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BRAZIL: Amazon Ghost Highway to Be Brought Back to Life

Mario Osava* - Tierramérica

RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 4 2008 (IPS) - BR-319, a road blazed 35 years ago through the heart of the Amazon jungle and now impassable due to neglect, has sparked a new battle between environmentalists and the Brazilian authorities, who have decided to rebuild it.

Manaos, an Amazon city on the controversial BR-319 highway.  Credit: Wikipedia

Manaos, an Amazon city on the controversial BR-319 highway. Credit: Wikipedia

The officials defend the economic integration of the central Amazon and south-central Brazil, saying it will bring benefits for the local population. But environmentalists say reparations of the road will lead to further deforestation and new waves of migration towards the northern city of Manaos, which is already plagued by serious urban problems and increasing conflicts over the surrounding land.

The controversy has been fuelled by a proposal to replace the highway with a railroad, for which an economic viability study has already been conducted, and which would mean much less deforestation, according to Virgilio Viana, who set forth the alternative as secretary of the environment and sustainable development in the northwestern state of Amazonas, a post he left Mar. 3 to head the Sustainable Amazon Foundation.

The 885-km road links Porto Velho, capital of Rondônia state on the border with Bolivia, with Manaos, the capital of Amazonas, the Brazilian state with the most vast stretches of intact jungle.

The rebuilding and paving of the road should be complete by 2011, says the Ministry of Transport, whose chief, Alfredo Nascimento, was mayor of Manaos from 1997 to 2004. The estimated cost is 700 million reals (about 400 million dollars).

The railway, in contrast, would cost three times more, but would avoid emissions of the gases responsible for climate change by reducing deforestation, which would allow Brazil to obtain abundant credits on the international carbon market, Viana told Tierramérica.

The deforestation predicted to result from the rebuilt highway would reach 168,000 square km by 2050, an area comparable to the size of neighbouring Uruguay, according to a study by a Brazilian team led by Britaldo Soares of the Federal University of Minas Gerais.

Furthermore, a railroad would mean much less fuel consumed in the transport of goods, which would further reduce greenhouse gas emissions, said Mariano Cenamo, executive secretary of the Manaos Institute of Conservation and Sustainable Development. Trains have been ignored in Brazil for decades, but they should serve as the axis for Amazonian exports and for South American integration, he argued.

But the rail alternative “will not materialise,” Rondônia’s Governor Ivo Cassol stated in a phone interview with Tierramérica. It is a good mode of transport, but not for this case, where the aim is to improve the living standards of the local population and allow small farmers’ crops to reach the Manaos market, he said.

The strongest opposition to rebuilding BR-319 is coming from the water transport companies, which don’t want competition in a region crisscrossed by many large rivers. But the rivers are for large shipments like soybeans for export. “That doesn’t work for bananas, lettuce and other produce,” because it takes nine days to reach Manaos, said Cassol.

Rondônia, a state that depends on farming and stockbreeding, has to expand its access to markets and industrialise its raw materials, said the governor. “The 10,000 units of leather produced daily could generate 70,000 jobs in the shoe industry,” he said to illustrate his point.

The population of Rondônia has grown considerably since the 1970s, absorbing the recent arrivals from the south in agricultural projects promoted by the Brazilian government. The impact on the environment has been dramatic: today it is one of the most deforested Amazon states. It is home to 1.5 million people, with 370,000 living in the capital.

Manaos, a city of 1.7 million people, many of whom have been drawn by its industrial free zone, represents a big market, especially for vegetables, few of which are produced nearby. Meanwhile, its industrial sector is interested in a new transport option for getting its products to the country’s central-western region.

Cassol played down the environmental damages potentially caused by a rebuilt highway. “It will be easier to preserve the jungle,” he said, because the road would allow better access and lower the costs of monitoring and enforcing protections.

Furthermore, it is not about building a new highway, but rather re-establishing conditions that existed in the 1970s. “I shipped banana from Rondônia to Manaos with my truck starting in 1977. I left at 6:00am and arrived at around 5:00pm,” recalls the governor.

What is needed is to “establish the rules of the game” to prevent damage to the environment, said Cassol, himself a migrant from southern Brazil who is now involved in agribusiness and owns small hydroelectric dams.

Furthermore, he said, “the United States, Europe and international bodies should not only make their speeches in defence of preserving the Amazon, but should also contribute resources to compensating landowners who preserve their forests, as is done in Costa Rica.”

But environmentalists predict a repeat of the deforestation that has been caused by other highways in the eastern Amazon. The devastation would expand because new lateral roads would be built along the principal route, as branches grow from a tree trunk, argue environmental groups and researchers.

“We question the idea of repairing the road” without considering alternative means of transport in the Amazon, including multi-mode forms, activist Mario Menezes, assistant director of Friends of the Earth – Brazilian Amazon, told Tierramérica.

The government is paving another highway, BR-163, to the east of BR-319, uniting the central-west region with the port of Santarém, which is reached from Manaos by the Amazon River itself, notes Menezes. The route also links Manaos to the country’s south-central region without further threats to the forest.

However, “the connection between Manaos and Porto Velho is inevitable,” given the decision of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva to include BR-319 in his Accelerated Growth Programme as a priority project for national infrastructure, which is why the railroad should be defended as a viable and more environmentally friendly alternative, said Cenamo.

Work on recuperating the old highway has already begun on the stretches that remained passable, near Manaos as well as Porto Velho. But the nearly 600 km in need of repair in the midsection requires authorisation from the Brazilian Environmental Institute, following environmental impact studies. The debate will continue.

(*Originally published by Latin American newspapers that are part of the Tierramérica network. Tierramérica is a specialised news service produced by IPS with the backing of the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Environment Programme.)

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