Conservation news

Amazon at risk: Brazil plans rapid road and rail infrastructure expansion

  • New Minister of Infrastructure Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas is considered one of President Jair Bolsonaro’s most capable ministers. The former army engineer wants to streamline Brazil’s infrastructure agencies, root out corruption, and is seeking foreign investors, especially China, to finance a rush of new transportation construction.
  • Conservationists and indigenous groups worry that Tarcísio Freitas’ plans to push forward with new roads and railways – including Ferrogrâo (Grainrail) and FIOL (the Railway for the Integration of the Center-West) – could open the Amazon and Cerrado biomes to land grabbers, illegal loggers, illicit ranchers and industrial agribusiness.
  • While Tarcísio Freitas says that new Amazon transportation routes can help industrial agribusiness grow without causing new deforestation, in a Mongabay interview last year, he failed to address how all of this new infrastructure could be accomplished without also degrading Amazon forests or impacting indigenous communities.
Brazilian Minister of Infrastructure Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas. Image courtesy of Agencia Brasil.

“We are going to create a second revolution in Brazilian agribusiness,” declared Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas in a 2018 interview with Mongabay.

“Mato Grosso state produced 62 million tons of grains on 9 million hectares (34,700 square miles) of land in 2017. There are another 14 million hectares (54,000 square miles) of land, currently used as pasture, available for arable farming. We can easily produce 120 million tons of grain from Mato Grosso alone, without cutting down a single tree!” he said. “The big problem is lack of infrastructure and the high cost of freight.”

Today, Tarcísio Freitas is President Jair Bolsonaro’s Minister of Infrastructure, and he is rapidly putting his plans for new roads and railways into action. But while conservationists would agree that Brazilian agribusiness, done right, could grow astronomically in yield without new deforestation, they know from past experience that new transportation routes cut through the Amazon increase access and open once remote forest areas to land thieves, illegal loggers, illicit cattle ranchers, and eventually, new settlements and wholesale deforestation.

Tarcísio Freitas was trained as an engineer in the Brazilian army and part of the United Nations mission, headed by Brazil, sent to stabilize earthquake-struck Haiti in 2010. When we interviewed him, he headed the Program of Investment Partnerships (Programa de Parceria de Investimentos, PPI) within the Brazilian presidency, responsible for drawing up the government’s privatization and denationalization programs. That was an important role but nowhere near as powerful as the position he now occupies.

Tarcisio Freitas previously headed Brazil’s Program of Investment Partnerships (PPI), which drew up the government’s privatization and denationalization programs. His goal as Infrastructure Minister is to build new roads and railways to support agribusiness, which could heavily impact the Amazon and Cerrado. Image courtesy of PPI / Agencia Brasil.

As Bolsonaro’s minister, Tarcísio Freitas is rapidly implementing the plans he drew up in the PPI. “We have everything planned for the next four years,” he said, shortly after taking office. His aim is to move rapidly to sort out Brazil’s chronic lack of infrastructure and high cost of freight, particularly in Amazonia.

Under his plan, outsiders, private financiers in China, perhaps the U.S. and EU, will play a major role. “These kind of investments [in roads and railways] would normally be carried out by the state, but today the Brazilian state is in no condition to invest,” said Tarcísio Freitas, adding that his nation’s only hope is private investment. “We are going to make a massive transfer of infrastructure projects from the state to private enterprise,” he explained.

On the very day he took office, Tarcísio Freitas announced that the federal government intended to sign contracts with the private sector for R$100 billion (US$27 billion) in road construction projects over the next four years. Likely, some of that could go for the paving of the BR-319 highway through the remote Madeira Basin rainforest, and for a just announced plan for an extension of the BR-163 to cross the Amazon River and extend north to the Suriname border, potentially opening that region to mining and agribusiness.

At the same time, he is pushing ahead with two big new railwaysFerrogrâo (Grainrail) and FIOL (Railway for the Integration of the Center-West). Both would radically increase Brazil’s capacity to export grains and minerals in the north of the country, increasing pressure substantially on the Amazon and Cerrado biomes. The new infrastructure minister said he intends to double the share of freight carried by Brazilian railways by 2025.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro stands with his new Minister of Infrastructure, Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas as he takes office. Image courtesy of Agencia Brasil.

The right man to get the job done

Tarcísio Freitas cuts an impressive figure, both for his depth of knowledge and his undoubted competence. During our interview he reeled out an endless stream of facts and figures, without once faltering. He knew about freight charges all over the country, prices paid for soy on the Chicago market, the state of repair of the main highways, and so on. He is widely believed to be the most competent minister within the Bolsonaro government.

Moreover, he seems determined to eradicate the corruption that has plagued many state bodies. In early February, he said he would create a new superagency, to be called the National Transport Agency (Agência Nacional dos Transportes, ANT), which would merge two government bodies – the National Land Transport Agency (Agência Nacional de Transporte Terreste, ANTT, responsible for regulating road and rail transport), and the National Agency for Water Transport (Agência Nacional de Transportes Aquaviários, ANTAQ, responsible for regulating all forms of water transport).

Tarcísio Freitas says that the aim of ANT is to streamline activities and eliminate redundancies. He cites the Atlantic Ocean port of Santos, currently administered by ANTAQ, the water authority, which also must work closely with railways. “We’re going to make everything much simpler,” he explained. “There is an excess of regulatory bodies for roads, railways and ports.”

But the minister likely has a hidden agenda. Both ANTT and ANTAQ are believed to be mired in corruption. Rodrigo Ferreira Lopes da Silva, the former superintendent of the Center-West division of Andrade Gutierrez, a leading Brazilian engineering company, has accused ANTT Director General Mário Rodrigues Júnior of taking bribes. Likewise, the Brasilia office of the Federal Public Ministry, federal independent prosecutors, has accused ANTAQ Director General Mário Povia of favoring certain coastal navigation companies when awarding contracts.

ANTT Director General Mário Rodrigues Júnior. Image courtesy of ANTT.

Once the ANT merger happens, all current directors will automatically lose their jobs. So this single measure will allow Tarcisio Freitas to find replacements and clean up the transportation sector.

Tarcisio Freitas is taking care to win over Congress as well. Instead of pressing Bolsonaro to create the new super-agency by presidential decree, he has presented a bill to the legislature. He is currently discussing his draft bill with Bolsonaro aides, members of Congress and trade associations. The idea, he says, is “to construct consensus” before the bill reaches Congress.

Attracting foreign investment

The dearth of Brazilian capital, caused by the nation’s recent deep economic recession, has forced Tarcisio Freitas to search out foreign investment to fund his infrastructure plans. Relations with China soured during the electoral campaign when Bolsonaro, following Trump’s example, accused the Asian country of “buying Brazil.” But since then, Bolsonaro’s economic team has been seeking a new rapprochement. In January, both Finance Minister Paulo Guedes and Tarcisio Freitas met with the Chinese ambassador, Yang Wanming.

In similar fashion, Tarcisio Freitas has been reassuring the Brazil-Arab Chamber of Commerce. Arab investors had expressed interest in financing new railways – Grainrail, the North-South Railway, FIOL and FICO, in particular – as well as helping to finance the paving of the last stretch of the BR-163 highway between Itaituba and Santarém. But the Arabs were angered by reports that Bolsonaro, once again following Trump’s example, was planning to move the Brazilian embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Under pressure from his economic ministers, this move seems to have been put on the backburner. Bolsonaro has also been cosying up to the Trump administration, though what that might mean in terms of investments is uncertain.

Satellite image showing Brazilian Amazon deforestation and fragmentation resulting from a newly constructed main road and the often illegal side roads that branch off of it. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

Environmental concerns

While many welcome Tarcisio Freitas’s efficiency, there are concerns about the environmental and social cost of the rapid infrastructure expansion he is planning.

In our interview, he made it clear that he did not intend to involve either indigenous and riverine communities or environmentalists in the drawing up of the routes to be taken by new roads or railways. This lack of pre-project consultation with indigenous communities could, according to analysts, be in violation of the International Labour Organization’s Convention 169, of which Brazil is a signatory.

“When environmentalists get involved, the debate becomes very ideological and very little technical,” Tarcisio Freitas told Mongabay. “We will carry out the consultations demanded by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), but only after the contract [with the engineering companies] has been signed.” He continued: “If you consult them [communities] earlier, you create all kind of expectations.”

However, this is not how local communities see the consultation. They have repeatedly demanded prior consultation, though not always gotten it. They also want the right to change the route of a road or railway, or even get it banned if it is seen as too harmful to their rural communities.

Tarcisio Freitas is dismissive of general environmental concerns too. When pressed, he was unable to cite a single convincing example of a big development project that hadn’t harmed the environment. Even so, he believes that environmentalists are making a fuss about nothing.

“Look, we’re all worried about deforestation,” he said. “Everyone is. But Brazil produces 240 million tons of grain using just 26 percent of its territory.… Brazil has 30 percent of its territory protected. Indigenous land alone covers 112 million hectares (432,400 square miles). There are some European countries that have cleared the native vegetation off 70 percent of their territory. It is possible to combine environmental protection and infrastructure.”

In many ways, what Tarcisio Freitas is saying embodies a modern and more politically acceptable version of the outdated values held by Brazil’s military dictatorship which ruled from 1964-1985. Those values eschewed rainforest conservation and indigenous rights, while emphasizing unlimited agribusiness growth via the “occupation” of the Amazon.

These old-school values were expressed most graphically recently by Brazilian General Oswaldo Ferreira, originally looking to be a front runner for the infrastructure minister job. He told the Estado de S. Paulo newspaper: “When I built the road [the BR-163 highway in Amazonia], neither the Public Ministry, nor IBAMA, [the environmental agency] existed. I could fell all the trees that lay in the way. Today, if you want to cut down a single tree, a whole stream of people come and annoy you.”

Tarcisio Freitas is never so blunt in his speaking, but a close read of his public statements reveals that he clearly puts Brazil’s economic growth and agribusiness expansion ahead of environmental considerations. That could mean trouble for the Amazon rainforest, the so-called lungs of the Earth, and for the hundreds of thousands of indigenous and traditional people who live there.

Banner image: Commodities on the move on the completed southern section of the BR-163 highway. Experience has shown time and again that new Amazon highways open the surrounding forest to illegal extraction and agribusiness activities. Image by Roosevelt Pinheiro courtesy of Agência Brasil.

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