In Brazil, lies an unpaved and at-times treacherous road, the Transamazon Highway. Originally begun to link with Bolivia, there is no longer economic incentive to do so and the project has been abandoned. This June, Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Eugenio Arima was part of the first research team to travel the 700-mile stretch of that road leading through the western part of the Amazon. While much research has been conducted on the eastern portion of the Amazon for more than a decade, little is known about the western region, the frontier and what Arima refers to as the “tipping point” in regional climate models of the Amazon.
“The forest is a huge pump of water, forever-green. The evaporation that comes from it then maintains the moist regional climate,” he explains. “However, if 30 percent of the Amazon rainforest is deforested, the southern part of it would burn into a savannah-type climate. The 30 percent is the tipping point. It’s currently estimated to be at 17 percent.”
Arima and Michigan State University geographer Bob Walker undertook the trip to see firsthand if the Brazilian government’s efforts to stop deforestation were working and if so, how well. It was believed that operations that deplete the forest, such as mining and logging, were taking place in the west out of sight and reach of enforcing agencies. A number of critics had also claimed that the country’s national parks merely existed on paper and were in fact also susceptible to such operations.
For three weeks, Arima and the team bounced, slogged and rolled along the rough highway – and crossed rivers via a system of ferries that included at least one pulled by hand.
“The road is 40 years old, so it’s interesting to see what’s going on 40 years later. There were some very old cities and towns in the easternmost area of the road and along major rivers; those in the middle were roughly 10 years or so; and then some relatively new,” explains Arima. “One town was really a frontier area, essentially the birth of a city taking place.” He estimates there were roughly 20 sawmills in the town, many of which were operating illegally, judging from the cool reception the researchers received there.
They also stopped at a gold mine, also operating illegally because a judge had shut it down for not having proper licenses and paperwork. Rather than cease the operation after the heavy equipment was ordered out, workers used antiquated, labor-intensive techniques such as pan handling.
On another stop, the researchers ran into one town where a mayor had let loggers begin to build roads connecting the town to the more populous area to the south. They were encouraged to find the Brazilian government developed a national forest in the middle of the region, essentially stopping construction of the road in its tracks.
More encouraging signs that governmental efforts were working included agrarian reform agents assuring the team there were no plans to create new settlements in that region; evidence of a significant amount of intervention by law enforcement; and visits to national parks that were in fact true conservation areas and not just “paper parks” they’d been purported to be.
“While we were there, we learned of a mining company that’s been flying a plane with radar over the Amazon for more than a year. They’re prospecting something, but nobody knows what. And, one company was surveying the Sucunduri River to determine the potential for hydroelectric power,” says Arima. “The potential for deforestation to get out of control is still there. But, for now, there’s evidence that it’s being regulated.”