunslinging "pistoleiros."

Critics point to the February slaying of American nun Dorothy Stang, who spent 23 years protecting the rain forest and peasants. The killing was blamed on a rancher coveting land Stang was trying to protect. The government temporarily froze development in 32,000 square miles along BR163 in response, but environmentalists believe the ban will be lifted within a year.

"Economics are determining the fate of the Amazon," said Paulo Adario, who heads Greenpeace's Amazon project. "The paving is inevitable, and at the end of the day, the discussion is centering on what we are willing to lose."

That's a bet made by waves of ranchers, loggers, storekeepers and farmers who have washed into the land around the road, a region the size of France, Germany and Italy combined. Keen on exploiting natural resources that will be more accessible thanks to the paved road, many spent their life savings to resettle in towns that only recently got electricity and telephones.

Boomtown sees rail comparison

In Novo Progresso ("New Progress" in Portuguese), the population has doubled to 40,000 in only five years. Merchants sell everything from chain saws to veterinary supplies in squat concrete buildings erected along BR163, whose dirt stretch also serves as the town's main street.

Many Novo Progresso merchants compare the paving project to the Transcontinental Railway, which opened up the midwestern and western United States to immigration and development in the 19th century.

Supporters say the highway will bring jobs to help ease grinding poverty throughout Brazil, where many of the 182 million citizens consider themselves lucky to make the minimum wage of $125 a month.

"I'm not against preservation, but we have to find ways to solve Brazil's social problems. And the way to do this is through development, progress and jobs," said Mayor Tony Rodrigues, a newcomer who teamed up with Chinese partners to start one of the dozens of new sawmills in Novo Progresso.

No one is trying to stop the paving of BR163; road supporters and critics agree that the economic forces driving the project are unstoppable. After years of delay, Brazil's Congress opened the project to private funding with a new law in December.

Behind the momentum is Brazil's thriving agribusiness industry, which accounts for about 40 percent of the country's gross domestic product and provides tens of millions of jobs.

Soy is king, with Latin America's largest country second only to the United States in production. Brazil is desperate for a cheaper and faster route to export the commodity because of supply bottlenecks caused by crumbling highways that lead to overburdened ports on the Atlantic Ocean.

Cargill invests in road

A Dutch cargo ship is loaded with soybeans at the terminal built by Cargill Inc., the Minneapolis-based agricultural giant and Brazil's largest soyban exporter, in Santarem, Brazil. Once paved, Brazil's highway BR163 will more easily link Brazil's soy-growing state of Mato Grosso to the Amazon River and the rest of the world.
Photo by Alexandre Meneghini / AP

Trucks and a woman on horseback share a flooded stretch of the BR163 highway between Novo Progresso and Itaituba. The highway could be paved within three years.
Photo by Alexandre Meneghini / AP

A Brazilian army truck is seen on the BR163 between Novo Progresso and Itaituba. The Amazon highway stretches 1,100 miles, nearly the distance between Philadelphia and Miami
Photo by Alexandre Meneghini / AP
BR163 cuts 600 miles off the trip, providing a perfect link from Brazil's top soy-growing state of Mato Grosso to the Amazon River, where Cargill Inc. — the Minneapolis-based agricultural giant and Brazil's largest soy exporter — built a $20 million port three years ago in the expectation that the road would eventually be paved.

Shipping a metric ton of soy from Mato Grosso to the Atlantic ports costs about $82 during harvest time, but would cost only $50 to $60 a ton via BR163, said Seneri Paludo, a grains analyst at the AgRural consultancy in Cuiaba, the state capital of Mato Grosso.

Up to 10 million tons could eventually be shipped via the highway annually, translating into shipping savings of up to $320 million a year that would be passed on to customers in Europe and China.

"BR163 needs to happen," Paludo said. "It would really improve our competitiveness with the North Americans, and has turned into a question of economic viability."

Indians protest change

But Indians living near the road say loggers are already illegally cutting some of the trees they use to make their traditional canoes, and they worry that the road will bring farmers who will cut down more trees to make way for cattle, soy and other crops.

"The forest gives us our life," said Francinaldo Rocha, a leader of about 150 Munduruku Indians who eke out a living by fishing, hunting and growing manioc and corn along a tributary of the Amazon River. "The asphalt is really just for the rich."

The road also would benefit multinational companies like Honda Motor Co. and Royal Philips Electronics NV who set up shop decades ago in the remote free-trade-zone city of Manaus, upriver along the Amazon River from the Cargill terminal.

Instead of using boats to ship computers, cell phones and televisions all the way to southern Brazil, the companies could take advantage of BR163 and cut days and thousands of miles off the trip.

Honda, for example, sends 1 million motorcycles to southern Brazil every year, at a per-bike cost of $42 that could be reduced to $29 via BR163. That's a $12.5 million savings, said Issao Mizoguchi, Honda's plant manager in Manaus.

Development plan promised

In a bid to ensure orderly growth, Brazil's government is finalizing a sustainable development plan to control a land rush that could boost the area's population from nearly 2 million to as many as 3.5 million by 2020. The draft plan calls for increased federal presence to stem illegal logging and land seizures, and social programs to help poor families and prevent landowners from turning workers into debt slaves.

Critics warn that the government faces a possibly overwhelming task, and doesn't have the track record to prove it can handle the job. Brazil has some of the strictest environmental legislation in the world, but the laws are often poorly enforced.

"Is the government ready to put a soldier behind each tree?" Adario asked. "This is the question."

© 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


    In May 2005, the government of Brazil released figures showing deforestation in the Amazon rainforest reached the 10,088 square miles (26,129 square kilometers) for the year ending August 2004. Deforestation in the Amazon in 2004 was the second worst ever as rain forest was cleared for cattle ranches and soy farms.

    The background image shows deforestation associated with the Tierras Bajas project in eastern Bolivia where people have been resettled from the Altiplano to cultivate soybeans. The photo is from NASA's Earth Observatory.




Amazon boomtown has feel of 'Wild West'
Lawlessness aggravates deforestation
By Alan Clendenning
The Associated Press
Updated: 3:48 p.m. ET May 27, 2005


NOVO PROGRESSO, Brazil - Three decades ago, only Indians and wild animals roamed through this remote stretch of Amazon jungle. Today, ranchers and sawmill owners in fully loaded four-wheel-drive pickups speed past new stores selling construction materials, farm equipment and chain saws.
The Amazon town of Novo Progresso, seen here on April 8, 2005, has doubled its population to 40,000 in five years.
Photo by Alexandre Meneghini / AP


Near the small red-light district, the poor cram into roofless homemade jalopies called "Paco Pacos" for the clunky sound emitted by their motors, diesel generators discarded by gold prospectors. And on the town's outskirts, where businesses give way to cow pastures and fields of rice and soy, a sign marks the spot where investors plan to build a slaughterhouse with a daily capacity of 500 head of cattle.

This is Novo Progresso, "New Progress" in Portuguese, a Brazilian boomtown built by migrants from far-flung parts of Latin America's largest country in an influx reminiscent of the 19th century settlement of the American west.

All are speculating that the dirt highway cutting through the town's center — a muddy track during the six-month rainy season that turns into a rutted cloud of dust the rest of the year — will be paved and transformed into a modern toll road traveled by thousands of tractor-trailers a day heading to Amazon River and Atlantic Ocean ports.

From five to 34 sawmills

In a region where land conflicts, labor abuses and illegal logging are commonplace, Novo Progresso's population has doubled to 40,000 in just five years. The number of sawmills turning huge trees into high-quality wood has risen from five to 34 in the same period.

"When they pave the highway, it'll be cheaper for our products to get to Europe and the United States," said a beaming Luiz Bazanella, a beer and soft-drink distributor who heads the town's business and industry association. "Novo Progresso's population could grow to 200,000."

Environmentalists say illegal deforestation is rampant around Novo Progresso, while sawmill operators say they use only wood cut legally by people living on land where the government allows 20 percent of each plot to be felled.

But Novo Progresso's sawmills laid off thousands of workers this year when the government put a halt to most logging, questioning the validity of documents used to justify land ownership. Town officials warn a crisis is in the works that could get ugly and cause unabated deforestation if the ban stays in place.

"If the government doesn't act soon to resolve the situation, the loggers are just going to cut it all down," said Mayor Tony Rodrigues.

Gunmen force poor off land

Novo Progresso also is saddled with a reputation as one of the most lawless spots in Para state — a place where gun-toting "pistoleiros" working on behalf of land speculators and rich landowners force poor subsistence farmers off their land.

Nelson Jose Biesseck, the leader of a group representing poor farmers, remembers how his cousin's husband was gunned down in a land dispute a decade ago. The cousin herself was shot dead a year later.

"We still don't know who killed her," Biesseck said.

And last year, a farmer who accused a logger of illegally cutting trees on Indian reservations and national park land was killed outside his house by two gunman who pumped six shots into him before fleeing.

Rodrigues bristles at the suggestion that Novo Progresso is South America's version of the Wild West, saying crime is much worse elsewhere in Brazil and insisting most town residents are law-abiding citizens seeking a better life.

"Sure, there are pistoleiros here, but they can't just walk around freely with their guns drawn," he said. "Most of the people in Novo Progresso came here with a dream to build something, because land prices were cheap, and with the hope that the road would be built and there would be jobs and more business."

U.S. nun's murder

In February, gunmen in another Para town killed American nun Dorothy Stang in a crime authorities have linked to a land dispute. The government reacted by sending federal police and soldiers to keep the peace in towns across Para, including Novo Progresso.

Now soldiers with semiautomatic rifles head out to the town's airport to check the paperwork of everyone leaving and arriving on the only daily commercial flight, a twin-engine propeller plane that bumps to a stop on the dirt runway.

Road supporters say the government presence should be expanded so the town can avoid past problems as it braces for an even bigger flood of migrants.

"Now we've got soldiers and police on the streets, but why didn't we get them before the nun died?" Bazanella asked. "If you have control here, you will have deforestation, but it will be controlled. You won't have guys coming in saying, ‘I'm going to clear 2,000 hectares (5,000 acres) just because I can."'

© 2005 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.






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The Associated Press (May 27, 2005).

Paving of road brings change in the Amazon rainforest.

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