Preservation or development? Brazil’s Amazon at crossroads

David Biller

TRAIRAO, Brazil (AP) – Night falls in Brazil’s Amazon and two logging trucks without licence plates emerge from the jungle. They rumble over dirt roads that lead away from a national forest, carrying trunks of trees hundreds of years old.

After pulling onto a darkened highway, the truckers chug to their turnoff into the woods, where they deliver their ancient cargo. By morning, the trunks are laid out for hewing at the remote sawmill, its corrugated metal roof hardly visible from the highway.

The highway known as BR-163 stretches from soybean fields to a riverside export terminal. The loggers were just south of the road’s juncture with BR-230, known as the Trans-Amazon. Together the highways cover more than 5,000 miles, crossing the world’s fifth-biggest country in the state of Para.

Carved through jungle during Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1970s, the roads were built to bend nature to man’s will in the vast hinterland. Four decades later, there’s development taking shape, but also worsening deforestation – and locals harbour concerns that progress may pass them by.

The highways first meet in the city of Ruropolis, where the military government promised land to lure people to the planned agricultural village. One 53-year-old man, Hilquias Soares, remembers a state agent in his hometown yelling, “Who wants to go to Para?”

A fragment of the Amazon rainforest stands next to soy fields in Belterra, Para state, Brazil. The Amazon, which has lost about 17 per cent of its original forest, is nearing an irreversible tipping point. PHOTOS: AP
ABOVE & BELOW: A truck drives on the road in Ruropolis, Para state, Brazil. From Ruropolis, the Trans-Amazon and BR-163 run jointly westward over a bumpy 70 miles before splitting at a little roundabout. During corn and soy harvests, 2,600 trucks pass through each day to and from the nearby Tapajos river; and a man carries a heavy sack of watermelons through the water at the edge of the Tapajos river as he unloads a boat with goods to be delivered to the local market in Santarem, Para state, Brazil

His family took the chance, arriving just after President Emílio Médici, a general, inaugurated the town. Archival footage shows Médici unveiling a plaque reading: “The Brazilian people respond to the challenge of history, occupying the heart of the Amazon.” Children play on see-saws and show off T-shirts with the crossroads sprawling across the continent-sized nation.

“There was a dream of colonisation, of getting land and seeing if here we could have better financial conditions,” Dedé Diniz, 69, said in his home. “A lot of people don’t recognise what we did, what we fought for.”

Diniz examines a photograph he took of Médici and, below it in his album, a shot of a truck trapped in mud. It’s nothing like the bucolic painting on his wall that shows farm furrows and wild forest beside the highway, where a machine repairs ruts.

He jokes that he’ll update the painting with asphalt soon – that stretch should be paved by 2021. Already people have started moving in from other states to buy land for cattle pastures.

Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, won last year’s election with support from farmers, truckers and miners by resurrecting the dictatorship-era desire to develop the world’s largest tropical rainforest. But he did so at a different stage of human history, one where scientists recognise the Amazon must remain to suck carbon from the air and help arrest climate change. Some also argue the Amazon, which has lost some 20 per cent of its original forest, is nearing an irreversible tipping point. In that sense, Brazil itself is at a crossroads.

From Ruropolis, the Trans-Amazon and BR-163 run jointly westward over a bumpy 70 miles before splitting at a little roundabout. During corn and soy harvests, 2,600 trucks pass through each day to and from the nearby Tapajos River.

There, trucks pull into transshipment ports. Grain cascades from their containers to be loaded onto barges. After a downriver trip that takes days, the grain is poured into ships’ holds and dispatched across the world, largely to China.

That transoceanic network seems far removed from the road warriors filling up on grilled beef or bowls of açai in truck stops. While the truckers eat, grease-stained mechanics replace worn-out shocks and blown-out tires.

At the start of Bolsonaro’s administration, only 32 miles of BR-163 from soy country to the Trans-Amazon remained to be paved. But tropical rains transformed the dirt into impassable mud. Soy trucker Sandro Vieira recalled being stuck in gridlock two years ago, consuming nothing but bread, coffee and peanuts for a week; to this day, the smell of peanuts disgusts him.

Bolsonaro’s government last month finished paving the soy corridor. The decades-delayed achievement is the first of major public works to come, Infrastructure Minister Tarcísio de Freitas said. They include a USD3 billion grain railway alongside BR-163.

A ministry promotional video for foreign investors shows deer and other wild animals in their habitats, living in harmony with highways.