The Trans-Amazonian highway begins in northeast Brazil and crosses the states of Para and Amazonia. The earth road, known as BR-230 on travel maps, was completed in the 1970s during the military regime that ruled Brazil from 1964 until 1985. The highway was intended to further land reform by drawing landless peasants to the area, especially from the poorest regions of northern Brazil. More than 500,000 people have migrated to Transamazonia since the early 1970s. Many of the colonists feel that the government enticed them there with false promises.
The road has never been paved, so it is nothing but dust in the dry season and an impassable swamp during the wet season. Farmers struggle to make a living, with the highway as their only means of transporting produce to market. When the rains come, large segments of the highway wash away entirely, leaving the farmers with no way to transport their crops. Small farmers live on the brink of survival. Farmer José Ribamar Ripardo says, "People grow crops only to see them rot for lack of transport. It's really an animal's life." To survive in Amazonia, the colonists say, they require a paved road to transport their produce.
The goal of repairing and paving the highway is viewed with disfavor by many environmentalists. Roads through Amazonia are perceived as being synonymous with destruction of the rain forests. Many environmental groups fear that improved roads will bring more people into the area and lead to increased devastation.
The Movement For Survival, spearheaded by José Geraldo Torres da Silva, claims that "If farmers could have technical help to invest in nature , they will be able to support their families with just one third of their land lots, avoiding deforestation , the indiscriminate killing of numerous animal and plant species." Farmers in the region say that they can survive on the land base that they have already acquired. They have proposed preserving some natural vegetation by growing a mixture of rubber and cacoa trees, which grow best in shaded areas, so they will not have to devastate the forest. Efforts are currently underway to establish extractivist preserves to harvest rubber, brazil nuts, and other native products. Such proposals for the use of the forest are a viable option, but they are not enough. The environmentally friendly plans must also take into account fluctuations in the market place. Brazil nuts, for instance, are harvested in the unspoiled forest. When nut prices fall on the international market, the gatherers must have other means of income to fall back on, without having to relocate to a different part of the country.
Many residents of the area fear that if small farmers do not have a reliable road to get produce to market, they will have to leave the region. There is a real danger that their lots will be sold to cattle ranchers, loggers, and investors. Small farmers have a track record of utilizing the land in ways that are more environmentally sound than those who follow in their wake.
[Debra Glidden ]
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