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Illegal deforestation intensifies along Brazilian highway as agribusiness hopes swell

Image courtesy of Fernanda Meirelles, Idesam/ Observatório BR-319.

Image courtesy of Fernanda Meirelles, Idesam/ Observatório BR-319.

  • Highway BR-319 runs some 885 km (550 mi) from Rondonia’s capital of Porto Velho to Manaus, the Amazon’s largest city.
  • Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro has pledged to pave the portion of BR-319 that runs through the southern part of the state of Amazonas to ease the transportation of timber — and, eventually, soy — out of the remote, densely forested region.
  • Environmentalists and researchers say this has encouraged outsiders to illegally invade and deforest large areas of intact forest.
  • Satellite data and imagery shows deforestation has increased along the southern portion of the road in 2021, including in and near protected areas.

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil — In a far-flung slice of the Brazilian Amazon, a potholed highway cuts hundreds of miles through the heart of the rainforest. In its most rudimentary stretch, it is flanked on both sides by lush forests. But the emerald canopy surrounding the road is disappearing, giving way to cattle pastures at a dizzying speed.

The surge in forest destruction — nearly all of it illegal — has mostly been clustered within a handful of municipalities in the southern tip of Brazil’s Amazonas state, near its border with neighboring Rondonia and Mato Grosso, where agriculture is fast replacing forest.

This part of Amazonas, some 700 kilometers (434 miles) from the state capital of Manaus, has long been shielded from invasion by its remote location. But there are signs that this may be changing, as land speculators increasingly encroach deeper into the forest.

“The municipalities in southern Amazonas — the frontier of the deforestation — are feeling a huge pressure,” said Mariana Napolitano, WWF Brazil’s head of science. In a cycle that is well-known across the Amazon, the forest is giving way to “illegal logging, followed by clearing and burning for pasture, and eventually, the arrival of monoculture,” she said.

This area of Brazil is home to a multitude of species, including silky anteaters (Cyclopes didactylus). Image by Quinten Questel via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

The four municipalities leading deforestation in the region — Lábrea, Humaitá, Canutama and Tapauá — together recorded nearly 330,577 tree cover loss alerts so far this year, according to satellite data from the University of Maryland visualized on Global Forest Watch, amounting to a 14% increase over the same period in 2020. This mirrors a broader attack on Brazil’s Amazon: deforestation surged 51% in 11 months, with 838,100 hectares of land cleared since last August, according to data from independent monitoring NGO Imazon.

In southern Amazonas, activists blame the forest destruction on the region’s key highway, known as the BR-319. The road runs some 885 km (550 mi) from Rondonia’s capital of Porto Velho to Manaus, the Amazon’s largest city. The highway was built in the 1970s during Brazil’s military dictatorship, but fell into disrepair a decade later. Parts of it, like the stretch in southern Amazonas, were never paved.

Now, outsiders descending on the area are betting on promises by President Jair Bolsonaro to finally pave this part of the BR-319, bringing prosperity and development to this corner of the state. The hope, local sources say, is that the road’s paving will make it easier to transport timber — and, eventually, soy — out of the remote, densely forested region.

But environmentalists have sounded the alarm, warning the surge in invasions is threatening the dozens of protected areas that lay scattered around the highway — and the traditional and Indigenous communities that rely on the forest for their survival.

The highway cuts through some 13 municipalities that are home to 41 conservation units and 69 Indigenous reserves. The area also encompasses territories that are still awaiting demarcation, as well as places that are home to uncontacted Indigenous people living in voluntary isolation from the outside world.

Map of BR-319, associated deforestation and surrounding protected areas. Image courtesy of Idesam/ Observatório BR-319.

The invasions are also signaling the advance of the so-called “arc of deforestation,” a crescent-shaped strip running along the southern and eastern edges of the Brazilian Amazon where agribusiness has eaten up vast swaths of rainforest.

“What is happening in this region is a tragedy that was foretold,” said Virgilio Viana, superintendent at Fundação Amazonas Sustentável (FAS) and a former environmental secretary for the state. “It’s not a surprise. We’ve been warning about it for years…And as soon as the BR-319 is paved, the invasions will explode.”

Road to destruction

Plans to pave this stretch of the BR-319 are not new, yet they have been stymied for years by a complex licensing process meant to evaluate the road’s impact on the rich biodiversity that surrounds it and the communities that call the region home.

Ibama, Brazil’s main environmental enforcement agency, and Funai, the federal body tasked with protecting Indigenous interests, are both currently reviewing the potential impacts of paving this part of the road. But environmentalists have warned that it will make the area more accessible to invaders, leading to more illicit encroachment on the forest.

“Today, the extraction of timber is relatively difficult because the road is really bad,” Viana said. “So it’s a barrier. The improvement of the road will make it economically viable to extract timber on a larger scale, in areas where today it is still not possible.”

This portion of BR-319 may soon be paved. Image courtesy of Fernanda Meirelles, Idesam/ Observatório BR-319.

Still, even though the project has not yet been approved, Bolsonaro already signed a contract with a construction firm last year for the paving of 52 kilometers of the BR-319. Earlier this year, he announced that construction work would kick off in 2022.

This has had a profound impact, fueling a mad scramble by land-grabbers eager to illegally lay claim to slices of forest, according to Fernanda Meirelles, the executive secretary of the BR-319 Observatory, a coalition of Brazilian and international NGOs that monitors deforestation along the highway’s trajectory. Research shows deforestation around BR-319 increased 25% in 2020 and that paving the road will ultimately result in some 170,000 square kilometers (65,600 square miles) of forest loss by 2050.

Already, there are signs that protected areas nearby are feeling the impact. Invasions have been recorded in at least half a dozen conservation units that are under federal or state protection, including Canutama Extractive Reserve, Balata-Tufari National Forest and Tapauá State Forest.

Satellite data from the University of Maryland show a proliferation of deforestation along the southern portion of BR-319 so far in 2021.
Satellite imagery from Planet Labs shows clearings expanding in and around Tapauá State Forest.

“By just announcing the project, it already creates this climate and fires up occupation of the region,” Meirelles said. “Some protected areas are already being invaded, and we are observing a huge amount of land speculation.”

The BR-319 is also central to the region’s bigger ambitions of becoming a transport hub for soy and beef, most of it headed to China and Europe. Humaita recently inaugurated a massive cold storage meat facility and is now building a “Soy Road” branching off from the BR-319. The road will connect to a new high-tech bulk port in Humaita, making it easier to ship soy out of the region.

“The BR-319 doesn’t come alone,” Meirelles said. “And all of these offshoot projects show the vision for the development of the region. It’s soy and cattle.”

Appearance of legality

All this has bolstered hopes among land-grabbers that access to this remote part of Amazonas will soon open up, making the land they are claiming more valuable. Sources say most are rushing to declare slices of forest as theirs through the national system of rural land registration, known as Sistema de Cadastro Ambiental Rural (CAR).

“The registration is being used as an instrument for land-grabbing,” Viana said. “Through CAR, we start this process of legalizing the illegal occupation of public lands. And it’s all for the purpose of land speculation.”

CAR declarations are supposed to be verified by state authorities, but the process is slow and haphazard, according to Paulo Moutinho, senior scientist at the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM). While verification drags on, land-grabbers can use the registration to secure financing from banks, enabling them to fund the clearing of large swaths of forest.

“The land-grabber says this area is his, clears it, puts cattle on it, and waits for someone to buy it — or for the government to legalize his claim” by changing federal regulations, Moutinho said.

Bolsonaro, a popular figure in Brazil’s agricultural belt, has promised to legalize land claims in protected parks and allow logging, wildcat mining and farming on Indigenous reserves. Brazilian lawmakers are currently mulling several bills that could weaken land protections and make land-grabbing easier.

The president’s friendly signals have had a marked effect, environmentalists claim, fueling a surge in invasions of public lands like federal parks, state conservation units and undesignated forests not yet under official protection.

About half of deforestation in Brazil now takes place on public lands, with much of it within undesignated public forests, according to Moutinho. Some 20 million hectares of public lands are fraudulently claimed through CAR, he estimated.

Satellite imagery from Planet Labs and Sentinel 2 show recent enlargement of clearings near protected areas along BR-319.

Amazonas, home to more undesignated forests than anywhere else in Brazil, has provided fertile ground for land-grabbers. Outsiders have falsely laid claim to more than 8,500 hectares — or 15% — of undesignated public forests in Amazonas, according to a report by Imazon published earlier this year. Advocates say many of the fraudulent land claims have been clustered in the southern, densely-forested part of the state.

“This region is one of the newest frontiers of deforestation driven by land-grabbing,” Moutinho said. “And the enforcement is too weak to stop it.”

Weakened enforcement

Illegal deforestation across the Amazon has become far less risky under Bolsonaro’s watch, environmentalists claim. The president has slashed funding for enforcement agencies like Ibama and ICMBio, making it easier for illegal activities to flourish unpunished.

“The perception is that the risk of being punished through an environmental crackdown is low,” Viana said. “And at the same time, the narrative of the federal government is one of protection for the land-grabber and the logger and the miner.”

State resources have dwindled too. In 2019, the federal government paralyzed Fundo Amazônia, which used to finance state actions aimed at combating illegal deforestation. Notably, the fund — largely made up of donations from Norway and Germany — supported the enforcement of CAR and the verification of new land registrations.

As it has scaled back consistent environmental enforcement across the Amazon, the federal government has swapped in short-term, flashy crackdowns in targeted areas. In April, it ended a high-profile military operation in the Amazon, nearly two years after deploying troops to control deforestation — with questionable results.

Southern Amazonas has also been the focus of a handful of federal operations. At the urging of public prosecutors, federal police launched Operation Constantino earlier this year, targeting an illicit logging organization in the area that invaded more than 9,000 hectares of public land and deforested about 4,000 hectares.

A paved portion of BR-319. Image courtesy of Fernanda Meirelles, Idesam/ Observatório BR-319.

The state of Amazonas, meanwhile, launched a new two-year plan for deforestation prevention last year, which it says will prioritize municipalities in the south. In April, the state also kicked off “Operation Tamoiotatá,” cracking down on illegal deforestation in Humaitá and Canutama. Authorities seized truckloads of illegal timber and embargoed thousands of hectares as part of the operation.

But environmentalists say enforcement — both by state and federal agents — has not been tough enough to deter land-grabbers. Despite the operations, critics say few fines are applied and even fewer are enforced. The number of fines paid for environmental crimes in the Amazon has dropped by 93% since Bolsonaro took office.

Federal agents have also been discouraged from burning equipment seized during raids on illegal loggers and miners, which Viana says has been detrimental to enforcement. The result is that many invaders return shortly after intervention operations, certain they won’t be punished if caught again.

“There needs to be a higher cost for illegality,” Viana said. “Without that, the machines are just put back to work, clearing the forest.”


Banner image courtesy of Fernanda Meirelles, Idesam/ Observatório BR-319. 

Editor’s note: This story was powered by Places to Watch, a Global Forest Watch (GFW) initiative designed to quickly identify concerning forest loss around the world and catalyze further investigation of these areas. Places to Watch draws on a combination of near-real-time satellite data, automated algorithms and field intelligence to identify new areas on a monthly basis. In partnership with Mongabay, GFW is supporting data-driven journalism by providing data and maps generated by Places to Watch. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the stories reported using this data.

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