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A Brazilian road project cuts through the Amazon, paving the way to vast deforestation

An aerial view of the BR-319 highway where it meets the Igapó Açu River in São Sebastião, Brazil, on Sept. 24. The community is a stopping point for travelers and tourists.
Bruno Kelly for NPR
An aerial view of the BR-319 highway where it meets the Igapó Açu River in São Sebastião, Brazil, on Sept. 24. The community is a stopping point for travelers and tourists.

Updated October 30, 2022 at 7:27 PM ET

Reporter John Otis along with photographer Bruno Kelly traveled the length of the road, known as BR-319, for this story.


BR-319 HIGHWAY, Brazil — This road trip starts on water. That's because the road known as BR-319 begins on the opposite bank of the Amazon River from the Brazilian city of Manaus, and there's no bridge. So, we drive a pickup aboard a ferry for an hour-long journey.

The lack of bridges, towns and fuel stations along the road — the pickup is loaded with cans of diesel in case it runs empty — is because 319 remains a work in progress.

The 550-mile-long road was built in the 1970s by the military dictatorship that then ruled Brazil in a campaign to "tame" the jungle by bringing more settlers and development to the Amazon. Although the road brought thousands of homesteaders to the region, it gradually fell into disrepair due to heavy rains and the high cost of maintenance.

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Today, it's like driving an obstacle course, with crater-sized potholes, broken pavement and no guardrails. Much of 319 is gravel and dirt that dissolves into mud during the rainy season.

"The first time I went down the highway in 2006, we got stuck five times — and that was in a four-wheel drive," Philip Fearnside, a biologist at Brazil's National Institute for Amazonian Research, says in an interview in Manaus just before NPR departed. "We almost lost the vehicle."

It's dry season, and trucks up ahead are churning so much dust it's like driving through a sandstorm. Accidents are frequent. At one point, we stop to inspect an overturned tractor-trailer that was carrying vegetables to Manaus. We're told that the driver, who survived with bumps and bruises, either fell asleep at the wheel or swerved to miss an animal.

An overturned truck on highway BR-319 on Sept. 25.
/ Bruno Kelly for NPR
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Bruno Kelly for NPR
An overturned truck on highway BR-319 on Sept. 25.

"In the dry season there are too many holes and in the rainy season the mud doesn't let people get through," says Carlos de Souza, a truck driver at the accident site. "The road needs to be paved."

He may get his wish.

Jungle roads bring newcomers and deforestation

Outgoing President Jair Bolsonaro, who has promoted mining, logging and ranching in the Amazon, pledged to fully pave 319 and turn it into a kind of jungle expressway. In July, Brazil's environmental agency granted a preliminary permit to go forward.

Although that permit is still under review, we spot dump trucks and bulldozers upgrading the road.

Construction on the BR-319 highway on Sept. 25.
/ Bruno Kelly for NPR
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Bruno Kelly for NPR
Construction on the BR-319 highway on Sept. 25.

We also find a lot of roadside residents who strongly support the project. Among them is farmer Rose Marcondes, who recalls falling sick with malaria during last year's rainy season.

"The road was so muddy that even with a four-wheel drive, I could not get to a hospital," she says.

Rose Marcondes on her land at kilometer 502 of highway BR-319 on Sept. 26.
/ Bruno Kelly for NPR
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Bruno Kelly for NPR
Rose Marcondes on her land at kilometer 502 of highway BR-319 on Sept. 26.

But jungle roads in Brazil — even unfinished ones like 319 — nearly always bring a flood of newcomers and massive deforestation, says Fearnside. Settlers often use authorized roads as launching points to build illegal side roads into pristine parts of the jungle where they can log, mine, and raise cattle. The result, he says, is a kind of "fishbone" pattern of destruction.

"The better the road gets the more and more environmental crimes are happening. You have the land being grabbed along the road, you have more and more deforestation, and you have all of these illegal side roads that are being built," Fearnside says.

An area of recently deforested and burned Amazon rainforest along highway BR-319 on Sept. 25.
/ Bruno Kelly for NPR
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Bruno Kelly for NPR
An area of recently deforested and burned Amazon rainforest along highway BR-319 on Sept. 25.

People are getting killed, too

The destruction is not confined to just trees and animals. According to a report published last month by human rights group Global Witness, 342 environmental activists have been killed in Brazil over the past decade — more than in any other country.

The most recent victims were British journalist Dom Phillips, who was writing a book on how to stop the destruction of the Amazon, and Bruno Pereira, a Brazilian expert on uncontacted Indigenous tribes. They were killed by poachers in June while documenting efforts to stop illegal fishing in the Amazon.

Guarani Indigenous people and human rights activists protest demanding that the Supreme Court define the demarcation of Indigenous lands and asking for justice for the deaths of British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, in São Paulo on June 23.
Andre Penner / AP
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AP
Guarani Indigenous people and human rights activists protest demanding that the Supreme Court define the demarcation of Indigenous lands and asking for justice for the deaths of British journalist Dom Phillips and Indigenous expert Bruno Pereira, in São Paulo on June 23.

All along the highway 319, we come across huge fires set by farmers and ranchers. Under Bolsonaro, more than 16,000 square miles of Amazon jungle have been destroyed, according to Brazil's National Institute for Space Research that tracks fires in the Amazon. That's an area larger than Switzerland.

An upgraded highway would speed up the destruction, says Jorge Torres, an Indigenous fisherman who has lived in the Amazon for 44 years.

"I live in a paradise and we have to take care of it," he says. "But most people don't think that way. They think the rainforest goes on forever."

A bird flies past a large fire in a recently deforested area of the Amazon rainforest along highway BR-319 on Sept. 25.
/ Bruno Kelly for NPR
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Bruno Kelly for NPR
A bird flies past a large fire in a recently deforested area of the Amazon rainforest along highway BR-319 on Sept. 25.

Fearnside says turning 319 into a major highway makes little economic sense. He says it would be cheaper to move electronics, motorcycles and other goods produced in the Amazonian city of Manaus to São Paulo and other major cities along rivers and the Atlantic Ocean.

As for settlers who move to remote patches of the Amazon and then demand roads, Fearnside has little sympathy.

"In Brazil, people do have the right to come and go, but it doesn't mean that you have the right to have the government build a highway to everybody's doorstep," he says.

The highway project has many supporters

Bolsonaro loyalists, however, say it's high time to upgrade the highway and help Amazonian residents improve their lives.

"I don't accept any longer that people remain stuck in the quagmire ... that buses can't move, that they need to be pulled by tractors, that people get dirty with mud and spend three or four days stuck," said Tarcísio Gomes de Freitas, Bolsonaro's former infrastructure minister, who is running for governor of São Paulo state in Sunday's election.

Eduardo Taveira, the top environmental official in Amazonas state that includes most of the highway, tells NPR that improving 319 will help authorities monitor the jungle and stop deforestation.

Cattle in a recently deforested and burned area of the Amazon rainforest along the BR-319 on Sept. 25.
/ Bruno Kelly for NPR
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Bruno Kelly for NPR
Cattle in a recently deforested and burned area of the Amazon rainforest along the BR-319 on Sept. 25.

"So why not find a way to make the road accessible again, and avoid deforestation. Why not do that? It's totally possible to do that," he says.

However, Bolsonaro has gutted the government agencies that enforce environmental laws.

The winner of Sunday's presidential election, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, has pledged to take better care of the Amazon and restaff environmental agencies. During his two previous terms in office from 2003 through 2010, annual deforestation rates dropped dramatically. But even the left-wing da Silva says he's willing to discuss paving 319.

A campaign flag for presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on a car on the ferry crossing the Amazon River from Manaus to highway BR-319 on Sept. 24.
/ Bruno Kelly for NPR
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Bruno Kelly for NPR
A campaign flag for presidential candidate Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva on a car on the ferry crossing the Amazon River from Manaus to highway BR-319 on Sept. 24.

"We can't turn Amazonas state into a nature reserve," da Silva told a Manaus radio station last month. "Millions of people live there. They have the right to a civilized life and to come and go. It's totally possible to address climate issues and to construct good roads."

What's more, there are risks to letting the road deteriorate.

On our way back to Manaus, the highway takes us across a large concrete bridge spanning a river near the town of Careiro.

Just 12 hours after we drove across it, that bridge collapses into the water, taking several vehicles with it.

According to government officials, four people died and one is still missing.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Local people and rescue workers navigate boats in the Curuca River after a bridge collapsed on the BR-319 highway in Careiro da Várzea, near Manaus, on Sept. 28.
Bruno Kelly / Reuters
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Reuters
Local people and rescue workers navigate boats in the Curuca River after a bridge collapsed on the BR-319 highway in Careiro da Várzea, near Manaus, on Sept. 28.