- Brazil’s remaining Amazon forest is roughly divided in half by the Purus River, just west of the notorious BR-319 (Manaus-Porto Velho) highway. To the west of the river lies the vast “Trans-Purus” region — intact rainforest stretching to the Peruvian border. To the east, the forest is already heavily deforested, degraded and fragmented.
- Multiple threats are now closing in on the Trans-Purus region, and expected to increase greatly with the impending “reconstruction” of the BR-319. Planned roads linked to the BR-319 would open the Trans-Purus region to land grabbers (grileiros), organized landless farmers (sem-terras) and other actors from Brazil’s “arc of deforestation.”
- A massive planned gas and oil project would also likely lead to new road connections to the other planned highways in the Trans-Purus area, opening even more of the region to invasion. Asian oil palm and logging companies are among those with a historical interest in the area.
- This last large block of intact Brazilian Amazon forest is essential for ecosystem services — maintaining biodiversity, carbon stocks, and the forest water cycling functions essential for rainfall in other parts of Brazil and neighboring countries. This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily Mongabay.
The text of this commentary is updated from an earlier Portuguese-language version of the first author’s column at Amazônia Real.
Why is the Trans-Purus region important?
The Brazilian Amazon is divided between its eastern side, where the forest is heavily deforested and fragmented, and the western side (west of the Purus River, in Amazonas state), where the forest is largely intact due to the lack of accessibility by road.
But this situation in the western part of the Amazon is about to change radically due to a series of roadbuilding threats. The impacts would be enormous if a new frontier in this “Trans-Purus” region is opened to the migration of actors and processes already at work in the “Amazon arc of deforestation” (the area along the southern and eastern edges of the Amazon rainforest where deforestation has historically been concentrated).
The Trans-Purus region is key to maintaining Amazon biodiversity, as shown by a 2018 study published in the journal Nature Climate Change by Vitor Gomes and collaborators. This much-needed analysis of the combined effect of projected deforestation and climate change on Amazonian biodiversity arrived at a bleak conclusion: 49.6% of the 6,394 tree species with reliable data would be threatened by 2050, according to Criteria A4, B1 and D2 of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).
New threats to the Trans-Purus region make this Amazon outlook even more dire than that shown by the Gomes study. The discovery that (only) half of the tree species would be threatened by 2050 depends heavily on the large block of forest west of the Purus River remaining intact. Importantly, this block of forest remains intact in the deforestation scenario used by Gomes and collaborators because it is based on the projection of the model by Soares-Filho and collaborators (Figure 1). This deforestation simulation did not consider the roads planned in the Trans-Purus region that would open this vast block of forest for the entry of deforesters.
In addition to biodiversity, the Trans-Purus region is critical to maintaining the forest carbon stock to prevent further global warming. Carbon stocks in this area are huge, due to both the region’s vast extent and the high biomass of each hectare of undisturbed forest. Carbon in the trees and in the soil below would be released into the atmosphere if this forest is lost, either through deliberate deforestation or through forest fires induced by the fragility of the forest brought on by logging and the presence of sources of ignition to maintain neighboring pastures and to prepare recently deforested land for planting. Projected climate change also makes fires more likely. The Amazon is one of the places in the world that is expected to be most strongly impacted by global warming. The emissions that would result from a Trans-Purus forest loss scenario would make the Amazon an even greater source of greenhouse gas emissions and their impacts.
Also, the Trans-Purus region is key to maintaining the rainfall regime in the western Amazon itself, in other parts of Brazil and in neighboring countries like Argentina. The city of São Paulo, the largest in the country, depends on this region for the precipitation and the water that the population drinks. Even with the Trans-Purus region still intact, in dry years São Paulo has already been forced to resort to the “dead volume” of its reservoirs, with only a few days of margin before the water runs out completely. The rainy season in São Paulo, when the reservoirs fill, coincides with the maximum transport of water vapor by the “flying rivers” — the moisture-laden winds that pass from east to west over the Trans-Purus region, make a curve because they cannot pass over the Andes, and head toward São Paulo. These winds supply 70% of the rain in the São Paulo region during its rainy season from December to February.
Much of Brazil’s hydropower also depends on this water. The continuation of this great ecosystem service depends on keeping the Trans-Purus forest standing because the trees there recycle vast amounts of moisture, returning about half of the water that falls as rain to the atmosphere, and thus supplying the flying rivers.
Finally, the impact of opening the Trans-Purus region to deforestation would have serious impacts on the traditional populations that inhabit the area. Traditional riverside dwellers (ribeirinhos) and “extractivists” (collectors of Brazil nuts and other non-timber forest products) are often expelled with the arrival of large land grabbers and ranchers, as has been happening on other deforestation frontiers. Indigenous peoples would be severely impacted.
The threat of the Tapauá access road
An illegal access road (ramal) is currently being built to connect Tapauá, on the Purus River, with the BR-319 highway. This road threatens not only the two Indigenous Lands and a national park that are located between Tapauá and the BR-319, but it would also provide a gateway to the Trans-Purus region.
The illegal access road has so far been built from Tapauá towards the BR-319, almost exactly following the route of the planned AM-366 highway (Figures 2-4). The access road threatens the Apurinã do Igarapé São Jõao and Apurinã do Igarapé Tauamirim Indigenous Lands, in addition to the Nascentes do Lago Jari National Park. According to Indigenous leader Waldemiro Farias da Silva Apurinã, the access road is being built by local ranchers with the encouragement of the Tapauá prefecture, using machinery from the prefecture. We have heard several reports in Tapauá about an agreement made with farmers along the BR-319 for them to build an access road in the opposite direction to meet the illegal road that is being built from Tapauá. The threat is immediate.
Indigenous leader Waldemiro Apurinã confirmed on August 20, 2020 that the access road is advancing rapidly and that invaders are deforesting in the Apurinã do Igarapé São João Indigenous Land, as shown by his photos (Figures 5-7). The chief reported that the invaders are not Indigenous and that the Apurinã are very afraid to go to these areas because the cutting of trees is massive even inside the Indigenous Land, putting all villages at risk. According to the leader, the Indigenous people are being threatened.
On August 25, 2020, the Indigenous leader filed a letter of complaint with the Federal Public Ministry and asked for the letter to be disclosed to the public (Figure 8). The Federal Public Ministry is the public prosecutors’ office created by Brazil’s 1988 constitution to defend the rights of the people.
Figure 8. English translation of the letter of complaint to the Federal Public Ministry by Chief Waldemiro Apurinã.
The threat of the AM-366 highway
The proposed AM-366 highway and associated roads would provide access from the BR-319 (Manaus-Porto Velho) highway to the huge block of forest in the Trans-Purus region. AM-366 would cross the Purus River at Tapauá and connect the BR-319 to Tefé, Coari and Juruá (Figure 9).
AM-366 would pass through the Nascentes do Lago Jari National Park and the Apurinã Igarapé Tauamirim and Apurinã Igarapé São João Indigenous Lands, to reach Tapauá from the BR-319, a federal highway that was abandoned in 1988, but which has been undergoing “maintenance” since 2016, pending approval of a federal Environmental Impact Study (EIA) before being “reconstructed”. The decree creating the national park contains a clause that excludes a strip of land bisecting the park specifically to allow the passage of AM-366.
Once opened, AM-366 will provide access to an intact forest, and most of the events that follow will be outside of the government’s control. The announcement of plans for “governance” along roads does not change this picture, as shown by the history of other highways such as the BR-364 (Cuiabá-Porto Velho) and BR-163 (Santarém-Cuiabá).
In the case of the BR-319, events are already going in the opposite direction from the planned governance, as shown by the appearance of an illegal access road in February 2020 branching off of the BR-319 and entering a protected area (the Lago do Grande Capanã Extractive Reserve).
In the case of AM-366, large land grabbers (grileiros), individual squatters (posseiros), organized landless farmers (sem-terras), and loggers are among the actors expected to take advantage of the opportunity offered by road access to unclaimed land.
The large area of “undesignated land” (terras devolutas) in this area makes it especially attractive to land grabbers, and this danger is increased by a succession of “land-grabbers’ laws,” the third of which is currently advancing in Brazil’s House of Deputies. The possibility of the arrival of biofuel companies represents another risk. There are also international groups with an interest in the area, such as Malaysian oil palm plantation companies that tried to buy areas in the area of Tefé in 2008, and Malaysian and Chinese logging companies that tried to buy areas along the Purus River in 1997.
The threat of the BR-230 highway
An old plan from Brazil’s 1964-1985 military dictatorship for an extension of the BR-230 highway from Lábrea to Brazil’s border with Peru still exists. This road appears as planned on the maps of the National Department of Transport Infrastructure (DNIT) (Figure 10). The road continues to appear in publications (e.g., Figure 11), although it does not appear in Brazil’s multiannual plans. However, this type of infrastructure construction project can suddenly surge forth without warning, even in cases where the existence of plans is denied by authorities, as has happened several times in the region’s recent history. A current example is the emergence of the plan for a large dam on the Trombetas River as part of the Barão do Rio Branco Project announced by the Bolsonaro government.
The threat of gas and oil
Another threat to the Trans-Purus region is the massive “Solimões Sedimentary Basin” oil and gas project, which provides for a network of wells spread over a vast area covering approximately one third of the State of Amazonas (Figure 12). Even though road construction is not part of the announced plan (see here, here, here and here), for economic reasons, oil companies may pressure the government to increase land access in this area. Roads for this purpose would probably branch off the planned AM-366 highway, thus connecting the well area to BR-319 and to the existing gas terminal in Coari (see here, here and here).
Brazil’s existing environmental licensing system is being rapidly dismantled through administrative changes and the acceleration of approvals for laws and constitutional amendments that would remove any impediments to the BR-319 and other highways, including legal impediments posed by Indigenous lands (see here and here).
These access routes would facilitate the opening of the vast forest block in the western part of the state of Amazonas. The area to be opened by the AM-366 and associated roads is extremely vulnerable, since most of it is public land (undesignated land, or “terras devolutas”) that is most attractive for invasion by landless farmers (sem-terras) and land grabbers (grileiros).
To conclude: this Trans-Purus block of intact forest is what currently secures the environmental wellbeing of the country, since this is the area on which the Amazon’s and Brazil’s ecosystem services are most dependent. These services include maintaining biodiversity, the carbon storage that prevents escalating global warming, and the water cycling that provides rain not only for the Amazon, but also for São Paulo and other parts of the Southeast, South and Center-West regions of Brazil.
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