GUARANTÁ DO NORTE, BRAZIL — When Loredana Balbinot arrived in this dusty Amazon outpost 24 years ago, there was nothing here but jungle. No shops, no schools, not even houses. The only link to civilization was a primitive dirt road that was frequently impassable when it rained.
For the first few months, she and her six brothers and sisters ate monkey and alligator and slurped river water because there was nowhere to buy food and drink.
"We were dropped in the middle of the forest and left to fend for ourselves," Ms. Balbinot says of the colonization program that took her to the edge of the world's biggest rain forest. "Before we came here we didn't have a good life, but at least we had a house. Here we lived in shacks."
How things have changed. The little frontier town that once marked the end of the road for developed southern Brazil today finds itself at the gateway to the country's undeveloped north. After more than 30 years of broken promises, the government is going ahead with plans to pave the BR-163, the federal highway that runs through Guarantá toward the river city of Santarém. By providing farmers and industrialists with a faster way to market, the project promises to slash transportation costs, hasten economic development, and thoroughly modernize one of Brazil's most backward regions. But the new road has environmentalists worrying about the long-term effect of industrialization on this diverse ecosystem.
"What happens here over the next couple of years will determine how this part of the Amazon looks 50 years from now," says Luis Fernando Laranja, director of Ouro Verde Institute, a local environmental group. "The challenge is how to minimize the social and environmental damage."
Built in 1973, BR-163 was used to transport migrants desperate for land into this agriculturally rich region. But engineers paved the road only as far as Guarantá. Even before it leaves the town's northern limits, the asphalt gives away to red dirt, and for the next 600 miles is little more than a muddy track winding its way through the mighty expanse of trees, fields, and rice paddies. Every few yards there are craters the size of bathtubs, and in many places there is barely enough room for two cars to pass side by side.
For years, successive governments were unable to find the cash for such a massive undertaking. They knew that such projects would be met with protests from environmentalists who have watched as loggers, farmers, and ranchers ripped more and more trees from soil that hosts what environmentalists say is the most diverse collection of plants on the planet.
One of those environmentalists, Dorothy Stang, a 74-year-old American nun who spent decades fighting development in the Amazon, was killed Saturday in violence unrelated to the BR-163. She was shot less than a week after complaining to the government about threats to local farmers by loggers and landowners. No one has been charged in the killing.
The recent economic boom in Mato Grosso has made building a pathway through the north a priority. Here in the largest soy and beef state in the world's largest soy and beef country, the lack of a northern outlet costs local farmers dearly. Currently, producers must send their goods 1,800 miles south to the Atlantic ports of Santos and Paranaguá, costing three times as much in transportation and adding five days in shipping time to markets in North America, Europe, and the Middle East.
The government of President Luíz Inácio Lula da Silva has enthusiastically taken the baton of development. Although the former socialist opposed many such projects as opposition leader, he has given the green light to this and other ambitious proposals, including a $670 million project to bring electricity to remote areas and a $360 million project designed to help reduce drought in the arid northeast. Officials say development is essential if Brazil is to grow economically, but they stress that preserving the environment is a key factor in deciding how to proceed.
"This is not just about paving a road," says deputy transport minister Paulo Sergio Oliveira Passos. "We want to do this properly so that the environment is protected."
However, neither that vow, nor a promise that the estimated $350 million cost will come from private funding, reassures opponents. Studies show that 85 percent of development in the region takes place within 30 miles of asphalt highways.
Every minute, trees covering the equivalent of seven football fields are cut down or burned, and further development will quicken the destruction, says William Laurance, a Smithsonian researcher who has spent years studying Amazon deforestation. The mere possibility that work will start soon, expected by August, has enticed opportunists to Para, exacerbating land conflicts and increasing deforestation, say locals and environmentalists.
"Preliminary deforestation figures for central Para show that deforestation in the area is up 511 percent over the year before," says Roberto Smeraldi, Brazil director of Friends of the Earth, an environmental group based in São Paulo.
Still, the majority of people here welcome the road as a harbinger of the opportunity they came here seeking. "Everyone out here wants the road," says Balbinot. "But with or without the [paving of the] road, this area will grow. People came here when the road wasn't paved, so they will come when it is."