The BR-319: “A dragon with an open mouth”

Instead of following the agents out of town and driving east from Humaitá on the BR-230, we drove north on the still unpaved BR-319.

The question for which we were seeking an answer: how long will it take for the pattern of intense deforestation – now common in the southern part of Amazonas state – to move north along the road and impact still intact parts of the Amazon rainforest in the Purus-Madeira basin.

To find out, we met with Dioneia Ferreira, a former manager of an Amazonas state Conservation Unit, and now an environmental activist working to stop deforestation in the region. She talked with us for almost three hours in urgent tones, alerting us to a conservation emergency she describes colorfully as “a dragon with an open mouth, going up the road and destroying everything on its way.”

Ferreira said that the arrival of growing numbers of loggers, ranchers and other “pioneers” has intensified over the past four years. They are starting to “colonize” the region, buying forestland along the BR-319.

This fishbone pattern of forest fragmentation, as seen from the air, is now being replicated at various points along the BR-319 as unofficial side roads are constructed to get at timber and in order to clear land for cattle pasture and crops. Image by NASA

With the once neglected road now receiving more regular maintenance, it has become passable, a process that helped initiate the influx of migrants. Starting in 2016, said Ferreira, bigger investors arrived, converting forests into pastures and bringing herds of beef cattle. “What I can say concerning my own experience is that every five years, the destructive [forest] activities move [another] 100 kilometers [62 miles] north.”

Warnings concerning this threat aren’t new. In 2006, Paulo Graça and Philip Fearnside, two respected researchers at the Brazilian Institute of Amazon Research (INPA) published an article in Environmental Management journal warning of the imminent risk to the Amazon rainforest posed by improvement of the BR-319.

The article called “BR-319: Brazil’s Manaus Porto Velho Highway and the potential impact of linking the arc of deforestation to central Amazonia” notes in part that “Discourse regarding the highway systematically overestimates the highway’s benefits and underestimates its impacts. A variety of changes would be needed prior to paving the highway if these potential [environmental] impacts are to be attenuated.”

Besides the creation of protected areas – something which has happened – the researchers said that “more fundamental changes are also needed.” In their view, the land claims and forest clearance by smallholders and grileiros (land grabbers) along the BR-319 need to be avoided. But for that to happen, the Brazilian government would need to end its practice of routinely legalizing these occupations which fuel large-scale deforestation.

The most concerning impact of pushing the arc of deforestation northward – deeper into the Amazon rainforest – would be the loss of biodiversity. Heading north on the BR-319, we found ourselves surrounded on both sides of the road by lakes, swamps, meandering streams and huge trees – with the average canopy rising to 30-meters, roughly 100-feet, with some trees growing to extreme heights of 45 meters, about 150 feet – all part of the extraordinary Purus-Madeira moist forest ecoregion.

The road takes advantage of very slightly higher ground, running atop the slight but ancient geological uplift of the Purus-Madeira interfluvial plain. This is a biodiverse boundary zone between two  river basin watersheds where many species mingle and mate – a place that offers habitat for 165 mammal species (more than 80 of them being bats), numerous primates, birds and fish species.

Amazonas state, the new Rondônia?

Visit the southern part of Amazonas state, drive its long, muddy roads through lush rainforest, and you’ll likely meet locals who say that the region is now starting to look more than ever like Rondônia – a Brazilian state farther to the south that was more than 26 percent  deforested by 2000, and was at more than 38 percent deforestation by 2017. Logging, cattle ranching and land clearing have become common in Rondônia, with the state government recently supporting those activities over land conservation.

In southern Amazonas the forests are now similarly disappearing, and it is happening fast.

That wasn’t always the case. For many years, Amazonas – the largest state in the Brazilian Amazon – was perceived as relatively safe from rampant deforestation by conservationists. For decades, no major extractive industry was active there, and roughly 90 percent of the state remains covered by thick vegetation.

By contrast, Rondônia’s only major remaining forests now lay within protected areas or indigenous reserves. Forest devastation started there during the period of the Brazilian military dictatorship from 1964 to 1985, when the government offered land freely to families willing to immigrate there from southern states.

Today, in southern Amazonas, widespread deforestation is trending, especially in the municipalities of Lábrea and Apuí, both on the Transamazon highway (BR-230). These two towns are on the list of the ten municipalities with the highest deforestation rates in the Amazon in the last five years. Now researchers and forest defenders fear worse: that Amazonas state will suffer a total “rondonization,” following the rapid deforestation pattern of its neighbor.

Deforestation in selected Brazilian states. Click image for the interactive version. Credit: Gustavo Faleiros

Compared to Mato Grosso, Pará or Rondônia, Amazonas, still has seen little increase in total area deforestated, with only 2.6 percent converted to agricultural lands and other uses, according to the PRODES project of the National Institute of Space Research (INPE). .

However, it is the rate of forest cutting that astonishes conservationists. In the period 2015/2016, Amazonas saw the highest rate of deforestation increase in the entire Amazon region: with a 59 percent increase compared to the previous period (2015/2016). Although there was an 11 percent reduction in deforestation in 2016/2017, the total tree loss has still been twice as great as what occurred in 2014/2015, or a total of 100,000 hectares, or nearly a quarter million acres.

Analysts commonly blame this escalating deforestation rate on illegal logging and grazing facilitated by the ready access that the junction of the BR-230 and BR-319 provide in the south of Amazonas. That appears especially to be the case in the district of Santo Antônio do Matupi, also known as the Cento-e-Oitenta because it is located 180 kilometers (112 miles)  east of Humaitá. Loggers, ranchers, squatters and other opportunists flow out of Santo Antônio do Matupi and move into the forests on either side of the BR-319, cutting side roads and seeking their fortunes.

“All forests will be gone”

Just before leaving Porto Velho and heading north out of Rondônia and into Amazonas on our journey along the BR-319, we visited the headquarters of Kanindé, an NGO that for 26 years has been the most active voice for forest conservation and indigenous rights in the state of Rondônia. There we met Ivaneide Bandeira, or Neidinha as she is known.

She was very pessimistic in her predictions for the future of Amazonas: “Eventually, all forest will be gone,” she said.

Environmentalist Ivaneide Bandeira from the Rondônia-based NGO known as Kanindé. She is pessimist regarding the future of the forest in the neighboring state of Amazonas. Image by Marcio Isensee e Sá.

In her view, paving the BR-319 will definitely benefit local businessmen, with cattle ranchers who occupy new lands becoming the big winners; and with forests and biodiversity being the big losers. Most locals are not unhappy about this prospect. Amazonas is among the poorest states in Brazil, so the arrival of investors, entrepreneurs, chainsaws and cows comes as good news. As we stopped in small hamlets, villages and towns along the BR-319, economic optimism was palpable.

One place this was especially true was Realidade, a village of 7,000 residents where the economy currently depends on logging for its vitality.

Wagner Reinoso, 24, first arrived in the town via the BR-319, attracted by the possibility of a job and fleeing the negative changes he’d experienced while living farther south near the junction of the BR-230 and BR-319. A school teacher, he says that in Matupi, economic activity fell off after a series of raids by IBAMA that shut down illegal logging and caused local sawmills to close.

“My mother and brother worked at the sawmill. After IBAMA passed by, it was difficult.” Now in Realidade, he says things are better. Indeed, hopes have only grown brighter along the BR-319 since the turn of the new century, as the federal government has made new transportation infrastructure investment pledges.

Funding Amazon pavement and protection

President Fernando Henrique Cardoso (1995-2003) had been the first to include money in the federal budget under his Avança Brasil program to upgrade and pave existing Amazon roads that had originally been built by the military in the 1970s, but not properly maintained after that. However, it was President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2003-2011) who created optimal conditions for investment in transportation infrastructure. Improving the condition of federal roads in the rainforest became a priority of his government.

At that time, environmentalists pushed Lula’s administration to allow conservationists to participate in infrastructure planning, because they feared the widespread forest fragmentation and forest loss caused by the construction of the Transamazon highway. There, the building of the main road led to the construction of hundreds of unofficial auxiliary roads – the so-called fishbone deforestation pattern seen from satellites.

As a result, activists supported by Marina Silva, Lula’s Minister of the Environment, gained a voice in the planning process and managed to implement large-scale protective measures.

First, in 2006, 15 million hectares (57,915 square miles) between the Purus and Madeira rivers were designated areas of “special attention” by the government during the environmental licensing process for the BR-319. Then, in 2009, eleven protected areas were created, fitting under a variety of federal and state conservation categories, including national parks and sustainable development reserves.

However, these conservation measures were not entirely effective. The long period required to generate and review the highway’s environmental impact assessment resulted in a lot of public pressure in favor of improved road maintenance. Local politicians, especially congressional representatives from Rondônia and Amazonas, constantly spoke out and criticized IBAMA for delaying the laying down of asphalt.

In response, in 2016, the National Department of Transport Infrastructure (DNIT), requested a license to undertake work to improve the bridges and drainage along BR-319. These enhancements put the highway in its best shape in 20 years, and for the first time ever travelers could drive the road without great difficulty in both the dry and rainy seasons. On the other hand, it is this easy access that fuels rapid deforestation.

The road maintenance license was approved, and two engineering companies are currently at work continuously along parts of the BR-319. However, public attorneys have opposed the license, fearing that it could be misconstrued as a fait accompli and a mandate for full paving of the highway – a goal still not approved.

IBAMA renewed the maintenance license in May 2017.  Now, DNIT is preparing a new environmental impact assessment (EIA) for the paving of the entire highway. The EIA will be presented to IBAMA in the first quarter of 2019, says DNIT environmental manager Angela Parente.

As the tenure of President Michel Temer winds down and Jair Bolsonaro prepares to take office in January, the issues surrounding the BR-319 have now gotten more complicated. Senator Eduardo Braga, a former Amazonas governor, has defended the use of an emergency license to proceed with work on the highway. Meanwhile, the Bolsonaro administration is promising major changes to governance that could greatly affect the BR-319, including the fast tracking of both infrastructure project licensing and environmental impact assessments, along with a significant boost in infrastructure spending.

However, what conservationists want to know is how Bolsonaro’s development program will avoid the old pitfalls: with new paving comes new illegal land occupation and land clearing. How will that deforestation be avoided as the paving of the BR-319 drives north, deeper into some of the most pristine rainforest remaining in the Brazilian Amazon?

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Article published by Glenn Scherer
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