Brazil’s Congress passes bill to pave highway through heart of Amazon Rainforest

    Researchers say the road could threaten the rainforest’s existence.

    Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

    The Amazon is the largest tropical rainforest in the world. Spanning eight countries, it has been called the “lungs of the planet” for its vital service of converting enormous amounts of carbon dioxide into oxygen.

    Now, Brazilian lawmakers have approved a bill to allow conservation funds to be used to pave a highway — BR-319 — that cuts through the middle of the Amazon; researchers say the road could threaten the rainforest’s existence, reported Reuters.

    The bill would allow use of the funds for the “recovery, paving and increasing the capacity of the highway,” according to Reuters.

    This means capital such as the Amazon Fund’s $1.3 billion — supported by European and United States allies to be used for conservation — could go toward the project.

    “I don’t think it makes any sense. This project does not fit into any of the fund’s planned support lines,” Tasso Azevedo, one of the creators of the Amazon Fund, told Climate Home News in September.

    BR-319 was built in the early 1970s by the country’s then-military dictatorship, but quickly deteriorated, and by 1988 had become impassable.

    Preventing more access is one of the biggest defenses the Amazon has against deforestation. A new road opening up in the undisturbed rainforest provides a way in for loggers, farmers, miners and developers, who often conduct their activities illegally.

    Since 1978, the Amazon has lost more than 185 million acres to deforestation, and the rate of destruction is accelerating, according to the Amazon Conservation website.

    Nearly all Amazon deforestation — 95 percent — happens within 3.4 miles of a roadway, Leanderson Lima of Amazônia Real and Micael Pereira of Expresso reported in The Guardian in June.

    “Deforestation follows a fairly predictable pattern,” NASA Earth Observatory said, referring to satellite images on its website. “The first clearings that appear in the forest are in a fishbone pattern, arrayed along the edges of roads. Over time, the fishbones collapse into a mixture of forest remnants, cleared areas, and settlements. This pattern follows one of the most common deforestation trajectories in the Amazon. Legal and illegal roads penetrate a remote part of the forest, and small farmers migrate to the area. They claim land along the road and clear some of it for crops. Within a few years, heavy rains and erosion deplete the soil, and crop yields fall. Farmers then convert the degraded land to cattle pasture, and clear more forest for crops. Eventually the small land holders, having cleared much of their land, sell it or abandon it to large cattle holders, who consolidate the plots into large areas of pasture.”

    The old BR-319 highway — which has become a dirt road full of potholes that is untraversable five months of the year, during the rainy season — stretches approximately 559 miles from Rondonia state’s Porto Velho to Manaus in Amazonas, reported Reuters.

    Those defending the paving project say it is needed to connect Amazonas and Rondonia, as Manaus is frequently inaccessible except by air and river.

    The bill to approve the paving of BR-319 refers to the highway as “critical infrastructure, indispensable to national security, requiring the guarantee of its trafficability,” as Reuters reported.

    The bill was approved by the lower house of Congress, but still needs approval by the Senate.


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    Cristen is a writer of fiction and nonfiction. She holds a JD and an Ocean & Coastal Law Certificate from University of Oregon School of Law and an MA in Creative Writing from Birkbeck, University of London. She is the author of the short story collection The Smallest of Entryways, as well as the travel biography, Ernest’s Way: An International Journey Through Hemingway’s Life.