- Paving work has begun on a stretch of highway running through one of the remotest and best-preserved parts of the Brazilian Amazon — even as questions about the project’s permits abound.
- BR-319 was built in the 1970s to connect the Amazonian cities of Manaus and Porto Velho, but a 405-kilometer (250-mile) “Middle Stretch” fell into disrepair, making the road virtually impassable and killing the flow of traffic.
- Conservation experts have long warned against repaving the Middle Stretch, warning that improved access to this carbon-rich region will lead to a surge in deforestation, burning and land grabbing.
- With the repaving underway, this is already happening, raising concerns about unchecked forest loss that would have massive ramifications for the global climate.
Repaving of a stretch of highway in the middle of the Brazilian Amazon is now underway, less than two months after President Jair Bolsonaro declared his support for the project.
Scientists have long warned that the project would exacerbate the climate crisis by threatening “the last great block of intact forest in the Brazilian Amazon.”
But that hasn’t fazed the Bolsonaro administration, which initiated “maintenance and conservation services” for the BR-319 highway at the end of 2019. On July 28 this year, IBAMA, the federal environmental protection agency, issued a preliminary license to repave a 405-kilometer (250-mile) section of BR-319, officially called Lot C but more commonly known as the Middle Stretch.
Although this license alone isn’t sufficient for roadworks to begin, Bolsonaro was quick to show his support, tweeting that “Brazilians have gotten used to cars and trucks getting stuck on BR-319, which connects Porto Velho to Manaus. Those times, fortunately, are coming to an end.”
However, experts say the outcome, as far as the environment is concerned, will be anything but fortunate. In a commentary published in Mongabay in 2020, leading Amazon expert Philip M. Fearnside warned that “Brazil’s planned reconstruction of the BR-319 Highway, paralleling the Purus and Madeira rivers, would give deforesters access to about half of what remains of the country’s Amazon forest, and so is perhaps the most consequential conservation issue for Brazil today.”
In a study published in March this year, Fearnside painted an even starker picture of the consequences of paving the Middle Stretch and opening up this part of the Amazon to the deforestation, burning and land grabbing that would inevitably follow: “Highway BR-319 will be a social, economic, and ecological disaster.” He wrote that the destruction of the Amazon that’s already underway “has been worsened by Brazil’s environmental agencies and legislation having been largely gutted during the presidential administration of Jair Bolsonaro.”
BR-319 was inaugurated in the early 1970s, under Brazil’s military dictatorship, cutting an 870-km (540-mi) corridor through the best-preserved part of the Amazon and connecting the cities of Manaus, capital of Amazonas state, and Porto Velho, capital of Rondônia.
Its entire length was paved and maintained by the military government, allowing a travel time of about 12 hours. But maintenance was abandoned in 1984, in the leadup to democracy the following year. Long stretches of asphalt fell into disrepair, turning the dirt path into virtually impassable bog during the rainy season. With some luck, a strong four-wheel-drive vehicle, and extra supplies of fuel (there are no gas stations in the Middle Stretch), the same journey took five days or more.
Such was the state of the highway for the past more than three decades that it kept most people out of this part of the Amazon — at the same time minimizing any ecological disruptions.
Then came Bolsonaro and his revival of the maintenance program, which has since ushered in the very deforesters, arsonists and land grabbers that conservationists have long warned would take advantage of the improved access to this once-remote region.
Local deforestation with global impacts
Fearnside’s latest study notes that this part of the Amazon “holds an enormous stock of carbon that, if released over a short period of years, would be critical in pushing the global climate system past a tipping point where a ‘runaway greenhouse’ would accelerate outside of human control.”
“The potential global impacts of allowing the western, central, and northern Amazon to be opened for destruction are of sufficient magnitude that those in other parts of the world must consider both their roles in the destructive processes in progress in Brazil and the potential influence that they have on events in the country,” he added.
That hasn’t stopped the repaving project from going ahead. As of mid-September, the first asphalt paving machines were spotted operating along the Middle Stretch near the village of Careiro Castanho.
The work is being paid for by the federal government through a 165 million reais ($31 million) contract awarded to the Tecon/Ardo/RC consortium for a 51-km (32-mi) segment of the Middle Stretch.
Authorization for the work to commence would have had to come from IBAMA, at the federal level, and IPAAM, the Amazonas environmental protection agency, at the state level.
IPAAM on Sept. 1 issued an operating license allowing the consortium to operate the asphalt paving machines. In September last year, the agency had been summoned before a state court for questioning over the lack of environmental impact studies for use of that equipment.
When Mongabay asked about whether the environmental impact study required for issuing the license had already been carried out, IPAAM’s press office said this fell under IBAMA’s responsibility.
IBAMA, however, has to date only issued the preliminary license, which it emphasized doesn’t allow for physical roadworks to begin.
“IBAMA clarifies that the preliminary license issued attests to the viability of the development for the project planning stage and does not yet authorize carrying out any roadwork in the section under licensing,” the federal agency said in a written response issued Sept. 15 to Mongabay. “It is important to note that the developer must present studies that aim to mitigate all expected environmental impacts.”
Asked about a possible conflict in having issued an operational permit despite IBAMA having only approved a preliminary license, IPAAM responded in a statement to Mongabay: “The Operation License was issued on September 1st of the current year, with the objective of releasing support activities in section C [Middle Stretch] of the highway, in this sense, the release does not conflict with IBAMA’s schedule, which is in the preliminary license phase.”
Another government agency that should have regulatory oversight of the project is the National Department of Transportation Infrastructure (DNIT). Responding to Mongabay’s questions about the paving schedule for BR-319’s Middle Stretch, the federal department issued a written statement on Sept. 15 saying that any work underway was simply “earthworks” and not the actual paving: “After the publication of the operating license for the construction site, the DNIT teams started the earthworks services of the paving and reconstruction works of the 32-mile segment in Lot C of BR-319, also called Charlie Lot, which goes from KM 198 to KM 250. The teams take advantage of the dry season in the region to proceed with the services earthworks.”
Sure enough, much of the Middle Stretch has rapidly become a large gravel road. The few dirt stretches that remain are layered over daily with gravel by maintenance teams. The five-day-plus journey in a 4×4 between Manaus and Porto Velho has now been slashed to 16 hours in a regular car.
Freight that used to go by ferry on the Madeira River or by plane is now frequently trucked along BR-319 between the two Amazonian capitals.
Investors, farmers and land grabbers, who had abandoned the idea of gaining access to this remote region, have already started their work on the edges of the highway. The exploitation of the forest is growing apace with the repaving project.
In some small villages along the Middle Stretch that have grown rapidly since Bolsonaro revived the highway maintenance program, there’s plenty of goodwill for the incumbent as he seeks reelection.
A roadside billboard in Realidade, a district of Humaitá municipality in Amazonas state, makes the connection plain: “BR-319 and Realidade district support Bolsonaro 2022.”
A common sight on the road are the trucks completely emblazoned in Bolsonaro campaign imagery.
“The machinery work has increased a lot recently. We have never seen an effort like this before,” says Luis Carlos Moreira da Silva, a truck driver who has plied BR-319 for the past four years and says he will vote for Bolsonaro in the Oct. 2 election.
‘Cutting and burning’
The renewed focus on the road, especially in the wake of Bolsonaro’s tweet at the end of July, has drawn new investors as well as shadier operators to the region. With their arrival, the pace of deforestation has increased to alarming levels.
“Less than a month ago, I left Rondônia state to buy 50,000 acres [20,200 hectares] by BR-319 for a bargain,” says a squatter standing in the middle of the highway. As he speaks to Mongabay, he’s holding a bottle of gasoline in one hand and a lighter in the other.
“Now I am cutting and burning the forest to create pasture. Maybe next year, with Bolsonaro’s reelection and the paved road, I can sell it for 50 times the price I paid,” he says.
He asks not to be identified, and says he’s already made about 10 million reais ($1.9 million) in similar land speculation deals in Amazonas state.
“I started this business four years ago, after being released from prison. At that time, I had nothing, now I’m a millionaire,” he says, adding he served 12 years in prison for robbery.
A few weeks earlier, Mongabay witnessed him burning and using a chainsaw to clear about 20 hectares (50 acres) of what he says is his land.
Two days earlier, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) detected 3,300 fire hotspots in the Brazilian Amazon, the worst figure in 15 years.
Like this man, many other poor Brazilians are arriving on BR-319 with the dream of enriching themselves and having their own piece of land.
About 50 km (31 mi) from Careiro Castanho, the closest village to the Middle Stretch, Nivaldo Pedro dos Anjos, 44, lives in a treehouse. “I’ve been living here for the past seven months. My dream is big, and I will succeed,” he says, but doesn’t elaborate.
Nivaldo’s treehouse sits 5 meters (16 feet) above the ground and about 50 m (165 feet) from the road. It’s made of branches lashed to four trees, with a removable plastic roof and no walls. It looks like it can barely fit a single person; to get in, Nivaldo has to clamber up a tree trunk.
His neighbor, Wendrisson, has lived here for the past two years with his family, and is trying to sell plots of land. “We like to live here. Besides raising pigs and hunting animals for our own consumption, we try to sell some pieces of land,” Wendrisson says.
At KM 222 (all distances along BR-319 are measured from the Manaus end of the highway), in the municipality of Borba, Herliane Gonçalves lives in a wooden house by the side of the road with her husband and three children: two boys, 16 and 6, and a girl, 12. The family settled there a year earlier after leaving the municipality of Ji-Paraná in Rondônia to try to set up a small farm on an 8.5-hectare (21-acre) plot they’d bought for 35,000 reais ($6,500).
For now, the only part of the property where they’ve cleared the vegetation is the house’s immediate surroundings. They’re still doing a geographic survey of the entire plot to register a land claim with INCRA, the federal land institute. “Our project is to establish pasture. So far, we have only raised a few pigs and a few chickens,” Herliane says.
The family’s income for now comes from a small grocery store they built in front of their house. It also serves as a tire repair shop and Wi-Fi connection spot, and is the only business within a 19-km (12-mi) radius. Their customers are the few travelers passing by, mostly truck drivers.
The Gonçalves children don’t go to school. “The nearest school is 40 miles [64 km] away from here,” Herliane says. “There’s no way to get there on this dirt road.” At the time Mongabay spoke with her, it was late August, and there was no sign of the roadworks starting.
Less than a month later, on Sept. 15, Herliane snapped a photo of the paving machines laying down asphalt on the dirt track in front of her house. She celebrated, she says. “With faith in God, we will have asphalt to take the children to school.”
A popular policy
Closer toward the Rondônia end of the road, a few miles outside the southern Amazonas municipality of Humaitá, lies the end of the paved section and the start of the Middle Stretch. There’s a stark dividing line here between wilderness and civilization. But perhaps the most eye-grabbing sight is a large, strategically positioned billboard near the junction where BR-319 meets BR-230, the Trans-Amazonian highway.
In the middle of this treeless, arid plain, cattle gather together to lie down in the shade of the billboard that’s emblazoned with a gigantic photo of Bolsonaro. He’s pictured next to the Brazilian flag, and the tag reads: “We support Bolsonaro — We believe in God and value family.”
Not too far from here is the entrance to Maderon Madeiras, a busy lumberyard located along the last part of the paved road. This is the destination of many of the trucks plying this route, which rumble in fully loaded with tree trunks cut from the ever-expanding patches of deforested land along BR-319.
By the company gate, the Brazilian flag also flies. Bolsonaro carried this region in the 2018 election, and he remains popular today — an affirmation of people’s support for his controversial plans here.
Satellite images of the region around BR-319 still show vast areas of dense forest and little in the way of human settlements. But on the ground, things are changing fast. The roar of chainsaws has become common, as have the sight of trucks laden with tree trunks, encounters with hunters carrying animal carcasses, and long drives through miles of scorched forest along the once abandoned road.
Banner image of illegally set fires burning in the forest near the unpaved Middle Stretch of the BR-319 highway. Image by Caio Guatelli.
Fearnside, P. M. (2022). Amazon environmental services: Why Brazil’s highway BR-319 is so damaging. Ambio, 51(6), 1367-1370. doi:10.1007/s13280-022-01718-y