Driving along Brazil’s Highway BR-163

Posted on May, 15 2007

It’s a cloudy morning and three 4X4s are leaving downtown Santarém in the northern Brazilian state of Pará towards Highway BR-163, one of the main roads cutting through the heart of the Amazon rainforest. The government built the road to develop the region. Conservationists fear it threatens the environment. Find out more about road building and deforestation in the Amazon.

By João Gonçalves*

It’s a cloudy Tuesday morning and three 4X4s are leaving downtown Santarém in the northern Brazilian state of Pará towards Highway BR-163, one of the main roads cutting through the heart of the Amazon rainforest. It is early, shortly past 6am and the weather is hot and muggy, already 28°C, with some light showers — a typical winter day in the Amazon.

The vehicles — carrying three international journalists and staff from WWF and local partner Amazon Institute for Environmental Research (IPAM) — are loaded with equipment and supplies to endure a grueling 100km-drive on one of Brazil’s longest highways. Much of the road is still unpaved, often muddy and impassable during the wet season.

Conservationists fear that paving the entire highway would lead to further destruction of the Amazon.

Long distance, high impact
Distances along the highway are astronomical — 2,910km to the capital, Brasília, 3,922km to São Paulo, 4,114km to Rio de Janeiro. The closest state capital, Cuiabá, is only 1,767km away!

BR-163 was built in the 1970s as part of a government plan to develop the Amazon region. The 1,770km-long highway connects Santarem to Cuiaba in the southern part of Mato Grosso State. Despite its completion in 1972, 956km are still unpaved, and many of the paved parts are in desperate need of repair. The Brazilian government wants to eventually pave the entire length of the road to facilitate the transportation of soy production and other commercial crops.

This may have disastrous results for the environment.

“Highway development in Brazil has led to large-scale deforestation and the exploitation of other natural resources brought about by newly developed settlements and increased logging and agriculture activities,” said Mauro Armelin, WWF-Brazil’s sustainable development programme coordinator.

One recent study conducted on another highway in the Amazon region indicates that a majority of deforestation takes place within the first 50km from the road.

The only paved part of the BR-163 in Pará is near Santarém. Here, one side is bordered by the Tapajós National Forest. Created in 1974, its 545,000 hectares are home to numerous bird and tree species. It is also home to traditional communities. There are currently 1,900 families living in and around the forest, divided among 29 communities and organized into nine community associations and one cooperative.

While one side of the highway is protected, the other side has only small patches of forest, with the rest of the area laid waste by large soy plantations or pastures. It was near one of these pastures that our convoy had to pull over to the side of the highway to make way for a huge herd of a 1,000 cattle. Four herdsmen were using the short strip of pavement to drive their cattle from one farm to another.

Off road
Leaving the highway for one of the many unpaved side roads, open pasture land and highly deforested areas could be seen just about everywhere.

The side road we chose took us to the headquarters of Maflops, a forest management company that uses sustainable wood exploitation techniques and supports community forest management.

“We think in the long term and work in previously defined areas,” stresses company manager Antonio Abelardo Leite.

“We always leave a certain number of trees remaining, especially seed-producing trees. They will be our future trees to explore in the cycles to come.”

After lunch at the Maflops headquarters, the next stop is Santo Antônio, a small village in the Moju Agrarian Settlement.

On average, a settlement plot of land consists of 100ha, of which 20 per cent can be cut for housing material or cleared for small vegetable gardens. The remaining 80 per cent is managed by Maflops.

“Maflops has already harvested parts of my plot. Now they won’t be back here for another 20 years,” said Seu Neguinho, president of a local residents association in Santo Antônio, who moved to Pará in 2001 to work in the gold mines of the Itaituba region.

“Before, I used to go from one place to another and had nothing,” Neguinho said. “Now I’m settled down. I have my home, family and plot of land with 2,300 pepper plants.”

Seu Neguinho added that settlers often face pressure from developers interested in buying their land.

“People come here and offer 100,000 Reais (U$52,000) for our land. Many sell because they think it’s a lot of money and that the amount will solve all their problems. But when they get to the city they see that it’s not enough money and end up going hungry.”

Given the fact that the value of the land surrounding the highway is set to increase once BR-163 is paved, clashes over land tenure and development are expected to increase.

It is 4pm and time to return to Santarém. Taking an alternative road back to BR-163, we pass the Brazilian army doing road maintenance. Despite reluctance to talk to members of the media and conservation organizations, one of the soldiers explains that they are building a waterway, and that the paving work would be intensified next month once the rainy season has finished.

Given that the highway project is progressing, WWF and its partners are working to ensure that existing enterprises contribute to conservation and the well-being of communities in the Amazon region by avoiding unplanned and unsustainable growth in the future.

Since October 2005, WWF-Brazil has been leading the Dialogue Project, which targets a wide range of groups — local communities, forest operators, and public and private sector organizations — to encourage sustainable management of forest resources and land development.

Today, the project works in three regions in the eastern and southern part of the Brazilian Amazon — Santarém area and Itaituba, Terra do Meio in the state of Pará, and Guarantã do Norte in the state of Mato Grosso — covering an area of 280,000 km2 and spreading over 25 municipalities.

“The project aims to strengthen and support opportunities for discussion and to increase the level of dialogue among stakeholders,” Armelin says.

“It is important to develop a process that contributes to effective management and, ultimately, the protection of the Amazon.”

As the team drove back to Santarém — 100km of dirt and pavement — it was hard not to forget the words of Seu Neguinho’s: “The Amazon is a beautiful place, but if it is destroyed, we will suffer, and our children will suffer even more.”

* João Gonçalves is a Communications Officer at WWF-Brazil.


• The Dialogue Project is funded by the European Union in partnership with WWF-Brazil, CIRAD (French Agricultural Research Centre Working for International Development), CDS/UnB (Center for Sustainable Development/University of Brasilia), IPAM (Amazon Institute for Environmental Research) and ICV (Center of Life Institute), and federal, regional and local agencies.
Highway BR-163, one of the main roads cutting through the heart of the Amazon rainforest.
© Anton Vorauer / WWF-Austria
Long distance driving. Road sign at the beginning of Highway BR-163, Santarém, Pará, Brazil.
© João Gonçalves / WWF-Brazil
Maflops, a forest management company operating close to Highway BR-163, practices sustainable forestry. If carried out the right way, sustainable forestry activities can generate income, provide long-term timber supplies and ensure that forests continue to be ecologically functional.
© João Gonçalves / WWF-Brazil
Seu Neguinho, head of a local residents association in the community of Santo Antônio, Pará, Brazil.
© João Gonçalves / WWF-Brazil
Satellite view of the Amazon.
© WWF / Michel Roggo