Brazil’s government has granted an initial permit that will allow a major freeway to be paved through one of the Amazon rainforest’s most preserved areas.
The road, known as BR-319, is the only road that connects the largest Amazon city of Manaus to the rest of Brazil.
Half the length of the 900km road is still unpaved and is usually impassable during the six-month rainy season.
Researchers say the move will lead to the mass clearing of the rainforest, because most Amazon deforestation happens alongside roads where access is easier and the land is worth more.
Clear cutters previously stayed away from the area – but this is starting to change.
“Law enforcement actions are insufficient to curb the illegal occupation, invasions, deforestation, land speculation and pressures that have been increasing exponentially in recent years,” Fernanda Meirelles, executive secretary of BR-319 Observatory, a watchdog group, said.
The preliminary licence means the project has passed both economic and environmental screens, and is a key part of the project’s ultimate approval – but the asphalt work cannot start yet.
Conditions of the approval include the creation of a conservation area as a buffer for an indigenous group, the monitoring of water quality nearby and an archaeology programme.
Suely Araujo, former president of the environment agency Ibama, said the government is ignoring “the main problem, the explosion of deforestation in the region”.
She said the conditions will not prevent a surge in clear-cutting and the licence should not have been granted.
President Jair Bolsonaro, who is campaigning for re-election, hailed the permit as an example of an infrastructure project moving forward under his leadership.
He said the paving will keep traffic flowing along the road.
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“Brazilians have gotten used to cars and trucks getting bogged down on the BR-319 highway,” he said on Twitter, alongside a video showing deep mud on the road.
“This time, fortunately, it is coming to an end.”
The road was originally built by Brazil’s military dictatorship in the 1970s but fell into disrepair.
Paving it would result in a fivefold rise in deforestation by 2030, according to a study.
Clearances of the Brazilian Amazon hit a 15-year high in 2021, fuelled by Mr Bolsonaro’s weakening of environmental protections.