Using Science to Block a Road to Ruin – The Amazon BR-319

23 Feb 2023

According to two prominent scientists, Lucas Ferrante and Philip Fearnside, and the result of their studies, the ambitious reconstruction of the BR-319 highway, linking the capital Manaus in central Amazonia to the southern edge of the forest, Porto Velho, might be a catalyst to rampant deforestation with irreversible and catastrophic consequences to the rainforest.

BR-319, a stretch of 830 km, connecting the ‘arc of deforestation’, was inaugurated in March 1976, during the military dictatorship, under the government of General Ernesto Geisel, and abandoned in 1988. In 2015, Dilma Roussef’s government proposed reopening BR-319.

“The BR-319 highway cuts through one of the most preserved 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”, mentioned Lucas Ferrante, environmental scientist.

Brazilian Amazonia and Highway BR-319 (Manaus-Porto Velho). Source: map produced by scientist Lucas Ferrante in the ArcGIS software, deforestation data from INPE 2021.

Despite the warnings from scientists about the negative consequences this project may bring to the region, it’s considered a priority for Brazil’s new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. During an interview with a radio station in Manaus last September, he mentioned:

“We do not want to transform the state of Amazonas into a sanctuary for humanity. Millions of people live in the state of Amazonas. We have to give these people the right to civility, the right to live well, the right to come and go. It is entirely possible for you to work the climate issue correctly, work the environmental issue correctly and provide the necessary security so that you can build good roads that can connect the state of Amazonas with the rest of the country.”

However, according to Lucas Ferrante, the newly elected president of Brazil, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, only replicates a political boast that it is possible to establish territorial governance.

“We need to make some things clear, this is just political rhetoric, a bravado that does not consolidate. According to a study we published at Land Use Policy, the BR-319 highway area had a deforestation rate of up to 2.6 times higher than the deforestation rates observed in other parts of the Amazon, i.e., the state of Amazonas is no longer a isolated sanctuary, yet another area increasingly occupied by criminal organisations that encourage land grabbing and deforestation”, argues Ferrante.

“In addition, people have always had the right to come and go by other modes of transport, but they do not have the right to collapse one of the most biodiverse blocks of the rainforest, which is home to a wide variety of native peoples and which consequently, if deforested, could collapse the global climate,” added Ferrante.

Scientific Studies Raising Red Flags

Lucas Ferrante, environmental scientist, and Philip Fearnside, a biologist at Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA) and Nobel Peace Prize winner for climate research (2007), both published various scientific studies highlighting the negative effects of this project on the Amazon rainforest.

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 and public lands.

Illegal timber seized by IBAMA agents along the BR-319 highway. Photo by scientist Lucas Ferrante.

As a consequence, these invaders are bringing a wave of destruction, instability, pollution, violence, disease, decay and death to the traditional communities, indigenous people and the environment around them.

In October 2021, a Washington Post journalist, Terrence McCoy and scientist Lucas Ferrante, set themselves on a journey across the length of BR-319 highway, showing the path of destruction and devastation caused by illegal deforestation, land grabbing, mining, fires, violence and even killings. The burnt body of a dead man was found along the way after he had reported land-grabbing activities in the area to the federal police.

Photo of a burnt dead body around BR-319. Photo by scientist Lucas Ferrante.

In 2017, buildings belonging to IBAMA (Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) and the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio) in Humaitá were set on fire by miners and remain inoperative.

It is estimated that BR-319 and planned side roads will generate an increase of the deforested area by more than 1,200% between the highway and Brazil’s border with Peru. This projection relates to central Amazon alone, if extended to Peru, the numbers would increase significantly.

According to a scientific article published in the journal Land Use Policy by both Ferrante and Fearnside, despite environmental legislation requiring an environmental impact assessment (EIA) for one of the stretches of the highway, the project was given the green light from a judge, who authorised it without an EIA.

Additionally, the reconstruction of the highway lacks an economic viability study, EVTEA, required by law 5917/1973, as well as consultation with indigenous people required by International Labour Organisation (ILO) Convention 169 and by Brazilian law 10,088/2019.

The main transport route used in the region has always been via the Madeira River, making it a cheaper, cleaner and safer way to transport goods.

Fernanda Meirelles, executive secretary of the BR-319 Observatory, commented during our interview earlier this month:

“The LP, Preliminary License, was issued without consultations with the indigenous people and traditional communities, an important stage of the process that was not respected. We do not know whether consultations will be carried out in this current government or whether an intervention by the MPF (Federal Public Ministry) will be necessary to fullfil the obligation of consultation”,

“Public hearings were held during the pandemic, but in an inadequate way. There was no logistical support to guarantee the presence of traditional communities and indigenous people, in additional to having been held at a very inhospitable moment for any time of contrary opinion or manifestation. We even witnessed attacks suffered by researcher and scientist, Phillip Fearnside, during these public hearings”, added Meirelles.

According to data released by SEEG, the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Estimation System, between 2018 and 2019, the municipalities surrounding BR-319 highway had a staggering 16% increase in greenhouse gas emissions from land use and agriculture.

The reopening of this highway would also give agribusiness access to more land for expansion, including cattle farming, soy and palm oil plantations, monoculture expansion for large-scale biofuel production, as well as fossil fuel companies, hydroelectric dams, mining, etc.

As various studies indicate, including the ones published at Land Use Policy, and Environmental Conservation, these practices are already happening with the maintenance works of the road and would increase exponentially with the reconstruction of the BR-319 highway.

Deforested and burned area along the middle stretch of BR-319 highway. Photo by scientist Lucas Ferrante.

There’s still no information about the costs and sources of funds for this gigantic project. The same applies to a very essential monitoring system project, which was never presented.

Profiteers – All Eyes Focused on the Amazon

There are countless politicians, corporations, governmental agencies and organisations with either a hidden or visible interest in the reconstruction of BR-319 and hoping it succeeds. This project is a gateway to a heaven of natural resources waiting to be exploited and the highway will make their journey a much smoother process.

According to Fearnside, Rosneft, a giant Russian oil and gas company, with drilling rights to 16 extraction blocks located west of BR-319, approximately 35 km from the Purus River, by the Solimões Basin, would be one of the beneficiaries of the project.

Another very concerning sector is biofuel production in the Amazon. Biofuels are produced based on agricultural products, including sugar cane, corn, castor bean, palm oil and raw materials of animal origin.

According to a Global Witness report, BBF Group (Brasil Biofuels) and Agrapalma, two Brazilian palm oil (azeite de dendê) giants, are accused of various violations in the Amazon, including conflict with local communities, violent campaigns to silence indigenous communities and fraudulent land grabs.

BBF is the largest producer of palm oil in Latin America, also active in thermoelectric generation and biodiesel in the Amazon region (Acre, Amazonas, Rondônia, Roraima and Pará). The company announced that it‘s going to invest R$5 billion over the next three years in the production of biofuels, including corn ethanol. The BR-319 project would certainly facilitate their business developments in the region.

Studies coordinated by Ferrante point out that the expansion of plantations for the production of biofuels in the Amazon tends to encourage deforestation and collapse the forest, in addition to providing zoonotic jumps of viruses stored in the forest, generating a new global pandemic.

Based on scientific research, Ferrante managed to overthrow a presidential decree that released sugarcane to the Amazon, but according to him, corn and palm oil are still crops that have an enormous potential for environmental damage and to generate deforestation, demanding economic ecological zoning mainly for the BR-319 highway area.

Politicians, infrastructure companies, national and international corporations, all show great interest in this ambitious project, as the highway would be key to their business expansion.

The voice of a public figure and politician, the governor of Amazonas, Wilson Lima, would have been a great opportunity for us to understand more about this challenging project. Unfortunately, Lima did not respond to a request for an interview.

The only NGO in the region that agreed to be interviewed about the BR-319 project was IDESAM/BR-319 Observatory.

The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation failed to respond a request for an interview.  Funbio responded, but failed to answer questions about the project.

Fundo JBS pela Amazônia mentioned that they we were unable to contribute to this matter, because the reconstruction of BR-319 had nothing to do with the fund and that this is not something that directly impacts their projects.

WWF Brasil did not have a spokesperson available to answer questions related to the project and asked that any questions be directed to BR-319 Observatory.

National and international media, politicians, corporations, governmental agencies, as well as some NGOs, seem to be reluctant to talk about the reconstruction of the BR-319 highway.

All studies so far show that this project lacks environmental governance and would be detrimental to the local communities as well as the rainforest. It also lacks an economic viability study, a monitoring system plan and consultation with the traditional and indigenous communities.

This appears to be a politically motivated plan with every president elected repeatedly making the same promise, selling the idea that the reconstruction of BR-319 highway would bring prosperity to the region, without considering that it may also bring pollution, illegal activities, violence, diseases, rampant and irreversible deforestation and destruction to the rainforest with catastrophic consequences to Brazil and the rest of the world.

If completed, this project may put in jeopardy the future and survival of the Amazon rainforest, all in the name of what they call “progress”!

Article available in Portuguese at A Escola Legal.

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