The long road to ruin for the Amazon forest
$350m plan to pave 600 miles of Brazilian track exacerbates the
conflict between settlers and environmentalists
Alex Bellos in Novo Progresso, Brazil
Sunday April 15, 2007
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 rope.
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
· Alex Bellos's film on the BR-163 will be broadcast tomorrow on
Newsnight, BBC2, 10.30pm