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DEVELOPMENT-BRAZIL: Activists Opposed to Rebuilding Amazon Highways

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Apr 28 2008 (IPS) - Nearly four decades after they were first planned, three highways through the jungles and swamps of Brazil’s Amazon region are being rebuilt. Neglected in the past when they became economically obsolete, they are once again a focus of environmental criticism.

“BR-319 is being restored in response to demand from Amazonian communities and towns,” according to Aluisio Braga, cabinet chief for the Transport Ministry and a regular advocate of the highway in public debates. “It is the only land route from the free zone in Manaus, which does 30 billion dollars a year in business, and the rest of Brazil,” he told IPS.

But there is opposition to the project. The original road, completed in 1973, faced the problems of hostile natural surroundings and high costs, but there were no environmental objections. Indeed, quite the reverse.

At that time, deforestation was synonymous with development, and there were plenty of incentives, since peopling the Amazon was a national security priority during the 1964-1985 dictatorship.

Today, however, active environmentalist and social movements are keen to prevent mega-projects, especially highways which have the effect of spreading environmental destruction. The perils of climate change also fuel strong international pressure for the conservation of the Amazon rainforest.

The BR-319 passes through 885 kilometres of tropical jungle, between Porto Velho, the capital of Rondonia state, which is on the frontier of clearcut deforestation in the centre-south of the Amazon, and Manaus, the capital of Amazonas, the largest Brazilian state, where only two percent of the territory is deforested.

The rebuilding of the highway is still an uncertain prospect, as it requires authorisation from the environmental authorities after the submission of an environmental impact study. But Braga said the study should be ready in May.

Opposition by the environmentalist lobby is based on fears of deforestation in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon. Such disasters have happened before, in the wake of highways built since the 1950s in the southern and eastern Amazon region.

There is now an alternative proposal on the table: to build a railway instead of reopening the highway.

A railroad would fulfil the same functions as the highway, and would be preferable for the transport of products from the industrial park in Manaus, if it were connected to an integrated rail network to reach the great markets in south-central Brazil, Mariano Cenamo, secretary of the Institute for Conservation and Sustainable Development of Amazonas (IDESAM), told IPS.

In addition, he said, a railway would cause much less environmental damage.

Environment Ministry figures indicate that 75 percent of deforestation in the last 10 years has occurred in strips up to 50 kilometres wide on either side of roads running through the jungle.

“It is absurd” that highways should continue to be approved with little debate, even though Brazilian legislation “requires that environmental impact studies for infrastructure works must in all cases analyse every possible alternative means of transport,” Cenamo said.

People living in the Amazon jungle “have never heard of railways as a viable alternative” for land transport between Manaus and the south of Brazil, he complained.

The railway proposal, for which a preliminary feasibility study has been carried out, has the support of the Secretariat for the Environment and Sustainable Development of the Amazonas state government.

But Braga countered that “the railway adventure” is not economically viable, there are no resources for its construction and operation, and it requires a number of transfers of cargo to other means of transport – disadvantages that discourage potentially interested parties.

A railway would not complement, but “compete with waterways,” a widespread traditional form of transport in the Amazon region, as both are capable of carrying heavy and bulky loads, he said. What has been proved to work in the region, the official argued, is river transport in combination with roads, which offer speed and flexibility for small cargo loads.

Land transport links to south-central Brazil are important for strengthening the free zone and its industrial district, which have led to the heavy concentration of the population and economic activity in Manaus – something that has allowed the state of Amazonas to preserve 98 percent of its rainforest.

Agriculture and livestock breeding is limited in the state of Amazonas, which has 3.2 million people, 1.7 million of whom live in Manaus. In 1970 the population of the state capital was only 312,000, hardly justifying the building of a highway crossing a huge, virtually unpeopled jungle in order to reach Porto Velho, which is eight times smaller.

Highway BR-319 was built “on inappropriate terrain which was unstable and subject to flooding in parts. It cost a fortune, and probably boasts the highest cost per kilometre in the world” to date, Amazonas Senator Jefferson Peres told IPS. The route follows the Madeira river, one of the Amazon river’s large tributaries.

In the absence of maintenance, the middle stretch of approximately 600 kilometres became impassable, due to erosion and encroachment by the forest. Work along this stretch requires an environmental assessment and permit, because so little is left of the original road that the environmental authorities classify it as a new construction.

“It would be better to invest in the waterway, introducing light, modern vessels that are more appropriate for the Madeira, but as the highway exists, it is worth recuperating it,” said the senator, who believes that this is also the majority opinion among residents of Manaus, who feel isolated because they lack an overland route to the south.

Peres also holds the view that a railway would not be viable because of the high cost of building and maintaining it, compared to the “low cargo density,” which would likely mean that it would have to be subsidised.

According to Peres, the Manaus industrial park, which manufactures most of Brazil’s electronic goods and motorcycles, should be regarded as “totally artificial.” It is losing competitiveness and businesses in anticipation of the drying up of the tax incentives which prompted its creation in the 1960s and have been extended until 2023, he said.

In future, a “less artificial” industrial base linked to local biodiversity should be developed in Manaus, including phytotherapeutics (herbal medicines), cosmetics, vegetable oils and foods from raw materials provided by the rainforest, the senator said. Highway BR-319 is the current centre of controversy, following the BR-163 which is also being paved, to transport the abundant soybean crops from west-central Brazil to the port of Santarém, on the Amazon river, for export.

In recent years the Environment Ministry, under pressure from environmentalists, has designed a mosaic of conservation areas all along the highway to reduce deforestation.

The Brazilian government’s Growth Acceleration Programme (PAC) also provides for the recovery of stretches of highway BR-230, known as the Trans-Amazon highway, a 5,000-kilometre project of pharaonic proportions, which the military regime in the 1970s intended to unite the country’s northeastern Atlantic coast to the western border of the Brazilian Amazon.

The road was abandoned before it was half-built, and has not withstood the fragile soil and invasion by the forest in the eastern Amazon region, where the population itself, which has been numerous for decades, is calling for its paving. A large part of its area of influence has already been deforested, so resistance from environmentalists is more muted.

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