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ENVIRONMENT-BRAZIL: Preserving the Amazon While Paving Jungle Road

Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 19 2006 (IPS) - A decisive factor for the future of Brazil’s Amazon jungle region will be the degree of success of a challenge assumed by the government: to pave a road that connects Brazil’s main soybean-growing region with a river port, while avoiding the massive deforestation caused by earlier projects.

Past experience has shown that roads carved through the jungle not only bring economic development and better living conditions, but also serious environmental and social problems. They carry deep into the jungle the so-called “arc of deforestation” that is advancing from the east and the south of the Amazon jungle.

But for the first time, the asphalt on highway BR163 will be accompanied – as decided by the government in a process that involved a large number of cabinet ministries as well as broad consultations with society – by a set of measures aimed at conservation and sustainable use of the forest.

The experience will serve as a testing-ground for strategies aimed at sustainable development of the Amazon jungle region.

The first “sustainable forestry district” was created in the BR163’s area of influence. The district encompasses 16 million hectares, as well as three other conservation areas covering 2.5 million hectares. The aim is to block the advance of the agricultural frontier and land grabbing that lead to deforestation and deadly conflicts over land.

Five million hectares in the forestry district will be dedicated to sustainable exploitation, in the country’s first experiment in sustainable extraction of timber and other products under the law on management of public forests passed four months ago. The law is designed to replace an economy that destroys the environment with another based on “standing forests”.

Four to six million cubic metres of lumber will be produced in that area, while 100,000 direct jobs will be generated, according to the Environment Ministry, which is heading up the process that involves the ministries of agriculture, industry, foreign trade and others.

The government “did much of its homework” in creating the sustainable forestry district and conservation areas before paving the jungle road, acknowledged Adalberto Veríssimo, a researcher at the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment (IMAZON), a non-profit research institution that was founded in 1990.

The measures announced on Jun. 5 represent “a major stride forward in terms of the land zoning” that is necessary to curb land grabbing and speculation, property disputes and deforestation, he told IPS.

Veríssimo said the forestry district will be “crucial” to determining the feasibility of economic development that ensures preservation of the forest and to winning the social support that is indispensable for the success of the “new paradigm of Amazon development” announced by Environment Minister Marina Silva.

Such an initiative has never been put into practice before in Brazil, and its effectiveness has yet to be proven, said the researcher.

The new law on management of forests had the backing of IMAZON and of most of Brazil’s environmental organisations, which believe that alliances must be forged with economic players interested in standing forests, such as logging companies that play by the rules, against activities like agribusiness that require clear-cut land.

The government will have to step up its presence in the Amazon jungle region, to monitor and inspect extraction of timber and crack down on illegal logging, said Veríssimo. He added, however, that law enforcement efforts will always fall short and cannot put an end to the problem.

Highway BR163 links Cuiabá, the capital of the west-central state of Mato Grosso, with the Amazon River port of Santarém in the northern state of Pará, where U.S. commodities giant Cargill built port installations to export mainly soybeans.

Mato Grosso is currently the chief soybean-producing region in Brazil – an indication of the importance of paving the highway, which is presently a dirt road that turns into a muddy track in which trucks bog down in the long rainy season.

Less than half of the 1,765-km highway, which was opened up in 1973, has been paved, and successive governments have promised – and failed – to complete the job over the past decades.

Soybeans from Mato Grosso must be transported by truck, train and riverboat over the more than 2,000 km to Santarém or Atlantic ports in order to be exported.

Because the promised modern new highway will represent huge savings in transport costs, environmentalists are worried that if the sustainable development plan does not work out, the asphalt will merely drive the expansion of soybean plantations in the Amazon and lead to further despoiling of the jungle.

The plan arose from the efforts of the Environment Ministry, as well as a broad mobilisation by environmentalists, local communities, indigenous groups and research institutes since 2004, especially in the most heavily affected states, Mato Grosso and Pará.

The process of negotiating and designing the measures picked up speed after the commotion caused by the murder of U.S.-born activist and nun Dorothy Stang in February last year at a remote jungle encampment in Pará, the most deforested state and the area with the largest number of killings related to land conflicts.

Santarém, in western Pará, became an epicentre of the Amazon jungle battle over the Cargill port, which was challenged in court because it was built without an impact study, and because the arrival of soybean cultivation to that municipality in the heart of Amazonia aggravated existing conflicts.

In the municipality of Santarém there are 300,000 to 500,000 hectares of land suitable for soybean planting, which became “the object of greed and disputes” with the construction of the export port facilities, Paulo Adario, the head of Greenpeace Brazil’s Amazon campaign, told IPS.

The price of land in the area rose 40-fold in the last four years, even though it is mainly illegally occupied public land.

Environmentalists hope that the project to pave BR163 will be hit with new delays because the government lacks the funds to carry out the job, which includes rebuilding a number of bridges, and because companies have seen their interest in investing in the project wane due to the drop in soybean prices.

Gaining time, said Adario, could help curb deforestation.

Operations in the Cargill port could also be suspended due to the company’s failure to comply with environmental requisites or because the new measures that the corporation will be required to adopt will drive up costs, he added.

Because Santarém is a deep-river port used by ocean-going vessels, the ships could introduce exotic species into the Amazon River by means of their ballast water, the activist pointed out.

Nevertheless, activists are still worried, despite the pressure from environmentalists in Santarém and the government measures aimed at ensuring that BR163 does not cause the environmental damages that highways cutting across the states of Pará and Mato Grosso have caused in the past.

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