Last week, Eduardo Bim, president of the environmental agency IBAMA, authorized the Brazilian federal government to begin the rehabilitation of the BR-139 highway between the cities of Manaus, in the state of Amazonas, and Porto Velho, in neighboring Rondonia, a route that crosses the most pristine area of the country’s Amazon rainforest.
The decision was immediately criticized by environmental groups who say restoring the route will encourage deforestation.
The highway project was originally a key part of a plan by the country’s military dictatorship to develop the wilderness and integrate it with the rest of the country. It was officially opened in 1976, but poor maintenance led to its abandonment by 1988. Since then, the road has only been partially usable.
The team also pointed to a link between some well-maintained road sections and higher levels of traffic, “occupancy” and deforestation in the Amazon.
“Monitoring and inspection activities carried out by environmental agencies in the area have shown that the disorderly process of occupation, associated with high rates of deforestation, has intensified in recent months,” they wrote.
“This is particularly noticeable at each end of BR-319, where the asphalt is in good condition, traffic is heavy, and road development has encouraged its occupation,” the document continues.
That document, published in 2008, also recommended ten “conditions” for restoring the highway, including the creation of protected areas along the 400-plus kilometers of road to be paved and the creation of ecotourism programs involving local communities.
“It is impossible not to highlight (these) additional recommendations that will be considered as conditions by the federal government” before work begins, he adds.
Observatorio do Clima said IBAMA experts issued similar recommendations in July, but the agency’s leadership also ignored them.
Critics of the decision were quick to point out the timing of the decision, noting that Brazil is heading to new elections this fall, where President Jair Bolsonaro is expected to face former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.
Beam is an appointee of Bolsonaro, who made restoring the road a campaign promise ahead of the 2018 election. Previous presidents have also promised to repair and fully reopen the highway, including da Silva.
“The decision is clearly politically motivated” and the project is of “great concern,” said Fernanda Meirelles, executive secretary of the BR-319 Observatory, an NGO set up to push for the sustainable development of the highway area.
CNN reached out to IBAMA for comment, but did not receive a response.
Brazil’s infrastructure minister, Marcelo Sabaio, hailed the decision as “the result of courage and technical work” in a post on Twitter.
“We will bring Amazonas society out of isolation,” he wrote, referring to Brazil’s Amazonas state.
While the new permit effectively greenlights the redevelopment project from an environmental standpoint, it does not include provisions for the 10 conservation measures officials recommended in 2008.
Under the terms of the permit, the inspections will be the only measure designed to limit the environmental impact of the road, which cuts through a vast remote area in northwestern Brazil.
“Inspection operations are insufficient to curb land grabbing, invasions, deforestation and land speculation, pressures that have grown exponentially in recent years (in the zone),” Meirelles also said.
Civil society organizations plan to push to overturn IBAMA’s decision in court, according to Sueli Araujo, a public policy expert at the NGO Climate Observatory.
“The permit does not even require the installation of inspection stations (along the road). There is no guarantee that deforestation in the area will be controlled once the road is built,” Araujo said in a statement.
“As deforestation is the main negative impact associated with paving, the sustainability statement of the project, which is inherent in all previous permits, is not properly substantiated. It is a permit that should be quashed by the courts,” he added. .
Brazil’s Amazon rainforest was deforested at a record rate in the first half of 2022, according to the country’s Institute for Space Research (INPE).
Data from INPE satellites show that 3,750 square kilometers (1,448 square miles) of the world’s largest rainforest was lost in Brazil between January 1 and June 24, the most since 2016, when the institute began this kind of monitoring.