Will new road in Amazon pave way for wealth or devastation?
Rio Branco, Brazil — Brazil and the Inter-American Development Bank are negotiating this week resumed funding for the paving of a road that officials say creates jobs and wealth but environmentalists insist promotes destruction of the Amazon rain forest. The two-lane road is known as BR-364, and the IDB project would pave the 300 miles of road that connect the capitals of Acre State (Rio Branco) and Rond^onia State (P^orto Velho). Torrential rains turn the current dirt road into an impassable sea of mud for six months of the year.
This link-up will open Acre State, whose rain forest remains largely unscarred, to the rest of Brazil. Environmentalists say BR-364 will spark an influx of landless peasants who will devastate Acre's fragile ecological system.
``Traditionally, what happens in this region is that roads stimulate immigration and all sorts of activities that harm the rain forest,'' said Alfredo Sirkis, general secretary of Brazil's newly-formed Green Party. ``This road, too, will facilitate destruction of the rain forest.''
Two United States groups, the Environmental Defense Fund and the National Wildlife Federation, have pressured the IDB to provide protection for the rain forest and the Indians, who are dying from diseases brought in by goldminers and to a lesser extent from gunfire. Their criticism has had some impact.
Last December, the bank suspended the $58.5 million project loan because Brazil's federal government had failed to create institutions to prevent unchecked devastation of the forest and the overrunning of Indian lands. The suspension came after 15 percent of the road had been paved.
William Ellis, who heads the IDB's office in Brazil, said in an interview this summer that the bank decided to reconsider its loan suspension after Brazil's government guaranteed, to an IDB mission that visited here in late May, that the country would abide by stringent measures to protect the environment and Indians.
After that visit, the IDB required that the Brazilian federal government consult closely with local communities on the project as a condition for disbursing the funds. According to Steve Schwartzman, of the Washington-based Environmental Defense Fund, this is the first time that a multilateral insitution has required a borrowing nation to consult with local communities.
``[Government officials] are getting their act together,'' Mr. Ellis said. ``There are higher-level people involved than before, both in the military and civilian sectors. They're giving us every reason to be confident that they'll comply.''
Many environmentalists remain unconvinced and point out that Brazil's government promised the World Bank that it would safeguard the rain forest and its tribal dwellers when that institution funded the paving of a 900-mile stretch of BR-364 in the early 1980s that connects P^orto Velho with Cuiab'a, the capital of Mato Grosso State.
The more than 1 million immigrants who flooded Rond^onia with the paving of BR-364 to P^orto Velho have deforested some 10 million acres - an area equivalent to the Netherlands - and invaded Indian lands throughout the state, says Philip Fearnside, an American ecologist in the Amazon city of Manaus.
``Many parts of Rond^onia look like barren wastelands because there was totally indiscriminate colonization of the state,'' says a foreign ecologist in Bras'ilia. ``There was no planning or control.''
Acre's Governor Flaviano Melo says his government is determined not to allow development to overwhelm Acre.
With only 400,000 habitants, Acre is Brazil's least populated and least developed state. Rio Branco, with 80,000 residents, still has a small town flavor. With only a few restaurants and a couple of movie theaters, couples pass weekend evenings strolling in the main plaza.
Acre's main economic activity comes from the thousands of men who tap the rubber trees scattered throughout the forest, a practice dating back 100 years. But even before the paving of BR-364, cattle ranchers threatened the rubber tappers' livelihood by cutting down a strip of forest on both sides of the road from Rio Branco to Bras'ilia to create pastures. This deforestation has forced 10,000 families to give up the rubber-tapping trade in Acre and move to Rio Branco or Bolivia.
Francisco (Chico) Mendes, the rubber tappers' leader, says he fears that paving BR-364 could promote additional deforestation at the rubber tappers' expense. In June, the federal government created four of the 20 rubber tapper reserves that he says are necessary to allow the rubber tappers to continue working unmolested.
The IDB, meanwhile, is expected to grant $1 million to the rubber tappers to build schools and health clinics and to buy equipment that would allow them to earn more money by processing the latex themselves.
Acre and the federal government, in trying to convince the IDB that they will not allow BR-364 to destroy the state, have strengthened the Program for the Environment and Indian lands (PMACI), a joint federal-state agency established to protect the rain forest and the 32 Indian tribes located near the road. (PMACI has created forest reserves and a state environmental agency and beefed up the state forest and public health agencies.)
Marco Antonio Mendes, Governor Melo's chief environmental adviser, said fewer peasants would head to Acre than Rond^onia because most land in Acre is privately held. ``Peasants could go to Rond^onia knowing that by settling on public land the government would give them title to the land,'' he said. ``In Acre, there's hardly anywhere for immigrants to go.''
Mendes added that whereas Rond^onia actively sought immigrants, Acre will try to discourage them.
But in a country where millions of people live in desperate poverty without land, the paving of BR-364 to Rio Branco could make Acre appear as the latest land of opportunity. Already, thousands of peasants have poured into Acre, turning villages on the border with Rond^onia, such as Extrema, into burgeoning towns.
``They go there hoping to find a better life but find nothing but problems,'' said Acre Bishop Moacyr Greche. ``There are no jobs, no schools, no health posts, and the hospital is full of people with malaria.'' The bishop said he worries the immigrants will push on to Acre's interior and settle on cattle ranchers' land. ``Inevitably, the landowners will try to evict them and deaths will result on both sides, like in the other land conflict areas of Brazil.''
Francisco Thaumaturgo, head of the state environmental agency, said timber companies have begun swarming into Acre because having BR-364 paved will enable them to easily take out the valuable mahogany.
Meanwhile, environmentalists have begun warning about the impact of a possible further extension of the road that would slice through Acre's rain forest.
Melo has pressed President Jos'e Sarney to seek funding from Japan to pave BR-364 from Rio Branco to Peru. H e says the road would boost the economy of Acre - and Brazil - by creating an outlet to the Pacific.