The Road To Disaster

If Brazil paves this route through the Amazon,
the earth's largest rain forest could go up in flames

By Eugene Linden

OCTOBER 16, 1999

Deep inside the rain forest, south of the mighty Amazon River, lies a 700-km stretch of dirt road. For many Brazilians, the paving of such rutted, often impassable routes has almost mystical significance as an essential part of economic progress. But to environmentalists this ritual of development always means destruction for the earth's largest rain forest, and in this particular case, could unleash forces that would make this road the most dangerous thoroughfare in the world.

Such concerns have not deterred the Brazilian government from its decision to pave over those 700 km, the last unfinished portion of a highway called BR-163. That will create a 1,700-km chain of asphalt going past the Tapajos National Forest and linking the Amazon River with southern Brazil. As has happened throughout the Amazon basin, the completion of the highway will open the forest to settlers, and they will undoubtedly set fires to clear land near the road. This area, however is regularly hit by drought and is perhaps the most vulnerable part of the forest. Fires here could grow into the worst conflagration the Amazon has ever seen. Daniel Nepstad, an ecologist who divides his time between the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts and the Amazon Institute for Environmental Research in Belem, Brazil, warns that the paving of BR-163 "could be the beginning of the end of the Amazon."

The world has known for more than a decade, of course, that huge swaths of the South American rain forest are burning. I saw the devastation firsthand when I went to Brazil to report Time's 1989 cover story "Torching the Amazon." But most of the scientists and environmentalists I talked to comforted themselves with the belief that the Amazon was simply too vast for the folly of one generation to destroy it. Now, it seems, the Brazilian government may have stumbled upon a way to do just that.

In 1998, a bad fire year, more than 40,000 sq km of Brazil's rain forest went up in flames.

Ecologists say the paving of BR-163 will put at risk 1.5 million sq km--one-third of the dense forest remaining in the Amazon region. To get an idea of the scale of the potential catastrophe, imagine all of Alaska as scorched earth.

Why should you care? Even if you're not concerned that the world's greatest trove of biological diversity, including millions of undiscovered animal and plant species, is vanishing in a cloud of smoke, you should know that the burning of the Amazon is pumping countless tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, intensifying the threat of global warming.

Conditions have conspired, say scientists, to make the Amazon more vulnerable than ever before. Of most concern is the heightened impact of El Nino, the periodic warming of Pacific waters that plays havoc with the world's weather. El Nino helped cause the 1998 Amazon dry spell, and ecologist Nepstad has studied the vicious circle of drought and fire. The first year of drying and burning sucks vital moisture from the soil and leaves the forest littered with tinder. Sheltering leaves that ordinarily prevent the forest floor from baking in the sun are thinned out. The rainy season may provide a brief respite, but during the next dry season, the remaining trees quickly exhaust soil moisture and become more susceptible to fire. When the giants burn and fall, even more fuel is deposited on the forest floor, and more sunlight scorches the land.

Invasions of settlers can help make conditions even dryer. Land burned and cleared by farmers releases less water to the skies than forest does. Moreover, smoke inhibits rainfall by saturating the air with vast numbers of tiny particles, each of which can become the center of a water droplet. But the droplets remain tiny, and do not become heavy enough to fall to the ground, according to a study conducted by David Rosenfeld at Jerusalem University in Israel.

That's why scientists are so worried about the paving of BR-163. In the Brazilian Amazon, roughly 75% of deforestation has occurred within 50 km of a paved road. Despite laws prohibiting settlement in virgin lands, politicians, who see settlers as voters, have encouraged Brazil's 10 million landless poor to migrate into the interior, torching forest as they go. But the rain forest is not good agricultural land, and many of the farmers sell out to cattle ranchers. The only reason enormous stretches of the forest did not burn down in 1998 was that paved roads did not yet penetrate the most fragile areas.

Conservationists are still trying to block the paving of BR-163, arguing that the government approved the project without assessing its environmental impact. There's a chance the opposition will succeed, but powerful agribusinesses are arrayed behind the road. It will link the port of Santarem on the Amazon River with the city of Cuiaba to the south and make it easier to export soybeans from southern fields.

The irony is that in the end agribusiness will suffer along with everyone else. The destruction of the rain forest could make drought more common all over Brazil, endangering soybean production. In the face of that peril, the government will have to decide whether short-term profits are worth risking an environmental disaster for Brazil--and the whole planet.

-TIME Magazine, VOL. 156 NO. 16