Brazil has given the go-ahead to start paving a massive highway through the heart of the Amazon, a move that will likely prove disastrous for the health of the rainforest and Indigenous peoples. On July 28, the Brazilian environmental authority (IBAMA) gave a preliminary license to begin the paving and reconstruction of a crucial part of BR-319, a highway between Manaus, the capital of Amazonas, and Porto Velho, the capital of Rondônia, that runs through a pristine part of the Amazon rainforest.
The permit will allow construction and repairs on a 405-kilometer (251-mile) stretch of the BR-319, known as the “trecho do meião.”
BR-319 was opened by the military government in 1973, but it quickly succumbed to the intensely wild environment of the Amazon and deteriorated, eventually becoming impassible by the late-1980s. Since 2015, a “maintenance” program has made it marginally passable during the dry season, but it's still not an easy ride.
Constructing the road could be catastrophic for the natural environment. Not only will the roadworks and highway prove to be an unpleasant hurdle for wildlife, but the road will also provide loggers, miners, oil drillers, and ranchers with better access to the rainforest, almost certainly driving further deforestation, habitat destruction, and conflict with Indigenous peoples.
Writing in the journal Ambio earlier this year, biologist Philip Fearnside from the National Institute for Research in Amazonia wrote why he believes the project to rebuild BR-319 will be a “social, economic, and ecological disaster.”
“The vast area that would be opened to the west of BR-319 holds high biodiversity and a rich diversity of Indigenous peoples,” he wrote. “This area holds an enormous stock of carbon that, if released over a short period of years, would be critical in pushing the global climate system past a tipping point where a ‘runaway greenhouse’ would accelerate outside of human control.”
Proponents of the plan to rebuild the highway argue that it will bring money and opportunity to the local people of Beruri, Borba, Tapauá, Canutama, Manicoré, and Humaitá. However, Fearnside believes the economic benefits of BR-319 are a fallacy, arguing that pump road traffic through the Amazon is unlikely to prove more efficient than other means of transport.
“Politicians in Manaus are the most visible beneficiaries of BR-319, since championing the highway project is a key strategy for winning votes in the city,” he writes.
One of the politicians celebrating the recent IBAMA permit was Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, a leader whose reign has become ill-famed for its attacks on the environment and the Indigenous people who have lived in the Amazon for generations.
“Brazilians had already gotten used to cars and trucks getting stuck on the BR319,” tweeted President Bolsonaro on July 29. “That time, fortunately, is coming to an end. IBAMA gave a prior license to our initiative to pave the remaining 405 kilometers [251 miles] of the highway, abandoned 30 years ago!”