Jorge Nildo does not have kind words for himself. “I was a devil. It really was a mess,” he confesses. At age 39, this Amazonian man with the open smile, remembers his days as a hunter in the rainforests of the Igapó-Açu River, a Madeira River tributary. “We would go up the river and kill 200, 300 pacas [large rodents], caititu [peccary], deer, jaguar.”
Nildo also worked as a guide to hunters who came from outside the Amazon. Born on the banks of the Igapó-Açu, he knew – and still knows – how to navigate through the submerged and trees and flooded forest at the height of the wet season, and especially how to find the high ground where animals are concentrated.
For those driving north from Porto Velho along the BR-319 highway, the riparian forests of Igapó-Açu represent the last large-scale section of protected unfragmented rainforest seen before approaching Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, which lies just 200 kilometers (125 miles) farther up the road. South of the Igapó-Açu River ferry crossing, the BR-319 saw little serious maintenance since the road’s construction in the 1970s, though upkeep has been ratcheted up in recent years. North of the ferry, the asphalt is in better condition, and access is better, so we drove north past a succession of large farms, degraded pastures and remnant forest patches.
The river, the largest of the tributaries in the Purus-Madeira watersheds, impresses with its beauty. Its waters are jet black duet to the acidity of the soil, decaying leaves and regular forest flooding. The river’s name comes from the Tupi language; “igapó” means flooded forest, and “açu” means large. In 2009, almost its entire length and surrounding woodlands were turned into a protected natural area – the Igapó-Açú Sustainable Development Reserve (SDR).
This Brazilian government designation allows for the controlled use of natural resources by the traditional communities that occupy the land. That means that its 397,500 hectares (1,535 square miles) – an area the equivalent to four New York Cities – was no longer available after 2009 to people who did not live there after 2009.
Nildo has since left his career as a professional hunter, and is today a major conservationist in the region, and a member of the Igapó-Açú SDR Management Council. “This reserve was really made to maintain the [indigenous and traditional] culture, the way of life of those who live here,” Nildo explains.
A land that time forgot, but not anymore
Our visit to Igapó-Açú came near the end of our south-to north drive along the BR-319, after days punctuated by stops in small logging towns and camps. Although we rode past several protected areas as we went, none were feasible for a visit, either restricted by access or a lack of staff. Nildo’s reserve is a case apart, as the highway passes right through it.
Not surprisingly, this intimate proximity to the road poses the primary threat to the sustainable management of this reserve.
The community that lives on the banks of the Igapó Açú is divided as to the human opportunities and threats to nature afforded by the highway. When we were there, we heard complaints about the difficulty of driving the poorly maintained sections of the BR-319 in the rainy season and a lack of access to basic amenities, including an internet connection and high school. One of Nildo’s teenage daughters, for example, must travel 100 kilometers (62 miles) to attend high school in Careiro Castanho.
Nildo himself is hopeful regarding possibilities for the protected area. On a Sunday morning, he took us on his boat on a tour of the flooded forest. Sailing among the trees, he praised the great tourist potential the SDR affords, especially for groups that practice sport fishing.
Roads on all sides
Like other conserved areas in the Purus-Madeira region, Igapó-Açu was created as part of a strategy initiated in 2009 by environmentalists and government bodies to stem the pressures of unbridled occupation that improvement of the BR-319 was expected to bring to this well-preserved part of the Amazon.
Today, there are 11 protected areas totaling an impressive 6.38 million hectares (24,600 square miles) – a territory one and a half times larger than Denmark – put in place to offset the anticipated development effects coming when the BR-319 was improved and paved.
Now that the government is moving ahead with maintenance and a promise made in 2005 by then-President Lula to fully pave the 890 kilometer (550 mile) road, conservationists are worried – partly because the route cuts the moist forest ecosystem in half from north-to-south, and partly because the 11 conservation units mostly exist only on paper, without proper management or enforcement.
The BR-319, built in the 1970s during Brazil’s military dictatorship, rapidly deteriorated over the decades, taking a pounding from harsh Amazon rains, which turned it into an insufferable mudhole that swallowed vehicles. Maintenance over the last four years has now made it passable throughout the wet and dry seasons for the first time in many years.
Now, the Brazilian government, through the National Department of Transport Infrastructure (DNIT), is preparing an environmental impact study for the pavement of a 405 kilometer (250 miles) stretch, turning the entire road into a modern highway. Expectations are that the environmental license application will be complete and delivered to Brazil’s environmental agency, Ibama, for approval in the first half of 2019.
The chief concern to conservationists related to the BR-319 is that it transects the interfluvial zone, the slight uplift between the Purus and Madeira river basins.
This territory, with its moist forest habitat boasts rich biodiversity intensified by the intermingling of plants and animals from the two river systems. As with other regions closed in by two large bodies of water, endemic species have developed and flourish here. In addition, past neglect to the BR-319 closed the region to most people, allowing the largely unfragmented, tropical rainforest, lake ecosystems and flooded forests to flourish.
One of the major issues being addressed in the environmental licensing process is the potential construction of auxiliary roads leading away from the BR-319. Among these is the AM-366, an Amazonas state highway which when complete will link to the city of Tefé, hundreds of kilometers to the west, with the road also connecting Porto Velho to Manaus.
There is also grave concern regarding unauthorized sideroads, bulldozed by illegal and legal loggers, cattle ranchers and land grabbers once these Amazon highways are built and/or improved. Such sideroads appeared rapidly in the once remote Tapajós basin, for example, as soon as the BR-163 was largely paved, offering access to land thieves who have since carved out claims to federal conservation units and indigenous reserves.
A new national park threatened
The only new national park among the 11 protected areas created in 2009 is Nascentes do Lago Jari (Lake Jari Springs); it is large, encompassing 812,000 hectares (3,135 square miles). However, the AM-366, as conceived, will pass within the preserve’s boundaries, likely threatening its integrity. In fact, locating the road there was a requirement lobbied for by local inhabitants in public hearings as a condition for the park’s decree and demarcation.
An example of the negative impacts Amazon roads can cause came with the reopening in 2015 of a section of the AM-364 that connects the BR-319 with Manicoré, known as the Ramal da Democracia. In the last three years, this section of the AM-364 became passable year round, and Manicoré began seeing a steady rise in deforestation. Although the total area cut represents only 4.1 percent of the municipality, that’s a total of 35,000 hectares (135 square miles) lost so far, making Manicoré the Amazonas state municipality with the fourth highest deforestation.
Just before leaving Porto Velho and heading north on the BR-319, we met with Rafael Pereira, head of Nascentes do Lago Jari National Park. As a public servant at the federal Chico Mendes Institute of Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), he proudly told us of the park’s recently approved management plan. He explains that at some unnamed future date, the park will hire rangers and receive visiting tourists.
As the name indicates, the protected area encompasses conserved springs which feed immense Lake Jari, part of the Purus River system upon which hundreds of Amazonian fishing communities depend. Here the economy revolves around the giant pirarucu, the largest scaled fish in Amazonia, increasingly appreciated in South America’s big city markets. Rafael told us that the national park also supports populations of manatees and jaguars.
Despite this positive spin from park management, we encountered some bad news a few days before arriving at Igapó-Açu: we heard reports of conflicts between the local community and environmental agencies, and rumors of an invasion into federally protected lands. An employee of Construtora Meirelles e Mascarenhas, one of two companies that currently maintains the BR-319, told us that he has witnessed groups of invaders with topography mapping equipment entering the protected preserve monthly, though precisely what their purpose might be isn’t known.
With respect to conflicts, roadside residents complain that environmental agencies harass local hunters, while violent gangs operate freely inside the park without being stopped by law enforcement. We could not verify these accounts, though we did on one occasion see a motorcyclist carrying a hunting rifle in the vicinity of a protected area.
In the mid-2000s, when the BR-319 improvement plan was announced by President Lula, scientists from several Amazon research institutes saw it as an opportunity to deepen their knowledge of the unknown biodiversity in the Purus Madeira interfluvial. Two interdisciplinary projects mobilized resources and scientists on a large scale – the Geoma Project and the Biodiversity Research Project (PPBio).
Mario Cohn-Haft, an ornithologist based at the National Research Institute of the Amazon (INPA) in Manaus, led an expedition to do a species survey. Aware that territory on the cusp of two Amazon river basins would have a high probability of endemism, he expected to find many varieties of bird, including some not previously known to science.
“We knew it was a part of the Amazon that was still intact,” he said, “but it was [also a region] in the sights of a major infrastructure project, causing still unknown species to quickly become vulnerable.”
INPAs survey located more than 740 species of bird occurring regularly in the Madeira-Purus interfluvial, even though the study only looked at the portion of the region found in Amazonas state. This large total represents more than 40 percent of all known Brazilian avifauna, and approximately 60 percent of known Amazonian bird species.
“Although it is the smallest Amazon rainforest interfluvial (among the main tributaries), it is indisputably the richest in bird species,” according to an article written about the discovery at the time.
The reason for this biodiversity: the wide variety of habitats found where the Purus and Madeira watersheds meet, “including dryland forests of varying sizes and compositions, muddy flooded forests, black and crystalline waters, campinaranas [natural clearings], floodplain, cerrado [savanna], and areas [where there is a] prevalence of native bamboo(tabocas).”
While exploring this range of habitats, Cohn-Haft did find a new species, Campina’s Jay (Cyanocorax hafferi). The bird, with gaudy blue plumage, thrives in natural clearings, among shrub vegetation in the presence of grasses.
The researcher says that he became interested in the region’s natural clearings in the 1990s when he spotted them in satellite images of the interfluvial. Suspicious that these fields might be home to new bird species, he used crowd-funding to finance overflights. Eventually, traveling there on foot, he was able to find and document C. hafferi.
“This was a golden age of biological and environmental studies to assess species vulnerability,” Cohn-Haft says. He notes that the conservation units created in 2009 lining the BR-319 were created as a direct result of these species surveys done to mitigate environmental harm.
Protected areas without protection
The delineation of conservation unit boundaries on paper is one thing, their establishment as working parks with adequate authority, enforcement and equipment is another. Shifts in federal administration – under presidents Lula, Rousseff, and Temer – plus changes in state hierarchies, has made conservation policy implementation uneven and ineffective.
At the moment, none of the federal parks has a manager working inside it, and few have management plans. Only two of the eleven reserves along the BR-319 currently have an implementation plan in place, according to a study by the civil society organization, Instituto de Desenvolvimento Sustentável do Amazonas (Idesam). One of those preserves is the Igapó-Açu reserve.
The failure of federal agencies to put implementation plans in place for these conserved areas has triggered a civil action by Brazil’s Federal Attorney Office (Ministério Público). As part of this case, ICMBio, which oversees Brazil’s parks, has been ordered to create deadlines for the implementation of management councils and management plans for all the conservation units. This ruling has been upheld by the courts, and follow-up is underway by the attorneys to ensure compliance.
“It is a public civil action … to oblige the ICMBio to implement the conservation units created along the route of BR-319 (Manaus / AM – Porto Velho / RO), with the purpose of ‘shielding’ the [areas near the] road against disorderly occupation and the ‘fishbone’ effect, caused by the opening of clandestine [side road] branches along the main axis,” reads an excerpt from the 2016 lawsuit.
In his Manaus office, attorney Rafael Rocha, the suit’s primary author explains that the decision to move the action occurred as deforestation data began to indicate an advance [of development into] the protected areas along the BR-319. “We have a situation where there is a lot of area [to cover] for a few enforcement agents and, in some cases, a lot of area [covered by] no agents at all.”
Back at Igapó-Açu, Nildo, warns us that there are strong pressures from invaders and hunters here, even though this preserve has a more advanced management plan in place than other conservation units. According to him, as BR-319 road maintenance progresses, and promises of asphalting all its extensions grow, people from outside have been popping up, not just to hunt or fish, but with offers to purchase land and with proposals for illegal activities.
“The outsiders ask us why we do not hunt [for land] to sell,” he tells us. “We refuse. But they do not understand what we are saying. They want development.”