Realidade was first occupied 40 years ago, when Brazil’s government – then a military dictatorship – established a land distribution policy highly favorable to outsiders, while also surveying and constructing the original BR-319, an 890 kilometer (560 miles) road that connects the city of Manaus in Amazonas state, to Porto Velho, and the rest of Brazil.

Map by Gustavo Faleiros/InfoAmazonia Source: MapBox , RAISG (roads, protected areas and indigenous Lands), Global Forest Change – UMD (Deforestation 2000-2016), INCRA (Land settlements).

However, the Amazon’s brutal annual rainy season soon turned the road to muck and mire, curbing business for part of the year, which discouraged any major influx of entrepreneurs from the South and other regions.

It was only recently in 2010, when the federal government resumed investment in improving the highway, that more people started to arrive. Today, Realidade is home to an estimated 7,000 residents. And already, the village has spread beyond the federally donated lands of the 1970s, sprawling into terrain on the opposite side of the BR-319. That growth has come with forest clearing, deforestation from which Balbinotti’s sawmill, and mills belonging to others, have benefited.

“The things here are getting better and better,” Balbinotti told us. His company processes around 1,000 cubic meters (35,000 cubic feet) of sawed timber per year, a quantity that would fill at least 50 trucks. This year was the first time since he arrived that he managed to transport his products during the rainy season.

Balbinotti’s mill is just one of eight installed in Realidade, although only four have been operating full time. With BR-319 improvements imminent, and already extending the lumber export season, and with sawmills the main economic activity of the village, Realidade is pushing up the deforestation rate in the southern part of Amazonas state, as well as helping increase the number of unofficial roads there.

In the past decade, the amount of logging roads in the Realidade area steadily increased by an average of 17 kilometers (10.5 miles) per year. By 2017, there was a total of 305 kilometers (190 miles) of drivable pathways through the forest. These unofficial dirt roads bring more deforestation, degradation and fragmentation. Between 2000 and 2016, deforestation rose by 62 percent within an IDESAM, environmental NGO, study area covering 1,100 square kilometers (425 square miles) on either side of the BR-319.

Hugo Loss, IBAMA’s Technical and Environmental Chief, who coordinates forest inspections in the state, said that actions combatting illegal deforestation in southern Amazonas are frequent. The main focus of crackdowns on illegal activities still focuses on cities, districts and villages along the Transamazonica highway, which crosses the BR-319. But he acknowledges that there is also deforestation pressure in the Realidade area. And inspections there have already been stepped up. “There is a warming up of that economy, with the opening of new sawmills and people migration,” he said.

The story of Realidade is also the story of other small, but expanding, municipalities along the BR-319, BR-230, and the Transamazon highway in places like Apuí, Cento e Oitenta and Boca do Acre, where the fishbone pattern of forest fragmentation as seen from the air is now being replicated.

It also represents a timeworn Amazon deforestation scenario well known to conservationists, scientists, and indigenous and traditional peoples across the region, from the Xingu river valley, to the Tapajós basin: first comes the pavement granting ready access to the rainforest, then comes deforestation, cattle, crops, more immigration and more exploitation.

In fact, an improved BR-319 is poised to seriously impact not just one river valley, but two. The road is located on the divide between the Purus and Madeira river basins. This vast area, known as an interfluve (slightly higher ground between two watersheds), runs roughly north to south for many miles, and is recognized by conservationists as important habitat for endemic species. The moist forest found on both sides of the highway is still understudied, but recent expeditions have confirmed the existence of new species of birds and amphibians. The World Wide Fund for Nature calls the region “remarkably intact.”

However, the paving of the BR-319, and the early but worsening assaults on the Purus-Madeira moist forest ecoregion, if allowed to go on uncontrolled, could ultimately have far more than local impacts.

Scientists warned earlier this year that the Amazon is approaching a critical tipping point, beyond which increasing deforestation, combined with escalating climate change, could trigger regional shifts toward a hotter-dryer climate paradigm, with far less rain and deepening drought causing large parts of the Amazon to convert from tropical rainforest (with high carbon storage capacity) to savanna (with lower carbon storage capabilities).

Such a climate and biome tranformation – should it occur – would not only adversely affect Realidade and Brazil, but South America and the wider world.

Article published by Willie Shubert
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