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The Human-Modified Landscapes (HML) and the Brazilian highway network

The Rio Negro Bridge, built between 2007 and 2012 at a cost of approximately US$350 million, is one of the longest bridges in South America. Photo: Carlos Grillo /

  • Mongabay has begun publishing a new edition of the book, “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon,” in short installments and in three languages: Spanish, English and Portuguese.
  • Author Timothy J. Killeen is an academic and expert who, since the 1980s, has studied the rainforests of Brazil and Bolivia, where he lived for more than 35 years.
  • Chronicling the efforts of nine Amazonian countries to curb deforestation, this edition provides an overview of the topics most relevant to the conservation of the region’s biodiversity, ecosystem services and Indigenous cultures, as well as a description of the conventional and sustainable development models that are vying for space within the regional economy.
  • Click the “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” link atop this page to see chapters 1-13 as they are published during 2023.

The Southern Amazon has experienced massive deforestation, coupled with the degradation of soil and water resources. The forest frontiers at the remote corners of the Brazilian highway system have remained isolated and impoverished, but the agricultural frontiers and consolidated landscapes of Maranhão, Mato Grosso, Pará, Rondônia and Tocantins are relatively prosperous. Their rural economies generate approximately US$ 125 billion annually, representing about five per cent of the Brazilian economy. That economic output is dependent upon the national and regional highway network and has created a strong constituency for highway development.

The oldest of the trunk highways in the Pan Amazon is the Rodovia Transbrasiliana (BR-010 / BR-153), which was initiated in the 1960s simultaneously with the establishment of the new federal capital at Brasilia. This north-south transportation corridor transects the upland landscapes between the Araguaía and Tocantins rivers and was the first permanent terrestrial link between Belem and southern Brazil. Its construction facilitated the expansion of the beef cattle industry from Minas Gerais into Goiás and Tocantins and was linked to northeastern Brazil by a pair of east-west highways (BR-222 and BR-226) that fostered the mass migration of rural poor into eastern Pará.

The steady improvement of these highways and their associated secondary and tertiary road networks coincided with the development of the hydropower facilities at Tucuruí on the Tocantins River, the mining complex at Carajás and the metallurgical foundries in Marabá and São Luis do Maranhão.

Aerial photo of thick rainforest and the plowed fields of crops.
The stark contrast between swaths of thick rainforest and the plowed fields of crops in the Matopiba area, the border region between the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia. Image © Marizilda Cruppe/Greenpeace.

Simultaneously, the federal government created SUDAM, an institution that managed a system of subsidies designed to promote agricultural development and the monetisation of the region’s mineral resources. These policies succeeded in creating wealth and the transformation of the regional landscape. By 2020, the Carajás-São Luis-Belem corridor had less than eighteen per cent remnant forest cover, the lowest proportional amount in the Pan Amazon. The landscape located south of Belem retained a greater forest area but is also home to the country’s expanding palm oil industry and a numerous colonisation projects, where smallholder families pursue a combination of subsistence and market agriculture.

In the 1980s and 1990s, another north-south highway corridor (BR-155/BR-158) was constructed ~300 km to the west on the other side of the Araguaía River, which eventually connected the municipalities of Northeast Mato Grosso with their counterparts in Southeast Pará. Deforestation has declined significantly since 2010 but remains relatively active on the frontier landscapes adjacent to the Indigenous territories along the Río Xingu. The cultivation of soy and maize are displacing cattle ranching in Mato Grosso but still predominate in Pará.

Settlers moved into the landscapes of Central Pará following the construction of the PA-279, a regional highway that links Xinguara on BR-155 to São Felix do Xingu, once a small village on the river established during the rubber boom of the late nineteenth century. The landscapes west of the Rio Xingu are crisscrossed by unpaved roads that service a large area (occupied by large to medium-scale landholdings that have been incorporated into a multiple-use protected area (Área de Proteção Ambiental [APA] Triunfo do Xingu).

Most of these properties, established during the land rush of the 1980s, have been characterized by slow but steady deforestation. The municipality of São Felix do Xingu has consistently ranked among the five Brazilian municipalities with the highest annual rate of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon.

One of the most economically dynamic regions in the Brazilian Amazon is synonymous with another highway project: The Cuiabá – Santarem Corridor. The social and economic forces that transformed the highway corridors east of the Rio Xingu are being replicated along BR-163, which links the prosperous farming landscapes of central Mato Grosso with the grain terminals and ports on the Tapajós and Amazon rivers. This highway was established in the 1970s during the Programa de Integração Nacional (PIN), but the northern sector soon fell into a state of disrepair. For approximately 25 years, it was a typical frontier landscape dominated by logging companies that could organise their operations by transporting timber during the dry season when the road was passable.

Migrants from southern Brazil settled the southern sector, which was rapidly integrated into the national economy. Industrialised farmers occupied the landscapes with flat topography and well-drained soils ideal for the cultivation of soy. Cattle ranchers occupied less fertile land in the hill country of central, Mato Grosso and along the border with Pará. The agricultural frontier expanded across Mato Gross via a gradually expanding network of state highways. Land was deeded to corporations that resold it to families organised into cooperatives or developed industrial-scale operations dedicated to farming or beef production.

This is the heartland of Mato Grosso’s agro-industrial complex, and it enjoys a well-maintained and extensive network of state and local highways; these support industrial infrastructure built by the private sector, including grain silos, crushing mills and animal production facilities. The secondary and tertiary road network has increased the value of rural real estate, while fostering the diversification of the rural economy. Not surprisingly, its inhabitants represent a powerful vested interest that lobbies for the improvement of road infrastructure within their states, but also for the federal highway system, which they view as essential for the growth of their production system. Like all investors, they seek to grow their economic system; as patriots, they view their production systems as a public good and a strategic national asset.

The Cuiabá–Santarem corridor (BR-163) is a strategically important export corridor for grains cultivated in central Mato Grosso. It was upgraded from a poorly maintained road to a modern highway. Image by PAC collection at

The transfer of public lands to the private sector also transferred about fifty million hectares of land that once contained more than 33 million hectares of forest, of which about half has been converted to agricultural production with the remainder distributed across tens of thousands of isolated forest fragments. Continuous forest is restricted largely to Indigenous territories arranged as two north-south corridors: one along the Río Xingu and the other along the border with Rondônia. The last bit of public forest in the state is located in the northwest corner of the state where logging companies and land speculators are active along an unimproved road (MT-206/RO-205) between the INCRA settlement of Colniza (Mato Grosso) and the city of Arequimes (Rondônia).

In the early 2000s, the federal government created an export corridor for the rapidly expanding soy industry of central Mato Grosso by improving the roadbed and bridges of the northern section of BR-163. The highway project, which would connect the croplands of central Mato Grosso with the grain terminals at Santarem, provoked an intense reaction from environmental advocates at a time when the country was experiencing a vigorous debate about the wisdom of Amazonian development. The government responded by organising an ambitious environmental and social review, which led to the creation of several new protected areas and the recognition of Indigenous land claims.

However, land speculators had already moved into the region and created secondary roads penetrating landscapes on both sides of the highway, including one that facilitated access to the gold rush frontier in the upper reaches of the Crepori watershed. Unlike the regional highways in Mato Grosso, these secondary roads do not appear on official maps, indicating that they were established without the participation of state planning agencies and appropriate environmental review.

In 2016, the administration of Michel Temer attempted to change the status of about half a million hectares in the Jamanxim National Forest, a measure that would have granted de facto amnesty to the illegal appropriation of public lands. This led to a backlash from civil society organisations and the environmental prosecutor’s office, who questioned the constitutionality of the executive order that authorised the modification of a protected area. The government was forced to withdraw the measure in 2017 by a ruling from the Supreme Court, but neither the Bolsonaro administration nor the state authorities interceded to combat illegal land grabbing on the landscapes surrounding BR-163.

Deforested area in Rondônia for gold mining activities, in 2021. Image by Fabio Nascimento.

In spite of R$ 1.5 billion expended on highway improvements between 2005 and 2015, a hundred-kilometer stretch of BR-163 remained impassable during the peak rainy season. Poor road conditions caused massive traffic jams among the 3,000 trucks using BR-163 during the soy harvest. This untenable situation was exacerbated by road blockades organized by settlers seeking legal recognition for their landholdings. In 2018, the federal government allocated an additional R$ 175 million in emergency funding to the Brazilian Army, which finished the paving in 2019. From start to finish, it took twenty years to pave an 800-kilometer stretch of highway considered to be a vitally important strategic asset by the agro-industrial sector.

Commodity traders have responded to the improved road by building five grain terminals at Miritituba (Pará) on the east bank of the Tapajós River at what is essentially its highest navigable port. In 2020, the Departamento Nacional de Infraestrutura de Transportes (DNIT) initiated a tender process for a concession to administer BR-163 between Sinop (Mato Grosso) and Mirituba. The contract envisions an investment of an additional US$ 600 million in highway improvements that will be financed by tolls levied on the approximately 6,000 trucks that are projected to use the highway.

The most infamous highway in the Brazilian Amazon is Rodovia BR-364, which was constructed in Rondônia in the 1970s as part of a state-sponsored resettlement project supported by the World Bank. The project triggered a wave of deforestation that was documented by newly available satellite imagery. An independent review revealed that the environmental damage was compounded by social impacts that threatened Indigenous communities and destined most settlers to a life of rural poverty. The resultant controversy catalyzed the first serious debate about the conservation of the Amazon and the social impacts of conventional development paradigms.

In spite of the rough start, tens of thousands of smallholders eventually mastered the technological challenges of agricultural production in the Amazon. Although Rondônia is widely portrayed as a case study for misguided development policies, it also provides an example of a successful rural economy based on small family farms. Key to that success was the creation of an extensive secondary road network that has been improved over several decades. The combination of a dense road grid and small property sizes led to the evolution of a rural landscape with an extremely low proportion of remnant forest. In central Rondônia, fifteen adjacent municipalities retain less than twenty per cent of their original forest cover and thirty have less than fifty per cent, which is the approximate minimum amount allowed under the Forest Code of 2012.

A temporal comparison of deforestation associated with BR-364 in Rondônia (Left) and BR-230 in Pará (Right). Both landscapes were open to colonization at approximately the same time, but BR-364 was paved, its producers were closer to urban markets, and they enjoyed greater extension support and better government services. When BR-230 is eventually fully paved, the forest remnants will most likely be reduced or lost, as they have been in Rondônia.

The other major highways carved out of the forest in the 1970s and 1980s are even more problematic. These include the eastern section of the Rodovia Transamazônica (BR-230), which starts at Marabá (Pará) on the Tocantins River and extends west for approximately 1,000 kilometers to Miritituba on the Tapajós River. From there, the western section continues for an additional 1,000 kilometers through southern Amazonas state to the town of Humaitá on the Rio Madeira. This trunk road was originally intended to integrate the three previously described transportation corridors (BR-155/158, BR-163, BR-364), but it was never paved, and its rapid deterioration soon left its settlers isolated and struggling to make a living.

Land use on the landscapes surrounding the Transamazônica in both Pará and Amazonas states is much less intensive when compared to BR-364 in Rondônia, even though all were colonized at approximately the same time and largely dedicated to beef cattle production. The difference, however, is likely to be transitory. Successive state governments have all made commitments to upgrade the highway, which is now paved between Miritituba and Rurópolis, where it overlaps with BR-163, and for another 350 kilometers between Altamira and Marabá. Ongoing paving of the Transamazônica is included within the IIRSA portfolio of priority investments; once the entire road is paved, the landscapes adjacent to the Transamazônica will almost certainly come to resemble the smallholder landscapes of Rondônia.

Other regions with a trunk highway but relatively low levels of deforestation include BR-174 between Manaus and Boa Vista, where the presence of the Waimiri Atoari Indigenous community has acted as an effective barrier to land grabbers. The landscapes north of those Indigenous territories in Roraima have been parceled out to private landowners but have not transitioned into an agricultural frontier due, presumably, to their inherent isolation. Roraima has large extensions of natural savanna, which could transition into an agricultural frontier if political leaders succeed in their quest to replicate the agro-industrial development model exemplified by Mato Grosso. An important component of their business model is the advantages conferred by the 750-kilometre paved highway (BR-174) between Boa Vista and the port of Manaus, which reduces the transportation cost of exporting soybeans and other grains.

The historical deforestation rate in Acre has been relatively low, particularly along the western section of BR-364 between Rio Branco and Cruzeiro do Sul. This 700-kilometer stretch of highway is currently unpaved for about 450 kilometers, but its completion has been a political priority for every state government for the last thirty years. During most of that period, successive administrations have promoted the sustainable use of forest resources, as exemplified by the agro-extractive reserves that both the state colonisation institution (INCRA) and the national protected area system (ICMBio) have sponsored.

The road between Manaus and Porto Velho (BR-319) is the most remote national highway in the Brazilian Amazon. It was first paved in the 1970s, but soon became impassable. It has been reconstructed over approximately two-thirds of its length, and is scheduled to be completely upgraded by 2025. Image by PAC Collection on

Nonetheless, extensive landholdings have been distributed to small and medium-sized producers dedicated to cattle ranching, which contributes almost eight times more to Acre’s GDP than the forest sector. Eventually, BR-364 will be paved in its entirety, and this will lead to increased deforestation along its margins and on the secondary roads that radiate out from a half-dozen small towns.

Even more problematic is the proposal to extend the BR-364 to the Peruvian border, one of two proposals recently incorporated into the IIRSA portfolio. On the Brazilian side, this includes the ongoing effort to complete paving between Rio Branco and Cruzeiro de Sul, a project that was recently included within the subgroup entitled Improving Access to the Ucayali Waterway, revealing the intention to link the Brazilian highway system with Peru via BR-364. Even more explicit was the designation a ‘terrestrial connection’ between Cruzeiro do Sul (Acre) and Pucallpa (Ucayali, Peru). The use of the term ‘terrestrial’ is purposefully indistinct, because it can refer to a either a highway or a railroad, which has been proposed by advocates of a transconintiental railroad (see below). The construction of the road had the support of former president Jair Bolsonaro and the governor of Acre, as well as that of civic leaders in the Peruvian city of Pucallpa.

Acre figures prominently in another high-profile IIRSA initiative, referred to by media outlets as the Corridor Interoceanico, a flagship proposal that includes highway improvements in Brazil, Bolivia, and Peru. Efforts to manage the environmental and social impacts of those investments led to the organisation of the MAP initiative, a novel planning process that coordinated actions among sub-national jurisdictions. Initiated in the early 2000s, it was at first viewed as a strategic environmental planning process that could identify a pathway to a sustainable forest economy. Efforts to transform the regional economy have had limited success, however, and the MAP region suffers from moderate to high levels of deforestation, a change that is particularly notable in Madre de Dios (Peru) and Pando (Bolivia), which were relatively isolated until the completion of these IIRSA-sponsored highway corridors.

One of the most controversial highway projects in the Brazilian Amazon is the ongoing programme to pave BR-319, the federal highway that links Manaus (Amazonas) with Porto Velho (Rondônia). This 1,000-kilometer corridor has the lowest level of deforestation of all of the trunk highways created in the 1970s. Unlike most of the other trunk highways of the epoch, however, it was completely paved in the original construction contract. The work was poorly done however, and the roadbed rapidly fell into a state of disrepair. Two stretches have been ‘reconstructed’ and paved over the last decade: 200 kilometres on the northern sector near Manaus and 165 kilometers near Humaitá. The southern sector is at risk of being the next deforestation hotspot, because of the confluence of three trunk highways (BR-319, BR-230, and BR-364), which will attract settlers and land speculators, particularly from Rondônia, where land is no longer easily accessible.

Landholders universally support improvements to secondary roads, particularly bridges, because they are essential for moving their production to market. Image by Dirk M. de Boer/

Over the last decade, the ‘reconstruction’ of BR-319 has been promoted by a regional civic organization, as well as by elected officials and functionaries in the regional government. Proponents of repaving the road contend that the manufacturing sector in Manaus is handicapped by the logistically complex transportation services required to ship consumer goods to southern Brazil. The least costly alternative is the ocean-going route, but it involves the use of trucks, docks and warehouses at both ends of the supply chain. The highway option, though twenty per cent more expensive, would reduce transport time by at least fifty per cent and, perhaps more importantly, provide door-to-door service between the manufacturer and the wholesale distributor.

The planned improvements to BR-319 will require the approval of the federal environmental protection agency (IBAMA), which initiated an environmental impact analysis (EIA) in 2017 and published in June 2020. Among its findings was the predictable forecast that an improved road would increase deforestation along the highway corridor, but the study also identified the road’s potential to catalyze societal demand for additional highway development, including pre-existing roads (AM-174, AM-254, AM-354, AM-364) and those planned for the future (AM-360, AM-366, BR-174), as well as illegal roads built by private actors. Particularly problematic would be the construction of AM-366, which would impact at least two Indigenous territories and, potentially, open up wilderness sections of the western Amazon to settlement and oil exploration.

Not mentioned within the EIA is the long-term impact from the mega-fragmentation of the forests of the Central Amazon. Even a limited amount of deforestation along the highway corridor would create a barrier to wildlife that would isolate approximately 200,000 square kilometers of intact forest located between BR-319 and BR-230. Former president Bolsonaro has advocated ‘repaving’ BR-319, and unless judicial action derails the project, its completion seems increasingly likely.

Another controversial highway project the Bolsonaro administration was considering is the extension of BR-163 across the Amazon River to the border with Suriname. The proposed route has been shown on maps since the 1970s but was not one of the projects in the first wave of highway development. The ambitious proposal would require a three-kilometer span over the main channel of the Amazon River at Óbidos (Pará) and more than fifty kilometers of viaduct to cross the floodplain. This would be a completely new highway and open an enormous area to development.

The highway has been rebuilt across about two thirds of its length and is scheduled to be completely upgraded by 2025, pending approval of an ongoing environmental review financed from the President’s office via the Programa de Parcerias de Investimentos. Image: PAC Colletion /

The proposal would be fiercely opposed by environmental activists and Indigenous groups because it would disrupt a conservation strategy assembled over three decades of planning and coordination. Nonetheless, the highway conforms to a long-held Calha Norte strategy espoused by the national security community, based on the objective of ‘occupying’ the country’s northern border. The concept originated with the military government of the 1970s, but some variant of it has been embraced by all of the democratically elected governments of Brazil, including the Cardoso administration in the 1990s, which included the Arco Norte development pole as part of its Eixos Nacionais de Integração e Desenvolvimento (ENID).

One motivation for building the highway is to create momentum to change the status of the RENCA mineral reserve, a globally significant deposit of copper and other industrial minerals. The proposed northern leg of BR-163 would connect with PA-254, the regional highway that provides access to the settlement zones located between Óbidos and Prainha (Pará). This would almost certainly increase land values and could facilitate the pursuit of industrial agriculture on the arable soils on the upland landscapes located between the Amazon River and the hill country of the Guiana Shield between. Although it is largely unimproved, the regional road network of northern Pará is already linked to a similarly rustic network of roads in western Amapá.

The improvement of these existing roads would create an uninterrupted highway from Óbidos (Pará) to Macapá (Amapá) and the coastal provinces of French Guiana, Suriname, and Guyana. Although this chain of events might seem unlikely, history demonstrates that existing roads attract settlers who lobby for improvements from local and regional governments that can lead to their eventual development into a transportation corridor.

“A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” is a book by Timothy Killeen and contains the author’s viewpoints and analysis. The second edition was published by The White Horse in 2021, under the terms of a Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0 license). See this excerpt in Spanish here and in Portuguese here.

Read the other excerpted portions of chapter 2 here:

Chapter 2. Infrastructure defines the future

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