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Amazon road projects could lead to Belize-size loss of forest, study shows

  • Scientists studying the impact of 75 road projects in five countries in the Amazon Basin have found that they could lead to 2.4 million hectares (5.9 million acres) of deforestation.
  • Seventeen percent of these projects were found to violate environmental legislation and the rights of indigenous peoples.
  • The total cost for the projects, which stretch a combined 12,000 kilometers (7,500 miles) is $27 billion, yet half of them will be financially unfeasible.
  • The study’s authors cite a lack of reliable technical feasibility studies, solid data and pressure from financiers to minimalize socioenvironmental impacts.

Road projects planned for the Amazon Basin over the next five years could lead to the loss of 2.4 million hectares (5.9 million acres) of native forest over a 20-year period — an area the size of Belize.

That’s the finding from a new study by researchers from Brazil, the U.S., Bolivia, Colombia and Sweden, who looked at the impacts of 75 road projects stretching a combined 12,000 kilometers (7,500 miles). Focusing on some of the largest and most controversial projects planned in five Amazon Basin nations (Brazil, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador and Peru), the researchers found that the average area of deforestation caused by each project is 33,000 hectares (81,500 acres) — a hundred times the size of New York City’s Central Park.

On average, the 24 roadways planned for Brazil — both the construction of new roads and the widening of existing ones — will account for more than half of the deforestation, with 1.42 million hectares (3.5 million acres) of additional logging expected. That amounts to 100 hectares (250 acres) of deforestation per kilometer of road.

At least 17% of these works violate environmental legislation and the rights of indigenous peoples, the study finds. With a combined estimated cost of $27 billion, 50% of the projects would generate financial losses, as costs to build and maintain are greater than the benefits they would bring.

The research found that the technical feasibility studies for most of the projects, when they exist, ignore socio-environmental impacts. Data to justify decisions related to the projects are also scarce.

Alfonso Malky Harb, a co-author of the study and Latin America technical director for the Conservation Strategy Fund, said many of the projects constitute campaign promises. But the general perception that new roadways are synonymous with development is not accurate, he said.

“Many roadway projects in Amazonia generate environmental, social and economic disasters. Corruption is another factor. The history of the region makes it clear that high volumes of resources can be a lure for corruption,” Malky said. At least 20% of roadway projects run over budget.

A worker from IBAMA, the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, surveys burning in Jamanxim National Forest in Pará in 2017. The conservation area is flanked by BR-163, the main highway for transporting Brazilian soybean. If the road is extended to the planned 496 kilometers (308 miles), it could lead to an additional 400 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030. Image by Vinícius Mendonça/IBAMA.

Deforestation drivers

There’s also a consistent lack of evaluation of the real impact these projects will have, according to co-author Ane Alencar, scientific director of the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM).

“When you are paving a road that cuts through a forest in a region with land documentation problems just to lower transportation costs of a product like soybean for example, you aren’t thinking of the total impact it will generate with land speculation, deforestation, conflicts and migration. All these costs are not added in,” she said.

The presence of roads tends to increase the price of land in areas that are both directly and indirectly affected, also serving as drivers for deforestation. If the current rates of expansion of farming and cattle ranching in the Amazon are maintained, 40% of the Amazon rainforest will be gone by the year 2050.

Alencar said projects conceived to benefit a single sector end up disconnecting and causing damage to other sectors. The solution would be to carry out an analysis of the cost-benefit relationship including factors like indirect impacts on local communities, she said. This includes the cost to regularize territory and land ownership to prevent theft of public land and conflicts.

Another shortcoming in how such projects area planned is the lack of well-executed viability studies by a quality technical team with the capacity and resources to obtain data, said Thaís Vilela, one of the main authors of the study. She said she believes that, even though nations like Brazil are making progress in offering the necessary resources, things are still far from ideal. “We also need support from the higher levels of public services. The environmental question in particular is not always a political priority,” she said.

Specific projects like the Trans-Amazonian Highway (BR-230) stand out for their magnitude. The unfinished highway is already 4,000 km (2,500 mi) long. According to the model applied by the researchers, work on this highway alone could be responsible for 23% of the deforestation in the region by 2030 — some 561,000 hectares, or 1.4 million acres.

Another controversial roadway, BR-163, the main transport route for soybean between Cuiabá and the port of Santarém, is slated to be extended to 496 km (308 mi). If this happens, it could lead to an additional 400 million tons of carbon dioxide emissions by 2030.

Outside BR-230, the projects threatening the most deforestation in the Amazon are the Troncal Piedemonte in Colombia, with potential to clear 116,000 hectares (286,000 acres) of forest, and Peru’s Pucallpa-Contamana, with 66,000 hectares, or 163,000 acres.

In all of these cases, permanent organization is vital to guarantee that consultation protocols for indigenous and traditional communities are carried out and that the legal rights of such peoples are respected, Vilela said. In Brazil, the Public Prosecutor’s office is often required to intervene in such projects to enforce the law.

“On their own, communities don’t have the power to guarantee that their rights are respected if society and its institutions don’t support them,” Vilela said. At least three of the roadways studied cut straight through indigenous territories that are home to isolated peoples in Ecuador and Colombia.

Using historical data and an environmental system modeling platform, researchers estimated the area of deforestation along the main roadway projects in Amazonia. The horizontal red line is the Trans-Amazonian Highway. Image courtesy of Vilela et al. (2020).

Nations must prioritize

The researchers also identified 18 projects with low socio-environmental impacts. If decision-makers were to choose to focus on these roadways, the resultant deforestation would be less than 10% of the projected number, or around 240,000 hectares (593,000 acres), and the economic gain would be around $4 billion.

“Government and civil society should choose the level of negative impact they are ready to accept in order to obtain certain economic gains, remembering that part of this gain tends to benefit local communities,” Vilela said. In some countries, the scenario is still more critical. In Bolivia, 85% of the projected roadway projects aren’t even economically viable.

The role of those funding these projects is crucial. Aside from public investment, public-private partnerships are common, and many projects are funded by nations like China and by national development banks like the BNDES, as well as transnational banks.

William Laurance, a conservation scientist who leads the Global Road Map and ALERT (Alliance of Leading Environmental Researchers & Thinkers) projects, said these actors should demand thorough impact studies. But at present they are largely negligent on this point. “These banks have approved projects that simply should not be approved. This is a serious problem. They should be held much more accountable,” said Laurance, who was not involved in the study.

Malky said he believes it is fundamental that these entities apply pressure to ensure that the socio-environmental impact is the central part of planning from the start. Transparency and pressure based on technical evidence is the only way, he said, that each country will be able to make the best decisions possible.

“The world can no longer finance projects that lead to irreversible environmental damage and aren’t even economically viable. Especially in nations that are part of Amazonia,” Malky said.

The junction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway (BR-230) and BR-163 near the port of Santarém, in the Brazilian state of Pará. Their numerous offshoots form a fishbones pattern. These two main highways are vectors of deforestation, showing what could happen if new projects are implemented without environmental viability studies. Image by Google Earth.

Infrastructure and COVID-19

It’s still uncertain what impact the COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdowns imposed in response to it will have on large infrastructure projects. While economic growth is certain to slow across Latin America, with signs currently pointing to a recession, it’s possible that resources will be allocated to other investments with undefined impact or that governments will choose to invest in infrastructure projects to stimulate economic growth. Independent of these factors, Laurance said large infrastructure projects in border regions and environmentally critical regions like the Amazon could be critical areas for new pandemics. The illegal wildlife trade worldwide also contributes to this.

“These areas are focuses for pathogens and illness,” he said. “This could increase the global risk of new pandemics. It is important that people see this connection.”

Editor’s note: William Laurance is a member of Mongabay’s advisory board.

Banner image of a Bolivian road between the rainforest and a future soybean field, by Rhett A. Butler/Mongabay.


Vilela, T., Malky Harb, A., Bruner, A., Arruda, V. L. S., Ribeiro, V., Alencar, A. A. C., … Botero, R. (2020). A better Amazon road network for people and the environment. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences117(13), 7095-7102. doi:10.1073/pnas.1910853117

This story was first reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and published here on our Brazil site on Apr. 13, 2019.

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