New Brazilian Highway Accelerates Rainforest Destruction

In the Amazon of northern Brazil, embattled President Jair Bolsonaro is reviving a plan to extend a highway through the sprawling, largely-untouched jungle region of Calha Norte up to Brazil’s border with Suriname. The road, BR-163, currently connects river ports with southern soy-producing regions, and would extend an additional 1000 kilometers through a number of protected areas and indigenous territories.  

The highway would open previously inaccessible stretches of rainforest to economic development, a worry for conservationists and native groups who argue this would introduce loggers, miners and farmers into the region, in turn imperiling the biodiverse ecosystems and the indigenous communities within. Cross-regional groups and leaders have spoken out against expanding access, particularly in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic to which indigenous communities are especially vulnerable.

Beto Marubo, a spokesperson for UNIJAVA, which represents the various indigenous peoples in Brazil’s western Javari Valley, called for international pressure to ensure the closure of indigenous territories from who he calls “invaders.”

“Some of the invaders are miners, loggers, poachers, and organized crime figures who are entering our territories illegally to steal our resources,” Marubo said. “These invaders bring not only the virus but also environmental destruction that should worry every citizen of our warming planet. Even as carbon emissions are down globally as a result of the crisis, satellite data confirm that deforestation of the Amazon is continuing at the fastest rate ever seen.”

Illegal deforestation to clear land for farming and cattle grazing has long been a problem in the Amazon, but has increased under the administration of Bolsonaro, who ran on a platform of uplifting millions of poor Brazilians in rural regions through tapping into the rainforest’s economic potential. Highways such as BR-163 grant deeper access to the rainforest, allowing for invaders to construct unauthorized branch roads, where they proceed to clear large swaths of land and subsequently claim them.

A related piece of legislation issued by Bolsonaro in December of 2019, executive decree MP 910, amends land regularization protocol and legalizes informal settlements on federal land, presenting a loophole in the law, which would legitimize the ownership of lands illegally deforested and then claimed by loggers, farmers and ranchers.

Climate Policy Initiative, an international climate think tank, has raised concerns that MP 910 rewards lawbreakers and threatens indigenous communities.  “MP 910 favors medium and large rural producers over settlement family farmers, indigenous groups, and traditional communities,” the think tank said in an analysis of the decree. “The regularization of lands long occupied by these groups is much longer, bureaucratic, and difficult.”

While Brazil emerges as a global hotspot for the Covid-19 pandemic, the Bolsonaro administration is doubling down on its efforts to tap into the economic potential of the Amazon rainforest. As demonstrated by MP 910, the pro-development legislation can have consequences that lead to the degradation of the rainforest and violence against the people who have historically inhabited its remote regions. The construction of highways and illegal branch roads in tandem with this legislation allows the access to – and exploitation of – protected and indigenous areas. In the light of the pandemic, encounters between indigenous peoples and those accessing the Amazon through new or reconstructed highways could cause outbreaks among the vulnerable indigenous communities and disrupt the sustainable lifeways they have led for generations.

“We’re sending out an S.O.S. to all those who will listen—and especially to those who are in a position to put pressure on our government to protect Brazil’s original inhabitants from this novel threat,” Marubo said. “We don’t usually ask for outside help. But in this time of coronavirus, we won’t survive without it.”

Bolsonaro’s insistent push for development has an intention of bringing economic prosperity to Brazil’s impoverished rural class. But the various consequences of policies like MP 910 and highway construction projects such as BR-163 pose enormous threats to indigenous communities and environmental integrity, particularly in regards to biodiversity. The complexity of the current pandemic adds another layer that, when combined with the efforts of the Bolsonaro administration to expand access to the Amazon, enhances conflicts with and perceived injustices to Brazil’s indigenous populations and their long-standing relationships with the rainforest.  

Henry Haney is a freelance writer based in North Carolina who focuses on community and environment.