Roads in the Brazilian Amazon are few, but the BR319 is probably the most controversial of them all. The world’s largest tropical forest, where rivers are the main means of transport, is home to ships and light aircraft. Now Jair Bolsonaro’s government has taken a crucial step to complete the paving of the BR319 highway, which crosses one of the best-preserved parts of the jungle from north to south. Environmentalists have warned for years that allowing this road to be used year-round would accelerate the increase in deforestation, with dire environmental consequences. Brazilian Infrastructure Minister Marcelo Sampaio announced in a tweet this Thursday that the environmental license for the controversial highway had been granted. “Historic day!” he celebrated.
Historic day for Nossa Infra!
It was issued to License Prévia (LP) for the reconstruction and paving of the Chamado Trecho do Meio at BR-19/AM. + An important phase of the environmental approval process that guarantees road traffic. #BR319 pic.twitter.com/0TLdixn4R8
– Marcelo Sampaio (@marcelosampaio) July 28, 2022
Hours later, Bolsonaro used his weekly live broadcast on social media to celebrate the move, Reuters reports. The President expressed the wish that “the tendering and paving work for the BR319 will start soon” as he promised in the campaign. The approval means that the government can now put the asphalt works out to tender. The winning company must submit a plan, which in turn requires further approval for operators to begin work.
BR319, which this newspaper completed in 2021 to report on its possible impact on the global climate crisis, connects the cities of Manaus (the great metropolis of the Amazon) and Porto Velho (in the state of Rondônia) for almost 900 kilometers. It is practically a straight line, crossing areas of well-preserved Amazonian vegetation. Only the ends are paved. And south of the road, the soybean crop is spreading rapidly where trees and vegetation used to be, forming the so-called deforestation arc.
Only passable in the dry season
BR319 was built decades ago to incorporate the Amazon into the rest of Brazil, but the effects of weather and lack of maintenance have degraded the BR319. Now the middle stretch (more than 500 km) is a sand track, which is passable only during half of the year, in the dry season, with difficulty and a lot of patience.
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Biologist Philip Fearnside, an American resident of the Amazon for decades who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 as a member of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), is one of the scientists who has studied the effects of this controversial highway most extensively. . The scientist comments on the government decision by e-mail: “The approval of the license is a serious mistake. First, it goes against Brazil’s national interests. The highway, along with existing and planned connecting roads, would expose a vast area of the Amazon rainforest to the pressures of the deforestation arc.” Fearnside adds that this Amazon region is “vital to supplying water to São Paulo, the most populous city in South America, and that the government’s approval “is illegal because none of the tribal peoples involved have been consulted.”
The BR319 decision is also a gesture by Bolsonaro to locals, as there are just over two months to go before the presidential election, in which the extreme right is seeking re-election against Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The left remains the clear favourite. According to the Datafolha poll published this Thursday, he leads the President by 18 points in the first round.
Bolsonaro’s priority for Amazonia, one of the country’s poorest regions, is economic development. The environmental impact of his plans seems secondary to him. Since he came to power nearly four years ago, he has systematically dismantled the environmental policies of previous governments, weakening inspection institutions, putting the military in senior positions, and refusing to expand ecological reserves or tribal lands. All of this has led to the highest levels of deforestation in the past 15 years.
Environmental experts claim that roads are one of the most important tools to drive deforestation because they allow criminals illegally exploiting the Amazon to reach more remote places with vehicles to mine natural riches.
BR319 is one of the few highways created during the dictatorship to develop, structure and integrate the Amazon, covering half of Brazil in an area the size of the European Union. The inhabitants of these remote countries have long demanded that this Amazon road be passable even during the rainy season.
During the election campaign almost four years ago, Bolsonaro promised to fulfill the dream of the dictatorship’s military, who wanted to integrate the Amazon through settlers who exploited these vast lands. They built settlements, cities and roads. The plan for BR319 is to pave this middle section to allow trucks and vans to use the road all year round. It’s a problem with clear practical and symbolic implications, in addition to the environmental implications that experts warn about. Manaus, capital of the state of Amazonas – huge, sparsely populated – is the only one of the 27 Brazilian state capitals that is not connected by land to the rest of the territory.
Therefore, this first approval is a crucial step by the far-right government to fulfill this obligation. According to the infrastructure minister, the approval is the result of “courage and technical work” by the authorities. “By aligning technology and environment, we will bring society out [el Estado de Amazonas] of isolation,” he added in his tweet.
The rate at which deforestation is increasing in the Amazon, climate scientists and environmentalists warn, is dangerous for the region and the planet because tropical forest, which stretches into eight more countries, is now part of the solution to global warming. But as it loses vegetation, it is approaching the point where its climate will no longer be tropical. Instead of absorbing carbon, it will emit it. And it will become part of the problem.