The BR-163 highway, an old dream of the Brazilian military to colonise the Amazon jungle, was revived by agroexporters as part of a plan aimed at cutting costs by shipping soy out of river ports. But the improvement of the road has accentuated problems such as deforestation and land tenure, and is fuelling new social conflicts.
The 350-km stretch of road between the cities of Miritituba and Santarem in the northern Brazilian state of Pará look nothing like the popular image of a lush Amazon rainforest, home to some of the greatest biodiversity in the world.
Between the two port terminals – in Santarém, where the Tapajós and Amazon Rivers converge, and in Miritituba on the banks of the Tapajós River – are small scattered groves of trees surrounded by endless fields of soy and pasture.
Cattle grazing peacefully or resting under the few remaining trees, taking shelter from the high temperatures exacerbated by the deforestation, are the only species of mammal in sight.
“A common phrase heard in the area along the BR-163 is ‘whoever deforests, owns the land’ – in other words, deforestation has become an illegal instrument for seizing public land.” – Mauricio Torres
“When we came here 30 years ago this was all jungle,” local small farmer Rosineide Maciel told IPS as she and her family stood watching a bulldozer flatten a stretch of the BR-163 highway in front of their modest dwelling.
Maciel doesn’t miss the days when, along with thousands of other Brazilian migrants, she was drawn here by the then-military government’s (1964-1985) offer of land, part of a strategy to colonise the Amazon rainforest.
Thanks to the paving of the highway that began in 2009, it takes less time to transport her cassava and rice to the town of Rurópolis, 200 km from her farm.
“It’s been easier since they improved the road,” she said. “In the past, there were so many potholes on the way to Rurópolis, and in the wet season it took us three days because of the mud.”
BR-163, built in the 1970s, had become practically impassable. The road links Cuiabá, the capital of the neighbouring state of Mato Grosso – the country’s main soy and corn producer and exporter – with the river port city of Santarém.
Of the highway’s 1,400 kilometres, where traffic of trucks carrying tons of soy and maize is intense, some 200 km have yet to be paved, and a similar number of kilometres of the road are full of potholes.
Accidents occur on a daily basis, caused in the dry season by the red dust thrown up on the stretches that are still dirt, and in the wet season by the mud.
But compared to how things were in the past, it is a paradise for the truckers who drive the route at least five times a month during harvest time.
Truck driver Pedro Gomes from the north of the state of Mato Grosso told IPS: “When soy began to come to Santarém, three years ago, sometimes the drive took me 10 to 15 days. Today we do it in three days, if there’s no rain.”