Controversy Swirls Around Plan to Upgrade Amazon Basin Highway : BR-364: Road to Riches--or Ruin--in Brazil

Times Staff Writer

Carved from a carpet of pristine forest in the Amazonian state of Acre, this pioneer farming community depends for its existence on an umbilical link known as “the BR.”

Without that link, a highway bearing the official designation BR-364, Nova California’s 5,000 settlers would have no hope of building a better life on this newly opened land. Without the BR, they and thousands of others would never have come here to cut away the forest in the first place.

BR-364 thus has brought both the promise of economic development and the threat of environmental destruction to the remote heart of South America. And in the past two years, it has become a symbol of conflict between those who want more land cleared for development in Brazil’s huge Amazon River basin and those who seek to preserve the region’s natural environment.


Environmental Concerns

The Inter-American Development Bank suspended funds for paving BR-364 because of fears that better access would increase damage to the forest and to Indian societies. The Brazilian government, however, insists that it will soon finish the 80 miles remaining to be paved between here and Rio Branco, the Acre state capital.

Brazil is also planning to pave BR-364 all the way to the border of Peru, giving this country its first true trans-Amazon highway.

In Nova California and other struggling farm centers along the western reaches of BR-364, paving is seen as a matter of survival. Without pavement, costly and unreliable transportation makes it hard to advance beyond the primitive and destructive methods of slash-and-burn agriculture, settlers say.

‘BR Is Our Salvation’

“We need the highway, please,” said Marlene Svirski, a schoolteacher in Nova California. “The BR is our salvation.”

BR-364 is one of many highways that have sliced into the Amazon basin during the past two decades, connecting the region’s main cities to one another and to Brazil’s population centers far to the east and southeast. Branch roads have crept out from the main routes as farmers, ranchers, prospectors and merchants have pushed into the jungle. Settlements, towns and small cities have sprung up as the forest has receded.

Today, the population of Brazil’s most thinly populated Amazon states is estimated at nearly 9 million, up from 3.6 million in 1970.

Dramatic Land Rush

Nowhere has the land rush been more dramatic than in Rondonia, a state nearly as large as West Germany to the east of Acre. Settlers from southern Brazil, where large-scale mechanized agriculture is crowding out small farmers, have poured into Rondonia on BR-364. The state’s population has grown to more than 1.5 million from 111,000 in 1970.

Three-quarters of Rondonia was virgin forest when the BR opened it up in the 1970s. Luis Alberto Cantanhede, national forest service supervisor for Rondonia, said in an interview that deforestation of the original woodlands has now probably surpassed 30% in the state.

“There is a geometric progression,” Cantanhede said. “Every three years, deforestation is doubling.”

Settlers often farm a few acres for two or three years, depleting the nutrients in the soil, then move on to raze another patch of forest. The idle land is quickly overgrown with heavy brush called capoeira.

60% Is New Growth

Officials estimate that more than 60% of deforested land in Rondonia is now covered with capoeira. This figure is often cited as a warning against degrading the rest of the Amazon forest.

Across the state line in Acre, settlers in Nova California hope to avoid Rondonia’s mistakes. Antonio Carlos Scheffer, a Nova California farmer, said that many here would like to cultivate Brazil-nut trees and other cash-producing plants in the virgin forest on their land.

“The Amazon here would become productive without destroying the forest,” said Scheffer, 35. “But here we are without resources. We have to cut down more forest every year.”

California was the name of a privately owned forest tract here that was taken over by the government and redistributed to small farmers in the early 1980s after the BR came through. The modest and mostly unpainted wood houses of Nova California are scattered over a network of dirt streets on the south side of the highway. A broad main street, named Avenue of the Pioneers, is divided by a weedy center strip and scarred with ruts and bumps.

Barely Making It

So far, Nova California has barely managed to scratch a living from the soil, but a group of farmers has designed an ambitious reforestation project they hope will improve the community’s fortunes.

The project will create new “forests” containing three kinds of trees: the Brazil nut, the cupuacu and the pupunha. The cupuacu, related to the cacao tree, produces a pod containing sweet, juicy pulp that is a popular flavoring for juice and ice cream and other foods; the pupunha is a palm that produces a small coconut used for different foods, oil and animal feed.

Sergio Lopes, the project leader, calculates that a farmer can make a comfortable living by cultivating as little as six acres of reforested land. The average size of a family farm in Nova California is about 250 acres, with about 15 acres cleared.

The “permanent crops” of the project would replace seasonal cash crops such as corn, beans and rice, which deplete the tropical soil and leave it exposed to erosion.

‘A New Mentality’

“If it works, it is going to create a new mentality for using the land,” said Lopes, 28. “Asphalt by itself does not bring devastation. What brings deforestation is the mentality of the people. You have to change the people’s mentality.”

The community hopes to get financing from a Dutch foundation that has shown interest in the project. Lopes said the project’s success also will depend on the paving of BR-364 to Rio Branco, the nearest marketing and supply center.

The highway to Rio Branco, about 100 miles, is paved in stretches totaling 20 miles. The rest is rough red dirt, deep ruts and oozing mud, often impassable after a rain. In 1985, the Inter-American Development Bank granted Brazil a low-interest loan of $44 million to help pave BR-364 between Porto Velho, the capital of Rondonia, and Rio Branco--a stretch of about 310 miles. The bank allocated an additional $14.5 million for environmental projects aimed at protecting forests and Indian reservations in Rondonia and Acre.

About one-fourth of the money had been disbursed by late 1987 when the bank suspended the funding because the environmental projects were lagging behind. The decision was made after Chico Mendes, a leftist organizer of Acre rubber tappers, spoke against the paving project on a visit to the United States.

Rancher Accused of Murder

Mendes was shot to death last December at his home in the Acre town of Xapuri. Charged with the murder are members of a ranching family that has been involved in bitter land disputes with rubber tappers.

Since 1987, Brazil and the development bank have been negotiating conditions for resumption of the highway funding, and officials say the talks are near conclusion. The last point of discussion has been preservation of forest surrounding Indian reservations, a bank spokesman said.

Raimundo Barros, a cousin of Mendes and treasurer of the National Council of Rubber Tappers, said in Rio Branco that tappers do not oppose paving BR-364 if forest reserves are respected.

“We are not against the highway,” said Barros. “We are against the way it is being built, because up to now, the government has not decided for a policy of guarantees to our peoples, not only rubber tappers but also Indians.”

Sarney Tells New Program

In April, President Jose Sarney announced details of an environmental program, named “Our Nature,” that he said will help protect the Amazon forest. The core of the program is an Amazon zoning project that would determine which areas should be preserved and which could be used for farming, mining and other activities.

The plan does not include any limits on road building in the region. Sarney’s administration promised to pave the BR to Rio Branco, with or without aid from the Inter-American Development Bank. The government also is pushing ahead with plans to pave BR-364 from Rio Branco to the Peruvian border, a 500-mile stretch of highway along the northern edge of Acre that currently is impassable during the seven or eight rainiest months of the year.

According to Gilberto Siqueira, head of the Acre State Technology Foundation, the government is asking Japan to give priority to the paving project as part of Japanese aid to Brazil. Some U.S. congressmen, reflecting the concerns of environmental interest groups in the United States, have voiced opposition to any Japanese financing for BR-364. Japan has made no official commitment to the project.

Amazon Highway: Both Promise and Threat Struggling farm communities in Brazil’s western Amazon depend for their existence on Highway BR-364, and finishing unpaved stretches is seen by them as a matter of survival. But environmentalists in Acre state see BR-364 as threatening the and and point to the vast deforestation of Rondonia state in the 1970s, when the highway opened up the region. Some in Acre hope to avoid Rondonia’s mistakes by shunning slash-and-burn agriculture and raising crops that do not deplete the soil.