Environmental and human rights violations may have been committed as a result of one of the Amazon rainforest most gigantic and ambitious infrastructure projects, the reconstruction of BR-319 highway, a stretch of 830 km, connecting the ‘arc of deforestation’ in the southern Amazon to the capital, Manaus.
There are many national and international supporters and financiers with hidden interests behind the reconstruction of this extensive highway project, including a Russian state-owned oil and gas company, a bioenergy company, ‘ruralistas’ (large land-holders and their representatives), illegal miners and loggers, investors, politicians, the government, and many more. Their motivation is driven by profit and power, no matter how much it costs.
The Amazon rainforest plays a key role in controlling both South America’s rainfall and global climate. In addition, the rainforest is home to a third of the world’s biodiversity and a wide variety of indigenous people.
The rainforest has lost more than 830,000 sq km, corresponding to 21% of the forest and roughly 17% is already degraded.
According to Carlos Nobre, renowned earth system scientist, the Amazon rainforest, one of the most biodiverse places on earth, is on the edge of the precipice, showing clear signs of destruction and perilously close to a tipping point of irreversible collapse, triggered by deforestation, degradation, forest fires, logging, illegal cattle ranching, mining, and oil and gas developments.
BR-319 connects Manaus, in central Amazon, to Porto Velho, in the “arc of deforestation”, on the southern edge of the forest. The highway is a free path to illegal side roads in areas of large concentration of indigenous land, legal reserves and conservation units, giving illegal miners, loggers, squatters and land grabbers access to untouched forest.
As a consequence, these invaders are bringing a wave of destruction, instability, pollution, violence, disease, decay and death to the communities and the environment around them.
The highway was inaugurated in March 1976, during the military dictatorship and under the government of General Ernesto Geisel, and abandoned in 1988. In 2015, Dilma Roussef’s (Labour party) government proposed reopening BR-319.
“BR-319 cuts through one of the most conserved blocks of the forest where it contains an enormous stock of carbon. This project is a threat to 63 indigenous lands and 18,000 indigenous people, not to mention the environment and biodiversity”, said ecologist and researcher, Lucas Ferrante, during our interview this month.
According to Ferrante, who took part of a study published at the Die Erde – Journal of the Geographic Society of Berlin, neither environmental studies nor consultation with indigenous peoples were carried out for some sections of the highway, as established by ILO Convention 169.
Ferrante published various academic studies independently and conjointly with Philip Martin Fearnside, a researcher at the National Institute for Research in the Amazon (Inpa) and Nobel Peace Prize winner (2007), on the impacts the BR-319 project will bring to the Amazon, the environment, indigenous communities and the world.
The reconstruction of BR-319 does not have an economic feasibility study (EVTEA). Independent studies show that for every R$1,00 spent on the highway, the ROI is only R$0,33, mentioned Ferrante.
The main transport route used has always been via the Madeira River, making it a cheaper and safer way to transport goods. In his view, the highway project would be a huge social, economic and ecological disaster.
A study published at the Environmental Conservation, indicates that Brazil could lose more than US$1 billion a year in agricultural production if deforestation in the Amazon region is not contained.
“We have already identified that the Amazon rainforest has passed its tolerated limit of deforestation. The flying rivers that supply the south and southeastern regions of Brazil are already compromised, including an area of the arc of deforestation, corroborating changes and climate events within the country, even affecting agribusiness”, said Ferrante.
According to Ferrante and various studies, one additional topic of great concern, as exploitation of indigenous lands increases, is the risk of new pandemics. The Amazon rainforest is considered a possible source of the next pandemic, as deforestation offers opportunities for disease agents from the region’s large reservoir of different types of coronavirus and various other pathogens to jump into the human population.
The Amazon interior has a precarious healthcare system, making the surge of a new pandemic originating in this region extremely difficult to identify and contain.
A company with many interests in supporting the reconstruction of BR-319 is Russian state-owned Rosneft, one of the largest oil and gas companies in the world.
Rosneft’s CEO, Igor Sechin, is considered to be the second most powerful man in Russia after Putin. In February 2022, just before Russia invaded Ukraine, Bolsonaro travelled to Russia to meet with Putin to discuss a possible energy partnership.
BR-319 highway gives access to AM-366, a planned state highway that passes through the first drilling blocks of “Solimoes Sedimentary Basin” project for oil and gas extraction, an area larger than the state of California. Rosfnet bought 16 blocks in this area.
This is a project of huge concern, as questions are raised about how much influence Rosneft may have on the government’s policies and decisions on the reconstruction of this highway, as well as the impact it may have on the local communities and the environment.
Millenium Bioenergia is another strong supporter of BR-319 reconstruction project. A bioenergy company formed in 2014 by mill owners from São Paulo and grain producers from the Midwest, the company’s initial focus was the production of biofuels. However, the company decided to partner with the indigenous communities to produce corn, chicken, fish and pigs in a confined system. This is the perfect recipe to trigger new pandemics as a result of zoonotic leaps due to environmental degradation.
In the states of Amazonas and Roraima, their goal is to produce biofuels from monocultures in indigenous lands and other communities. According to their plan, indigenous people and communities would carry out these activities with unpaid work or, as one would openly describe it, slave labour. These products would then be exported to Asia, Europe and the United States.
According to a study published by Springer, Millenium has not honoured its obligation to carry out environmental studies that are legally required for the installation of an industry. Instead, they have proposed the building of a hospital for the indigenous people as a form of compensation.
The government’s ‘death agenda’ includes abolishing the legal reserves and opening conservation units and indigenous lands to mining, agriculture and ranching.
Jair Bolsonaro’s government, with the full support of ‘ruralistas’, has intentionally weakened the country’s environmental agencies and forest code, also denying the existence of climate change.
They have reduced protected areas, cut government funds for environmental protection, weakened the systems for monitoring and combating environmental crimes, approved 1682 new pesticides, leaving an open door to pollution, deforestation, violence, crime and devastation across the region and communities in the Amazon and the rest of the country.
Politicians in Manaus and across the country claim that BR-319 would be a “model of sustainability for the world”, but indications and studies carried out so far suggest otherwise. They follow the same rhetoric, stating the highway is a symbol of progress and sovereignty, and that the Amazon rainforest belongs to Brazil, no foreign interference should be allowed.
Violence & Crime
BR-319 has brought crime and violence to this region by illegal miners, loggers, squatters and land grabbers, threatening to kill anyone who refuses to comply with their rules.
According to Ferrante, the highway also attracted criminal gangs and organised crime to the area, with the full participation of high scale politicians.
There are countless national and international organisations financing illegal mining associated with drug and illegal arms trafficking. Organised crime has exploded and taken over the Amazon rainforest.
Bolsonaro’s gun law, the CAC (Collectors, Snipers and Hunters) license, allows Brazilians to purchase a wide variety of guns if they have no criminal record, are registered with a shooting club, and can demonstrate proficiency with a firearm.
The loosening of firearms restrictions law is creating new mechanisms for criminal groups to purchase weapons legally, consequently increasing violence in the Amazon and Brazil.
Another issue of concern is the maintenance of clandestine airstrips, mainly for mining and also serving organised crime.
According to information obtained by The Intercept, the Pulitzer Center and Earthrise Media, there are 362 clandestine airstrips, without registration with Anac, the National Aviation Agency, in the Legal Amazon. But this number almost triples, if you consider the runways open without authorisation and registration, amounting to at least 1,269 landing and takeoff lanes.
Indigenous and traditional communities are also victims of constant violent verbal and physical threats, sometimes ending in fatalities, but they are not the only ones.
Ferrante, a scientist who has spent many years exposing the situation in the region by publishing his studies in academic journals, was faced with various threats and violence against his own life.
He received countless death threats by anonymous calls and text. A “fake” Uber driver told Ferrante he should keep quiet because he was interfering in national security matters. Chemicals thrown into his home’s water system also poisoned him. Ferrante was terrified and withdrawn, unable to go out for a few months.
There is not doubt the BR-319 reconstruction project will impact local traditional and indigenous communities, as well as the environment, biodiversity and climate change, with very serious consequences to Brazil the rest of the world.
National and International Players
Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of beef and soy, which are the two commodities responsible for 90% the Amazon rainforest deforestation. Research shows that 70% of the chopped down Amazon is populated by cattle.
It’s essential to understand that the reconstruction of BR-319 highway has a national as well as an international long list of powerful supporters defending their own interests.
Agribusiness Watch report reveals that international banks and funds are financing Brazil’s agribusiness lobby in the country, including JP Morgan Chase, BlackRock, and Bank of America, each having invested US$1 billion in livestock. American International Group, AIG and Citigroup are also provider of funds to Brazilian agribusiness companies.
European investors include Allianz and Deutsche Bank, Barclays, Standard Chartered, BBVA, Santander, BNP Paribas, ABN-Amro and Rabobank, among others, have invested $4.5 billion in IPA companies, part of Instituto Pensar Agro, supporting FPA (Agricultural Parliamentary Front) and responsible for a package of anti-environmental measures being considered in the Brazilian Congress.
The report also lists various companies, including JBS, Suzano, Marfrig, ADM and Cargill that use their influence in Brazilian politics against the interests of environmental policies and indigenous groups.
Brazilian banks financing the agribusiness sector include BTG Pactual, Safra, Verde Asset Management, Vinci Partners, and XP Investimentos, maintaining bonds estimated at US$ 9.3 billion.
According to De Olho nos Ruralistas, in 2019, Agribusiness Watch revealed some of the multinationals that were affiliated by associations that maintain the IPA (Instituto Pensar Agro): Bayer, Basf and Syngenta, Cargill, Bunge, ADM and Louis Dreyfus; JBS, Marfrig, Nestlé and Danone.
During Bolsonaro’s administration, agribusiness companies met 278 times with government officials of MAPA, the Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply. Part of the agenda was the relaxation of rules for pesticides.
There’s no doubt that the reconstruction of BR-319 will benefit most of the above mentioned players, who continuously support and invest in the agribusiness sector in Brazil, including banks, agrochemical companies, governments, politicians and corporations, in Brazil and abroad.
The same can’t be said about the environment, climate change, local traditional and indigenous communities and the entire world population, who will pay a hefty price for these callous actions.
The Road Ahead
This is a decisive political moment for Brazil and the world, as the second term of the presidential elections draws to a close at the end of October and Brazilians will be choosing their next president, Jair Bolsonaro or Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (Lula), both battling for the pole position.
Ferrante mentioned what may happen if Lula is elected Brazil’s next president:
“I was present during Lula’s statement during his visit to Manaus in September 2022, when he mentioned that he will choose three major infrastructure projects for each state in Brazil, mainly roads, which means the BR-319 highway project may be on the top of his list. He explicitly said that he isn’t against the highway, but the environmental rites and the consultation of indigenous peoples must be followed”,
“The BR-319 highway project is at a very advanced stage. We urgently need the suspension of the maintenance license, pending appropriate studies and consultations with indigenous peoples. It is necessary to create a task force to supervise the actions of INCRA, the National Institute for Colonisation and Agrarian Reform and the Ministry of the Economy, as they continuously try to legalise these lands”, added Ferrante.
When asked about the message he has to the international community, Ferrante replied:
“Countries that import commodities from Brazil need to review their trade agreements, mainly for meat, soy, ores, biofuels and now oil and its derivatives that come from the Amazon, extracted by Rosfnet. Brazilian agribusiness has become a threat to the Amazon, to traditional peoples and to the global climate”,
“All countries in the world need to turn their eyes to what is happening in the Amazon now, especially on the BR-319 highway. This is a matter for the world to discuss because the consequences of this highway are global, including new pandemic outbreaks and accelerating climate change that is already causing waves of heat leading to mortality in Europe. The environmental damage caused here exceeds the borders of Brazil and should be monitored by the whole world”.