Roads in the Amazon Basin

In the Amazon basin, roads and other forms of infrastructure development have played a massive role in logging, deforestation, and agricultural expansion. About 95 percent of all deforestation occurs within 50 kilometers of highways or roads in the Brazilian Amazon, fragmentation from roads also lead to tree mortality, drought, and liana invasion. Major highways into the Amazon began in Brazil in the 1960’s, new roads and dams continue in all countries throughout the region.

In the early 1960s, the first major highway in the Amazon basin was cut from the capital Brasilia to Belem at the mouth of the Amazon. This road encouraged settlement into the north of Brazil, although it did not affect the central basin. In the 1970s, however, deforestation increased with the beginning of the Trans-Amazon highway, built east-west primarily through the state of Para. Along with this highway came loggers, farm settlers, and land speculation. Forest was often cleared to claim title; cattle grazing allowed newcomers to claim large areas that were lightly inhabited. At the same time, highway BR-163 was built to connect Brazil north-south, extending from Santarem, along the Amazon River all the way south into Cuiabá in Mato Grosso. BR-163 was first built in the 1970s, and facilitated deforestation along the more accessible southern stretch in Mato Grosso, where massive soy development led to the road being known as the soy highway. However, most of the road was unpaved and access to the northernmost regions was difficult, but in the mid-2000’s, the government provided funding to pave and improve access. Some of the recent Amazon highway programs were funded by the Avança Brasil program. In late 2013, Brazil announced a construction concession for national engineering giant Odebrecht to extend paving of the soy highway. The soy highway played a major role in the migration program Polonordeste of the early 1980s, where the Brazilian government and the World Bank encouraged settlement of the remote Amazon region. Resettlement continues with support from the Institute for Rural Settlement and Agrarian Reform (INCRA).

Recently, new construction has completed the Interoceanica Sur, connecting southern Brazil through the state of Acre and into Made de Dios, Peru, and further on to the Pacific. The Inter-oceanic highway is a project of IIRSA, a regional integration project of South America, sponsored by Brazil. One of the major aims of the highways and infrastructure projects supported by IIRSA is to facilitate access of Brazilian agricultural products to Pacific ports and markets in Asia. Several studies have observed increased deforestation following the recent completion of the highway in Peru. The IIRSA was established by Brazil and UNASUR, the regional organization of political cooperation, and funded via the InterAmerican Development Bank (AsDB) and the Andean Development Bank (CAF). In planning projects, the proponents recognize infrastructure as an important element to stimulate commerce and economic development for rural communities of the Amazon. The Interoceanica Central highway could open 200 miles of undeveloped rainforest in Ucayali, Peru, while the Interoceanica Norte and Manta – Manaus plans would connect pacific ports in northern Peru and Ecuador with Amazon ports on the Amazon and Napo River, where commerce would pass on river downstream to the Atlantic. The conservation implications of IIRSA for the Amazon basin are enormous. Many predict deforestation to follow the proposed linkages of IIRSA just as they have with previous highways into the Amazon. Read more about the conservation implications of IIRSA in a report from Conservation International, and the conservation implication of roads in tropical forests at Yale e360


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