The Amazon drought in Brazil is unleashing a wave of environmental, health, economic, and social disruptions in the region. But it’s also becoming a controversial and convenient tool manipulated by a group of politicians and business leaders to promote an ambitious but dangerous infrastructure project. This is the reconstruction of the BR-319 highway: a stretch of 885.9km road connecting the capital Manaus in central Amazonia to the southern edge of the forest, Porto Velho.
The Amazon drought
Pink river dolphins and fish are dying, as the Madeira, Negro, and Solimões rivers reach record low water levels. This dire situation in the state of Amazonas, marked by scorching heat waves, smoke, insufficient rainfall, and severe drought, is a direct consequence of climate change, the El Niño phenomenon, deforestation, and ecosystem degradation.
The drought in the Amazon is obstructing the delivery of raw materials to the region, given that transportation primarily relies on river routes. Certain areas are facing shortages of food, medicine, drinking water, and even energy – leading to rationing measures.
Grain exporters are experiencing disruptions in their planned shipments to northern Brazilian ports because of the Amazon river drought and its limited navigational capabilities. Consequently, they’re forced to reroute their shipments to terminals in the southern and southeastern areas.
Lobbying and misleading pretexts
They are using the Amazon drought as a justification to push for the reconstruction of BR-319, a road connecting Manaus, the capital of the Amazon, to Porto Velho. This action disregards the multitude of studies and scientific evidence that highlight the potential social, economic, health, and environmental consequences this project may impose on the region.
A coalition consisting of state and federal representatives, senators, and governors from the Amazonian regions created the ‘Parliamentary Front for the Revival of BR-319‘. This group, led by deputy Fausto Santos Junior, is advocating for the revival of the BR-319 highway.
Pressure is mounting from various directions as business representatives from the states of Rondônia, Roraima, and Amazonas participated in a virtual meeting with Santos Junior on 25 October. During this meeting, they urged the federal government to initiate the reconstruction of the BR-319 highway.
Santos Junior explained the delay in the approval of the BR-319 highway project when questioned by Debate Politico:
The real reason is an environmentalist militancy in an institutional form, I will translate this word, these are people who follow the interests of international NGOs that are interested in harming Brazil’s development, that is the truth… These NGOs are financed with foreign capital… This is a form of commercial warfare that is carried out through these NGOs. This is already being investigated in the Senate through the CPI (parliamentary commission of inquiry) of NGOs, which is chaired by Senator Plínio Valério.
Is the scrutiny of NGOs in Brazil being utilised as a strategy to reduce their influence on environmental protocols, possibly paving the way for large-scale projects in the Amazon without adhering to essential assessments, as well as reshaping partnerships away from Western partners to alternative stakeholders?
Deputy Fausto Santos Junior did not respond to my request for an interview.
In reality, it is a denial of citizenship, to all these people who are living and taking care of the Amazon, because in reality the integration of the Amazon, it is part of the national project to defend the Amazon, so the moment you deny access, you are also denying that there can be normal activity here.
Adelio Barofaldi, president of the Board of Directors of Pan Amazonia, president of the Association of Rural Landowners of Rondônia (ARPRO) and CEO of Rovema Group, expressed his full support for the BR-319 highway project. Barofaldi owns the largest network of car and truck dealers in the state and invests in energy and livestock.
Jonathan Benchimol, a prominent entrepreneur and managing partner at Fogás, a gas distribution company, is actively advocating for the restoration of the BR-319 highway, as he noted:
I’d like to remind people that during the oxygen crisis that occurred here in the city of Manaus and in the state of Amazonas during the Covid-19 scenario, the number of fatalities would have been much lower if BR-319 had been paved, oxygen could have flowed from Rondônia and other states of the federation through BR-319.
In 2020, during the height of the pandemic, Manaus was recognized as one of the global Covid-19 epicenters, where the Gamma variant originated and accounted for two-thirds of Covid-19 deaths in Brazil. In 2021, during the second wave of the pandemic, oxygen supplies were allowed to run out with catastrophic consequences.
Politicians and business leaders are exploiting the catastrophic pandemic oxygen crisis in the Amazon as a pretext to push for the BR-319 highway project.
Studies carried out by renowned scientists Lucas Ferrante and Philip Fearnside revealed that the devastating oxygen crisis in Manaus during the second wave of Covid-19 was the result of the Bolsonaro’s administration’s lack of logistical strategy. They chose to distribute oxygen in the region based on an impassable BR-319 highway, instead of using the most appropriate and safest transportation method, the Madeira River.
This tragic incident, resulting in hundreds of avoidable deaths, continues to be exploited for political purposes, advocating for infrastructure projects in the region such as the BR-319 highway project.
The lobbying groups supporting the BR-319 highway project seems to be primarily interested in capitalising on the economic potential of the Amazon, with little concern on environmental, health, and social issues.
Opponents face abuse and intimidation
Marina Silva, Brazil minister of environment and climate change, has been the subject of numerous assaults and harassment from a group of legislators who endorse the BR-319 highway project. They have labeled her as guilty, an enemy, and accused her of practicing cross-eyed politics.
“The people of the North are not second-rate people. We want respect, investments and infrastructure. Marina Silva is an enemy of BR-319,” said federal deputy Captain Alberto Neto on Instagram on 27 September. Neto is a supporter of former president Bolsonaro. He called Silva “the enemy of the North.”
In September, senator Omar Aziz declared, “if any Amazonian goes hungry, it’s Marina Silva’s fault”, as Silva is against the reconstruction of BR-319 highway without a solid basis in technical assessments. She is deeply concerned about the potential social and environmental consequences of this project.
Scientists who voice their concerns regarding the social and environmental implications of the BR-319 project also face intimidation, verbal attacks and even death threats.
The Intercept Brasil conducted an interview with Ferrante at a point when he could share his distressing experience. During this time, he had become the focal point of persecution, intimidation, and death threats due to his revelation, through his research, of the erosion of the Bolsonaro government’s environmental policies. He also predicted and warned the government about the second wave of Covid-19 in Manaus.
In September 2021, Fearnside became the victim of a xenophobic assault during a public hearing regarding the approval of the BR-319 highway project in Amazonas. This incident occurred after Fearnside had voiced criticism of the BR-319 highway project’s execution.
Fearnside said of the verbal attack:
At the time I was giving this speech, I also received attacks from other people who were in the audience. It’s important not to be intimidated by this, and it’s also good to remember the Constitution that prohibits any type of discrimination, based on national origin. The most important thing is not the episode itself, but the subject of BR-319.
Health, social, and environmental impact
Ferrante, an environmental scientist, and Fearnside, a biologist at Brazil’s National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA) and who together with other scientists in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, have jointly published multiple scientific studies that reveal the negative impacts of the BR-319 highway project on the Amazon rainforest.
Ferrante told me:
The reconstruction of BR-319 highway would provide agribusiness access to additional land, engage in more intensive livestock farming, and implement monoculture practices for large-scale biofuel production. Scientific studies published in both Land Use Policy and Nature suggest that this project could serve as an incentive for the expansion of cattle ranching, fossil fuel exploration and mining projects.
Given the absence of governance in the vicinity of the BR-319 highway and the consistent pattern of deforestation along most Amazonian roads, the choice to reconstruct the BR-319 highway will bring catastrophic consequences. This decision will not only impact indigenous and riverside communities, it will also escalate deforestation rates, potentially leading to the collapse of the rainforest and the country’s rain cycle, as pointed out by a study published in Die Erde.
Ferrante told me:
Brazil must reassess infrastructure projects that increase deforestation in the region, and this includes examining the BR-319 highway project, which currently has 6,000 kilometers of illicit extensions, a length six times greater than that of the BR-319 highway.
The highway’s reconstruction is missing an essential economic feasibility study, as mandated by law 5917/1973, and it has failed to undergo the necessary consultations with indigenous communities, as required by the International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169 and Brazilian law 10,088/2019.
Fearnside told me:
Since 2015, the “maintenance” initiative for segments of the BR-319 highway has notably improved its trafficability. This initiative serves as a means to bypass the regulatory licensing process. Furthermore, the delay in the highway’s complete reconstruction can be attributed not only to its questionable economic viability, but also to the absence of an IBAMA (Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources) license. Had a license been secured, it is likely that politicians would have allocated funds for the reconstruction, despite being aware of its economic impracticality.”
Other projects of concern
BR-319 highway is not the only project we should be concerned about, explained Fearnside:
Generally, there is a tendency to avoid any discussion of controversial infrastructure projects that are linked to the one that has a pending license. In this case, virtually all discussion is limited to the roadside of the BR-319 itself, ignoring the far-reaching effects of the side roads that a planned to link to this highway.
Most important is the planned AM-366 highway, which would allow deforesters to enter the vast area of the rainforest in the “Trans-Purus” region to the west of BR-319. Those evaluating the license application for the BR-319 highway project need to understand that approval would surely lead to subsequent building of the AM-366 highway, with enormous impacts for Brazil.
AM-366, classified as a state road, offers a relatively simpler licensing process. Plans in the area around this road include the oil and gas drilling blocks granted to the Russian oil company Rosneft in the planned “Solimões Sedimentary Area” project. AM-366 would also give access to a large area of “undesignated public land”, which is the most attractive for land grabbers, squatters, loggers and others. This situation could result in extensive deforestation, posing a catastrophic threat not only to Brazil but also to the global environment.
A study conducted by Ferrante and Fearnside reveals the Amazon rainforest as a potential origin of the next pandemic. The study highlights how deforestation creates opportunities for disease agents to transition from the vast reservoir of various types of coronaviruses and other pathogens in the region into the human population. The Amazon’s precarious healthcare system further complicates the identification and containment of a new pandemic that might emerge from this area.
Deforestation in the Amazon rainforest and other tropical regions increases the risk of emergence of new human diseases by increasing contact between rainforest wildlife (such as bats) and the human population and its domestic animals. It also contributes to climate change, which can create conditions favoring the emergence of parasitic, fungal, viral and bacterial infections
Political and profit motives
Politicians in the state of Amazonas are avid to have the BR-319 highway project approved, as its value in attracting votes is, as Ferrante and Fearnside’s publications show, the real motivation for the project. There are also backers of the project who stand to make substantial profits from the road. Meanwhile,
Traditional communities and the Amazon rainforest are left in a struggle for survival, gasping for breath, as they endure the adverse consequences.
Featured image via Monica Piccinini
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