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Planned road to bisect pristine, biodiverse Brazilian Amazon national park

  • The BR-364 highway stretches for 4,325 kilometers across Brazil, ending in Acre state. Now authorities, backed by Acre’s state government and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, want to extend it with a 152-kilometer branch road through Serra do Divisor National Park, near demarcated Indigenous reserves, and to the Peru border.
  • Meanwhile, the Brazilian Congress is moving a bill forward to fast track the branch road’s approval by degrading the conservation status of the national park and reclassifying it as an APA, an Área de Proteção Ambiental, which would allow timber harvesting, ranching, agriculture and mining.
  • Environmentalists and Indigenous communities warn that the planned road and the reduction in protections for Serra do Divisor National Park would open up the conservation unit and a pristine portion of the Brazilian Amazon, providing access to loggers, cattle ranchers and landgrabbers.
  • Though the road is still not approved, local sources say as much as 30 kilometers of forest along the route have already been cleared to the park’s border. “With each day, each year that passes, the deforestation advances further. The destruction of humans is relentless… And for us, it’s really difficult to witness,” said one Indigenous leader.
Even though the new BR-364 branch highway has not been officially approved, local observers say forest clearing is already underway in this remote part of the Brazilian Amazon. Image courtesy of Miguel Scarcello, SOS Amazônia.

On the western edge of the Brazilian Amazon, a makeshift dirt road slices through dense rainforest. Along some stretches, the green canopy flanking the roughly-carved road gives way to open sky, felled trees and piles of neatly cut timber. It halts abruptly at the doorstep of Serra do Divisor National Park in Acre state, beyond which untouched forest sprawls over thousands of hectares to the Peruvian border.

The stretch of improvised road, which local sources estimate at roughly 20-30 kilometers in length, was carved out in recent months and appears to mark a first step in the construction of a proposed national highway project. When — or if — completed, it will stretch from Cruzeiro do Sul, in the Brazilian state of Acre, to the city of Pucallpa, in the Peruvian Andes.

The branch road — not yet officially approved by authorities — would extend the already lengthy BR-364, a highway that winds some 4,325 kilometers (2,687 miles) across Brazil, starting in São Paulo and currently ending in Acre. The new branch road would run another 152 kilometers (94 miles), cutting through Serra do Divisor, a national park federally protected since 1989 and known for its spectacular biodiversity.

A waterfall in Serra do Divisor National Park, Acre, Brazil. Image courtesy of ICMBio/Divulgação.

The protected area spans some 846,633 hectares (2.09 million acres), and boasts thousands of plant and animal varieties, including threatened species like the White-uakari (Cacajao calvus calvus), a small New World monkey, and the Yellow-spotted river turtle (Podocnemis unifilis). Some, like the Acre antshrike bird (Thamnophilus divisorius) are relatively new to science (discovered in 1996); it is thought to be endemic only to Brazil’s Serra do Divisor and the adjacent Sierra del Divisor National Park in Peru.

Serra do Divisor was nominated as a tentative UNESCO Natural World Heritage site in 1998. A month-long Rapid Ecological Assessment there located 43 big mammal species, more than 100 amphibian and 30 reptile species, and 485 bird species. Of these, 17 mammals, 4 reptiles and 20 birds were considered threatened or rare species. Since being conserved more than three decades ago, all economic activity has been barred within Serra do Divisor’s boundaries.

“It’s a huge protected region in a very unique area,” said Evandro José Linhares Ferreira, a researcher with the National Institute of Amazônian Research (INPA), who has studied the region’s biodiversity. “It’s something really special.”

A male Acre antshrike (Thamnophilus divisorius) endemic to Brazil’s Serra do Divisor National Park and to a neighboring park in Peru. Image by Hector Bottai CC BY-SA 4.0.

Supporters of the new road tout it as a crucial commercial link, promising it will boost Brazil’s trade with its Andean neighbor and allow Brazil to more easily export products to Asia via Peru and the Pacific Ocean. But critics warn its construction will deal a devastating blow to the national park and the Indigenous people who call this untrammeled area home.

A key concern: The new highway will open up access to this remote portion of the Amazon rainforest as never before, potentially paving the way for a flood of loggers, cattle ranchers and landgrabbers into a mostly untouched region.

Even as officials advance the road’s planning and approval process, Brazil’s Congress is mulling a parallel proposal aimed at cutting regulatory red tape and hastening construction by weakening current environmental protections, thereby opening up a new frontier for deforestation in the Amazon.

“It would set a very dangerous precedent, and we will likely see an explosion of deforestation in an area that is really rich in biodiversity,” warned Márcio Santilli, a founding partner of ISA, the Instituto Socioambiental, an NGO that defends environmental diversity and the rights of Indigenous people.

Rainforest cleared in preparation for the new branch road. The project is supported by Acre Governor Gladson Cameli, Acre Senator Marcio Bittar, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro. Image courtesy of Miguel Scarcello, SOS Amazônia.

Opening a gateway to Amazon deforestation

The proposed highway project comes as Acre faces an intensifying wave of forest destruction, with loggers, ranchers and landgrabbers clearing ever larger swaths of forest in recent years. Much of that destruction, activists say, has been clustered along the existing BR-364.

Until recently, many of Acre’s untouched forests were sheltered by their remoteness, being far from Brazil’s so-called Arc of Deforestation — a crescent-shaped strip running along the southern and eastern edges of the Brazilian Amazon where agribusiness is displacing forest at a breakneck pace. In contrast some 85% of Acre’s forests remain intact.

However, invasions of Acre’s rainforest picked up pace this year, as deforestation across the Brazilian Amazon as a whole hit a 12-year high. Fires in Acre also jumped by 17% from the same time last year, rising to their highest level in a decade, according to data from INPE, Brazil’s space agency, which monitors deforestation in the country. (Most fires occurring in the Brazilian Amazon are not natural, but are set by people and often used as a deforestation tool.)

A map showing the route of the proposed branch highway. Image courtesy of USAID.

To date, Serra do Divisor’s fully protected status has prevented most illegal encroachment. While some parts of Acre have seen as much as 70% of their forests cleared in recent years, the park is still largely intact, according to Sonaira Souza da Silva, a researcher and professor at the Federal University of Acre in Cruzeiro do Sul.

“We’ve seen that the deforestation, the cattle ranching around the park, is getting much more intense,” Silva said. “The park has so far been really well protected. But we worry this protection could unravel now.”

Indigenous people in the path of the BR-364 branch highway are particularly at risk. The road would pass by four demarcated territories, potentially opening those reserves up to invasions.

Serra do Divisor National Park is also home to uncontacted Indigenous groups — people who live in voluntary isolation from the outside world and are especially vulnerable to common diseases brought in by outsiders, a major concern as COVID-19 continues to ravage Brazil, which has already seen more than 174,000 deaths.

Benki Pianko, an Indigenous leader from the Ashaninka de Marechal Thaumaturgo group, believes that the branch road project is bound to intensify challenges that the region’s Indigenous communities already face.

“With each day, each year that passes, the deforestation advances further,” said Pianko, whose community is located on the Brazil-Peru border. “The destruction of humans is relentless… And for us, it’s really difficult to witness this happening.”

Heavy equipment is already carrying out significant forest clearing, even though the new branch road has yet to be formally approved. Image courtesy of Miguel Scarcello, SOS Amazônia.

Weakening protections

The decree that created Serra do Divisor National Park (and other conservation areas like it) allow for the building of roads within park boundaries, but require lengthy in depth  studies gauging the potential impact. In a bid to fast track the bureaucratic process, Brazilian lawmakers are currently pushing to drastically reduce the fully protected status of Serra do Divisor — an effort that environmentalists say may pose an even greater threat to the region’s forests than the road itself.

The proposed regulatory change moving through Congress would remove rigid restrictions now in place that keep invaders out, and would turn the national park into an environmental protection zone permitting economic activity — known as an Área de Proteção Ambiental (APA). While this designation is legally meant to ensure sustainable use of resources, analysts say that in practice, APAs open the door to  invasions and often wind up among Brazil’s most deforested areas.

“In reality, nearly everything is permitted in APAs,” said Ferreira, who heads INPA’s Acre hub from Rio Branco, the state capital. “It allows people to go within this area and they are free to log, mine, clear forest for pastures.”

Supporters argue that turning the park into an APA will ease the way for the highway, while allowing for needed economic progress via resource extraction within the park. Mara Rocha, a congresswoman from Acre who is pushing draft bill N. 6.024/2019 forward, has railed against the national park’s strict protections, claiming they have “only served the [socio-environmental] NGOs and foreigners who take advantage of our riches.”

Environmental advocates now worry that — if Congress approves the change — loggers will rapidly descend on Serra do Divisor in a scramble to cut its long protected wealth of tree varieties.

“If you change the status of the park, there won’t be any protection anymore,” said Miguel Scarcello, executive director of SOS Amazônia, an environmental nonprofit that has formed a working group to analyze the road’s potential impacts. The Conservation Unit designation change is “a threat that’s even more grave than the road itself,” he said.

The threatened Yellow spotted river turtle (Podocnemis unifilis). Image found at http://opencage.info CC BY-SA 2.5.

Though the branch road has yet to be approved, initial clearing has already happened along part of the planned route, stopping just short of the park, according to Scarcello. In response, SOS Amazônia submitted a complaint about the clearing  to Brazil’s public prosecutor in mid-November, but Scarcello says the NGO has yet to receive a response.

State authorities, meanwhile, say preliminary studies have already been conducted by the National Department of Transport Infrastructure (Dnit), which will be responsible for building the highway. A project blueprint for the road extension is set to be released this month and some R $45 million (US $8.6 million) has already been earmarked for construction.

“We want to know how the government plans to create this road and ensure that the impact is as limited as possible,” Scarcello said. “But so far, we have had no engagement.”

Neatly stacked logs along a cleared section of the yet to be approved BR-364 branch road.

A political project

The  push for a road through Serra do Divisor is not new; over the last two decades, local lawmakers have revisited the idea time and time again . But under a prior leftist state government , whose policies often fostered forest preservation and sustainable development, the road project languished for years, failing to gain political traction.

But a recent political shift in Acre gave the plan new life. The same conservative wave that ushered in President Jair Bolsonaro in autumn 2018 also ousted Acre’s left-leaning leaders, giving rise to a new crop of lawmakers calling for the opening of the Amazon in the name of economic development. Among them was Acre Governor Gladson Cameli, whose family’s logging business in the past was required to pay damages to an Indigenous group for illegally extracting timber from its territory.

Acre Senator Marcio Bittar, a staunch Bolsonaro ally, has been the driving force behind the new road. He has promised that the highway will usher in a new economic era for the state by creating a faster route to Peru, easing the flow of goods to Brazil’s Andean neighbor. His supporters have embraced his proposal, in hopes the road will open the region’s parklands to lucrative extraction industries.

Importantly, the proposed branch road has garnered the support of President Bolsonaro, who has railed against Brazil’s environmental protections and called for an opening up of the Amazon rainforest to loggers, ranchers and miners. In September, the president declared that he will “guarantee” construction of the project, even though Peru has made no commitment to building a road on the far side of the border.

Despite the traction it’s gaining within government, critics expect little economic benefit to result from the road, pointing to sparse trade along the Trans-oceanic Highway, an existing, longer route linking Brazil and Peru. For decades, the two countries have also been hatching plans to build a 5,600-kilometer (3,500 mile) Transcontinental Railway (EF-354) connecting the Atlantic Ocean on the Brazilian coast to the Pacific Ocean in Peru, although construction has yet to begin.

“These [Acre state] figures are politically strong at the moment, together with the Bolsonaro government,” said ISA’s Santilli. “And, even if the [new] road doesn’t achieve anything in terms of trade, its construction is a success for them locally, with their base.“

Banner image: A White-uakari (Cacajao calvus calvus), a small New World monkey, found in Serra do Divisor National Park. Image by Giovanni Mari found at flickr.

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