ConsumerismDeforestationGlobal Warming/Climate Change

BR-319 – Amazon’s Highway to Hell

An old road through central Amazonia, that became overgrown and impassable in the 1980s, may get reopened and fully paved — threatening to escalate destruction of one of the world’s last remaining stands of tropical rainforest

To date, one fifth of the Amazon forest has been destroyed, that’s an area the size of France. Will it stop? It must, but will it? To stop it will require planning, foresight, and political and consumer awareness, determination and restraint. If the choice is left to industry alone, they won’t stop until it’s all gone.

It is said that if the Amazon shrinks much more, its inability to water itself from its own cycles of evaporation and precipitation will begin a spiralling cycle of drying – a tipping point that will be nigh impossible to return from. One of the greatest threats is the increasing demand for meat.

Soy is exported to Europe and elsewhere for livestock feed. If the beans were consumed in their direct form they would feed many more people – it’s a ridiculous conversion ratio (1 pound of meat from 7+ pounds of soy) that is costing us what is one of the last significant stands of forest and regions of biodiversity on the planet.

Soy: In the Name of Progress (39 mins)

It’s got to stop.

Unfortunately, rather than decreasing, Amazon deforestation is still moving ahead apace. Economies must grow, they say, and demands from developed and developing nations for more meat, in particular, are increasing (where nations aren’t importing Brazilian beef, they’re importing Brazilian grown soy to feed their own livestock). Another reason is the burning of forest to make way for sugar plantations, for ethanol production. The forest is literally going up in smoke.

Up until now, however, Amazon deforestation has taken place by working from the outside, the edges, inwards, and largely from the more populous eastern and southern regions. The central parts of the forest have been difficult to access to destroy, due to the nature and expense of building new roads in this difficult terrain. Now an alarming report from the Institute for Conservation and Sustainable Development of Amazonas (IDESAM) alerts us to a new threat that, if ignored, will see the Amazon essentially cut in half by road, with whole new opportunities for destruction as the Amazon’s heart is laid bare.

The following image shows the obvious — that deforestation occurs principally where there is access, i.e. where there are roads and waterways that enable people and machinery to move in and push the ‘front line’ forward in our war on nature. Marked with red dots, you can see BR-319, the old 543 mile (875km) road that may become a highway to hell, potentially completed by 2012.

The Brazilian government are moving forward with these plans, despite it being effectively illegal, in that alternatives to roads, like trains, have not been examined:

The Federal Government identified paving the highway as a priority for Brazil’s national transport infrastructural development. However, the Federal government never considered other alternative modes of transport, such as railroads or waterways. The failure to examine these alternatives is in direct violation of the National Counsel for the Environment’s (CONAMA) Resolution # 01/1986, which mandates that environmental impact studies must consider other alternatives.

… There is consensus within the scientific community that the building of paved roads is the major driver of deforestation in the Amazon. According Brazil’s Ministry of the Environment own data from the 1970s to the end of the 1990s, approximately 75% of the deforestation in the Amazon occurred along the sides of paved roads. — IDESAM Press Release (PDF)

It’s not only the forests, along with its critical biodiversity, that are under threat here. It’s not only the CO2 emissions associated with it, and the continued drying and burning of the forests due to its shrinking ability to water itself through cycles of evaporation and cloud cover. As I’ve written before, people with machinery have money, and power. People that live sustainably in the forest do not. The former oust the latter, often violently. In the last two decades thousands of indigenous peoples in the Amazon have been killed in conflicts over land and resources. This road will bring more of the same. The implications are thus local and global.

Computer simulated projection of forest cover by 2050

Deforestation is marked in black — at left the results if BR-319 gets paved,
at right if the road is left as it is (area shown is same as red box above)

The alternative is to build a railroad system instead of a highway. Building a railway system would have considerably less impact, avoiding a great deal of the forest loss predicted for the future, while still achieving the economic benefits associated with improving the transportation infrastructure within the Brazilian Amazon. The State Government of Amazonas has commissioned a pre-feasibility study that demonstrated the technical viability of the railroad and identified the associated economic and environmental benefits. Although there is still a need for additional, more detailed studies and consultations, the study shows that the railway proposal merits serious consideration. — IDESAM Press Release (PDF)

Let’s hope they decide to take the train.


  1. I wrote a (sadly unpublished) report for WWF on similar work going on for the Interoceanica Highway from Brazil through to Peru, based on detailed satellite studies of what happens when you open up areas of rainforest in this way. If anyone can use some of that info, get in touch with me via this website.

  2. It is an immense responsibility to protect, utilize, and manage the resources of the Amazon Rainforest, not only for the regions’ population, but the entire planet’s.
    One thing is certain- those citizens baring this responsibility, must tell THEIR gov. representatives that the resources are THEIRS to steward and insist the ‘foreigners’ get out.
    It is ONLY at this time, that those who WILL live with the greatest impacts and consequences of their actions, may determine THEIR best interests and choices.
    To determine ‘choices’, seek ONLY advice of the best scientific minds in our generation; those who are ‘verified-independent’ and have NOTHING to lose or gain from the studied
    advice. They will advise you, how to include and protect the Amazon’s indigenous, ‘human resource’ as well. They have unique skills, abilities, and knowledge that ‘modern man’ has forgotten. One day, THEY may save a future generation; it is wisest to protect, utilize, and carefully manage ALL of your resources.
    To begin YOUR stewardship of YOUR ‘backyard’- tell the foreign trespassers to get out!

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