Brazil Conflicted over Road-Paving Plan

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O n Oct. 9, 1970, Brazil’s military president Gen. Emílio Garrastazu Medici and a group of his ministers walked into thick Amazon forest near the then-tiny Pará state town of Altamira. Several miles in, they stopped and, as Medici looked on approvingly, workers felled a large tree to mark the start of construction of the country’s Trans-Amazon Highway. A memorial plaque at the site announces that the road was built “to conquer this gigantic green world.”

Less than two years later, on Aug. 27, 1972, Medici inaugurated a 1,550-mile (2,500-km) highway route through the jungle to bring settlers from Brazil’s draught-ridden northeast to the then largely empty Amazon region. Repressing opposition to the project and ignoring ecological concerns, the regime said it wanted “to give men without land a land without men.” Two years later, the government had also built a second highway from central-western Cuiabá northbound to the Amazon river port of Santarém.

The highway offensive failed to solve the problem of Brazil’s landless population. What it did do, however, was spur intense destruction of the world’s largest tropical forest. As of mid-2002, almost 241,200 square miles (603,000 sq. kms), or 16% of the Brazilian Amazon had been deforested, according to satellite data from Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research (INPE). Three quarters of that area had been destroyed since 1978.

Deforestation of the Amazon has many causes—most prominently, land clearing by farmers and ranchers. But road projects generally—and the Trans-Amazon Highway in particular—have acted as a catalyst for that development. That adds up to a difficult balancing act for new Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who is known as Lula.

Specifically, Lula’s administration is mulling how to handle an inherited program to pave 3,872 miles (6,245 kms) of existing Amazon roads, including 564 miles (910 kms) of the Trans-Amazon and 624 miles (1,007 kms) of the Cuiabá-Santarém Highway. Called “Avança Brasil,” or “Forward Brazil,” the three-year-old program is intended to create so-called development axes that will help soybean farmers and other Amazon-region producers to get their goods to market more quickly. Yet critics point out it also could spur more environmentally destructive settlement, ranching, cash-crop agriculture and slash-and-burn subsistence farming.

The issue creates natural tension between so-called developmentalists in the Lula administration who favor infrastructure projects to foster economic growth, and the administration’s environmentalists, who want sustainable-development strategies to be part of all infrastructure planning.

“The discussion between developmentalists and environmentalists has been very emotional so far, and the new government still hasn’t resolved this division,” says Luiz Gonzaga, head of forest-engineering studies at the Federal Rural University of Amazonia in Belém. “It is a great challenge for the government. The environmental impact needs to be assessed carefully; but on the other hand, the region cannot be an isolated sanctuary either.”

Combining road projects with sustainable-development strategies appears to offer a middle ground, but guiding development in the Amazon has not proved easy. A good illustration of the difficulties facing such efforts can be found in Anapú, a town on the Trans-Amazon Highway about 250 miles (400 kms) west of the Pará state capital of Belém.

In many ways, Anapú reflects the pattern of native-forest destruction associated with the Trans-Amazon Highway and subsequent routes through the region. That pattern typically involves the deforestation of 30-mile- (50-km) wide bands on either side of the roadway, says Ane Alencar, a researcher at the Amazon Institute of Environmental Research (Ipam) in Belém.

When the Trans-Amazon Highway was built, Brazil’s land-reform institute, Incra, settled small farmers alongside the road on 250-acre (100-hectare) plots. Due to diseases such as malaria and a lack of infrastructure, fewer than 6,000 families settled along the highway in the early years of the government colonization program. New migratory pressure in the 1980s and 1990s brought the total of families along the road to 30,000, but many of the newcomers lacked documents establishing land ownership.

Timber companies often have exploited the murky ownership status to engage in illegal logging. In some cases, loggers arrive with false land documents, expel settlers and cut such valuable hardwoods as mahogany (Swietenia macrophylla) and Brazil nut (Bertholletia excelsa). They first cut on land close to government-built roads, then open new side roads so they can fell trees deeper in the forest. After the valuable wood has been cut, they typically abandon the property or sell it to ranchers from southern Brazil, who burn the thinned forest to create pastureland.

The process does not always take place peacefully, as the experience of Anapú reflects.

In 1998, a local church group—the Pastoral Land Commission (CPT)—and seven other non-governmental organizations proposed the redistribution of some 358,000 acres (145,000 hectares) that had been allotted to farmers during the 1970s but were later abandoned. The goal of the project was to create an agro-extractive reserve, an area in which 500 families would do subsistence farming and harvest renewable forest products. Another 400 families were to settle on a sustainable-development reserve aimed mainly at harvesting forest products and overseen by Ibama, Brazil’s environmental-enforcement agency.

Both projects initially won the blessing of the federal government. But before they won final approval from then-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, loggers and ranchers advanced into the still largely intact forest, according to the CPT and other sources.

Ranchers with falsified land documents received millions in government subsidies from Sudam, an Amazon development agency. Instead of using the money for farming, the ranchers pocketed most of the funds and gave logging companies illegal licenses to cut hardwoods, and then started burning the remaining lands. From 2000 to 2002, they cleared at least 44,460 acres (18,000 hectares) in Anapú areas that had been earmarked to become reserves, according to the Anapú Rural Workers Union.

After US$13.2 million (38 million reais) were embezzled in 12 different projects along the Trans-Amazon, Cardoso abolished Sudam in 2001 amid an imbroglio that received wide press coverage in Brazil. And last year, Amir Gabriel, then Pará state’s governor, blocked the creation of new reserves in the state, including those in Anapú, fearing they might slow economic development.

Meanwhile, gunmen hired by loggers and ranchers expelled more than 100 families from 1998 to 2002, says Sister Dorothy Stang of the CPT, which is trying to help small farmers while fighting deforestation. Says Stang: “The deforestation frontier is rapidly advancing here, while projects of sustainable forest management are being blocked.”

The CPT has tried to take matters into its own hands by creating incentives for families to work the two tracts of land that had been set aside for reserves, but the effort has met with resistance from armed thugs hired by a leading logger in the area, the CPT and settlers say. “When we were trying to demarcate eight plots of land earlier this year about 15 pistoleros [hired by the logger] said we’d better leave or else,” says a man who, along with his family, was run off property they’d settled under one of the CPT-sponsored projects. The man, who declined to be quoted by name for fear of reprisals, had been on the land for only 20 days when he was ousted.

Others were expelled after working the land for two years, says Gabriel Domingo Nascimento, president of the Rural Workers Union in Anapú. Such farmers often end up in slums springing up around Anapú and other towns. These landless, called “piscateros,” do small service jobs or day-work in the sawmills.

Sawmills now number over two dozen in the Anapú area—up from just four a year ago, according to the CPT. Ibama offers no estimate on how much timber is felled illegally in the region, but the agency says it authorized the cutting of about 158,000 cubic meters (205,400 cubic yards) in Anapú in 2002.

The Rural Workers Union claims mills in the area processed more than twice that amount. Whatever the figure, Ibama is in no position to crack down. Its regional office in Altamira has just two employees and one car to cover Anapú and nine other municipalities—at 120,000 square miles (300,000 sq kms), an area nearly the size of Poland. “Like this, it’s impossible to control the whole region,” says Carlos de Bicelli, head of the office.

The push by loggers and cattle ranchers deeper into the Amazon has speeded up considerably since Brazil’s federal government promised to convert much of the still largely dirt Trans-Amazon and other Amazon roads into paved highways, according to Stang. “If the Trans-Amazon gets paved, the forest destruction will accelerate,” she says.

Paving and deforestation

That claim is supported by a recent study produced jointly by Ipam, the Federal University of Pará and the Woods Hole Research Center in the United States.

The study acknowledged paving the Cuiabá-Santarém Highway would save soybean operations in Mato Grosso state $70 million a year by speeding soy shipments—thus cutting transport costs—to Santarém’s river-port facilities and would reduce timber-transport costs for the 270 sawmills along the route. But the paving, it concluded, would bring more logging and deforestation by encouraging settlement, ranching and slash-and-burn farming. Meanwhile, deforestation would depress rainfall, raising the risk of destructive fires in the region’s forests, the researchers forecast.

Ipam predicts paving as spelled out in the Forward Brazil plan will prompt additional clear-cutting of 48,000 to 108,000 square miles (120,000 to 270,000 sq kms) of Amazon forest within 25 to 35 years and threaten hitherto-isolated indigenous reserves and conservation lands. The estimate is based on a comparative study of past Amazon road-paving projects. That study reported that on a Trans-Amazon Highway segment paved 35 years ago between Brasília and Belém, 47% of the forest within 30 miles (50 kms) of the road has been destroyed.

It still is not exactly clear what stand the Lula administration will take on Amazon road improvements. When Lula took office in January, Brazil had completed 30% of the Trans-Amazon paving spelled out in Forward Brazil, and 40% of the Cuiabá-Santarém paving had been completed. But the program—like many others—has been halted pending reviews by the new government.

Forward Brazil likely to continue

Statements by key officials indicate the remainder of the program will, at least in large part, be carried out. Still at issue, though, is what environmental conditions will be placed on paving projects. Many Amazon-region environmental and social groups favor paving because of the social benefits it would bring, but insist it must be accompanied by comprehensive land-use restrictions to prevent deforestation.

José Ripardo, a coordinator of the Living, Producing and Preserving Foundation in Altamira, argues that establishing sustainable farming in areas that already have been degraded and conserving the forestlands beyond them could block loggers and cattle ranchers from penetrating deeper into the Amazon.

Such efforts might be modeled on initiatives underway in the western Amazon state of Acre. Paving a road that runs from the state capital, Rio Branco, through an indigenous reserve to Cruzeiro do Sul, for example, Acre authorities are negotiating all road building proposals with Indian communities. “We can’t allow irregular and unchecked settlements that are incompatible with the Indians. We’re making a great effort to avoid these impacts,” says Marina Silva, who represented Acre in the Brazilian Senate before being named Lula’s environment minister.

Silva has yet to take a definitive position on Forward Brazil, but she is expected to support paving only when it includes land-use safeguards and public consultation with indigenous and rural groups. Whether her view will prevail is by no means clear, however.

“There is a great deal of pressure on the government from such groups as construction companies and soy farmers [who want better road access to Amazon ports],” says Adriana Ramos, a policy specialist at the Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), one of Brazil’s leading green groups. “Still, we’re optimistic the new government will take environmental and social factors in the Amazon more seriously.”

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