The long road to ruin for the Amazon forest

$350m plan to pave 600 miles of Brazilian track 
exacerbates the conflict between settlers and 

Alex Bellos in Novo Progresso, Brazil
Sunday April 15, 2007
The Observer

Taking a bus along the BR-163 is an adventure 
sport. When it is dry, the ride is an 
exhilarating slalom between gigantic potholes. 
When it is wet, the bus gets stuck in the mud and 
the passengers are expected to pull it out by 

The 1,100-mile road is the main north-south 
artery of the Amazon rainforest. It is also the 
most controversial road in Brazil, built in the 
1970s to open up the jungle to colonisation - 
forgetting, of course, that many indigenous 
Indians lived there already. It has become a 
frontier of deforestation. Now President Luiz 
Inacio Lula da Silva has announced that one of 
the major projects of his second term, at a cost 
of $350m, will be to pave the 600 miles of the 
road that is still a dirt track.

Roads bring human activity, which has always 
meant a plundering of natural resources. Yet Lula 
believes he can develop the region without 
increasing destruction. The stakes are high, 
since the area of influence of the BR-163 is a 
quarter of the Brazilian Amazon. 'The problem in 
the past is that the government has not had 
presence in the area,' says Muriel Saragossi, the 
government's co-ordinator for the Amazon region. 
'We now have an integrated vision.' The 
'Sustainable BR-163 Plan' involves 20 ministries 
and is Brazil's most ambitious attempt ever to 
reconcile growth and conservation.

The road stretches from Cuiaba, near the Bolivian 
border, to Santarem on the banks of the Amazon. 
On the first 450-mile paved section the 
rainforest has been transformed into rolling 
fields as far as the eye can see. The main crop 
is soya. Soya - half of it exported to the EU - 
is the economic force behind the road project. If 
the BR-163 is paved to Santarem, with its deep 
water port, farmers could export soya along it. 
'This will cut the road journey to the market by 
600 miles as well as a similar distance by sea,' 
says farmer Nelson Piccoli in Sorriso. Piccoli, 
like other farmers, resents the suggestion that 
soya is responsible for razing the Amazon: 'We 
did not destroy this region. We transformed this 
region from native vegetation to agricultural 
production. What you are seeing here is how we 
are supporting humanity. You cannot survive 
without eating food.'

As I travelled along the BR-163 I was surprised 
by how much the environmental message seemed to 
have got through to the timber industry. In 
Sinop, a lumber town, a building was emblazoned 
with the words Green Party. Paulo Fiuza, the 
local Green leader, is a former logger. 'Just 
because you work in the timber industry it 
doesn't mean you can't be an environmentalist,' 
he says. If they carry on destroying the way they 
have been, he said, they will destroy the land 
that has brought them wealth.

For almost two-thirds of its length the BR-163, 
however, is a track. Even though the road is 
barely passable for several months of the year, 
settlers came here in their tens of thousands. 
Here much less of the rainforest is destroyed - 
but the social problems are much worse. It is not 
just because buses get stuck in mud; it is that 
the region is lawless. 'We are completely 
abandoned here,' says small farmer Irineu 
Matthes, in Castelo dos Sonhos, a town of about 
6,000. 'The government is not present at all. 
Here we are at the hands of fate.' A week after I 
left, two local people were assassinated.

Most murders are over land. The government 
encouraged settlers, but only gave a small 
minority title. Those who were the most violent 
kept the largest plots. The largest town on the 
unpaved section is Novo Progresso (pop. 40,000). 
The cattle herd here has boomed from 50,000 a 
decade ago to a million.

'No one put a sign at the beginning of the BR-163 
when we came here saying that it was forbidden to 
destroy the rainforest,' argues Rancher Jose dos 
Santos. 'Why do we have to pay such a high price 
because the rest of Brazil - and certainly 
England - has already destroyed its forests? We 
just want a little space where we can live and 
work with diginity.'

For the lorry drivers of the BR-163, the paving 
will make their lives easier, but at a high cost. 
'You used to see tapirs, capybaras - even jaguars 
- by the side of the road. Now you hardly see 
anything,' says lorry driver Gustavo Hering. 
'When the paving comes, you'll be able to get 
everything out - and you will finish off the 
forest completely.

 Alex Bellos's film on the BR-163 will be 
broadcast tomorrow on Newsnight, BBC2, 10.30pm