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
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
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