Brazil grants permit to pave highway through heart of Amazon forest

Handout picture released by the Bahia State Government showing people trying to walk across a flooded stretch of the BR-415 highway that connect the cities of Ilheus and Itabuna, affected by heavy rains in the region, in Ilheus, south of Bahia State, Brazil, on December 27, 2021. (CAMILA SOUZA / BAHIA STATE GOVERNMENT / AFP)

SAO PAULO – Brazil's environmental authority on Thursday granted an initial permit that will allow a major highway to be paved through the center of the Amazon rainforest, the minister of infrastructure said, in a move that threatens to increase deforestation.

Right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro on the campaign trail had pledged to repave the road, called BR-319, that would connect the largest Amazon city of Manaus year-round to the rest of Brazil.

The road was originally constructed by Brazil's military dictatorship in the 1970s but rapidly fell into disrepair in the harsh conditions of the rainforest. Much of the route is an impassable stretch of mud during the roughly 6-month rainy season.

A study estimated the project would result in a fivefold rise in deforestation by 2030, the equivalent of an area larger than the U.S. state of Florida

Paving the road would allow illegal loggers and land grabbers to more easily access remote and relatively untouched areas of the forest, environmental experts said. A study estimated the project would result in a fivefold rise in deforestation by 2030, the equivalent of an area larger than the U.S. state of Florida.

Bolsonaro's weakening of environmental protections has already spurred soaring deforestation, with clearances of the Brazilian Amazon hitting a 15-year high in 2021.

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Infrastructure Minister Marcelo Sampaio announced the permit on Twitter, posting an image of the license from environmental agency Ibama. The agency did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

"In an alignment of engineering and respect for the environment, we are going to take the society of Amazonas state out of isolation," he wrote.

Sampaio did not immediately respond to questions about environmental concerns.

The initial license will allow the government to contract companies to pave the largest middle section of the road that is in the worst condition. Contractors will draw up plans but would need another permit in order to begin construction.

This first license would stipulate many conditions in the plans that must be met to start construction, said Marco Aurelio Lessa Villela, a former environmental analyst at Ibama.

"There must be an enormous list of things … that would be necessary for a road in that place not to be a tragedy, Villela said.

Still, an initial license means there is a good chance the road could move forward, he said.

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Bolsonaro celebrated the license in his weekly live internet address.

"I hope soon there's one more license on the way and our (Transportation Department) can start bidding and work for paving BR-319," the president said.