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Human Expansion Threatens Brazilian Amazon Forests

The state of Amazonas in northern Brazil is the country's last frontier. And, it is attracting increasing numbers of settlers, looking for land to farm. With the settlers has come environmental degradation, which the Brazilian environmental agency appears ill-equipped to stop.

Wooden houses are going up quickly in the small town, known as Kilometer 180, on the Trans-Amazon highway. Once a simple way-station for trucks and buses, the settlement has grown to 3,000 people, twice the number of two years ago.

But Kilometer 180, named for its distance from the nearest city, is almost inaccessible from its county seat. The city of Manicore lies more than 200 kilometers north, through thick almost impassable rainforest.

But settlers, apparently with at least the tacit support of Manicore, are building a road to reach the city. However, the road is illegal. There are no permits to build it, no environmental impact studies were done, yet it now extends more than 50 kilometers north toward the city. As the road goes forward, settlers follow, burning and clearing the forest to plant crops.

Agents from Brazil's environmental agency, IBAMA, recently tried to stop the road construction. They seized a tractor and other equipment at a camp built at the head of the road. IBAMA agent Renato Haage says the camp was well-equipped.

"It had two generators, a TV with a satellite hookup, and weapons. The whole camp was embargoed (closed down), and the tractor was made inoperative. It was being used to build the road and also to bring out logs," he said.

IBAMA agents also recently investigated a second illegal road near Kilometer 180, this one heading south for about 40 kilometers. Agents said that road is apparently being used by loggers, and they report there is massive deforestation at the end of the road.

At the IBAMA office in the city of Humaita, chief agent Nilo Pires de Oliveira hands out permits to settlers who want to clear their land. Brazilian law limits property owners from clearing more than 20 percent of their land in an effort to slow deforestation. Signs on the wall also warn of penalties for other infractions, including not registering chain saws with the agency.

But Mr. Oliveira readily acknowledges he and his agents face a virtually impossible task of enforcing all the regulations, including stopping activities such as illegal road-building, logging, hunting and fishing. To cover an area of several thousand kilometers, Mr. Oliveira says, he has only four agents. He estimates they barely stop 30 percent of the illegal activities taking place.

"I've been stressed, not by the work, but by what I see needs to be done, but can't do, because of the lack of resources. To see the needs, but be unable to help is frustrating," he said.

With such few resources to enforce the law, it is no surprise illegal roads are being built throughout the Amazon basin. Environmental researcher Adalberto Verissimo estimates there are 15,000 kilometers of illegal roads in the region.

Mr. Verissimo, who works for the environmental research organization IMAZON, says the federal government can stop the devastation that accompanies the roads by creating more protected areas in the Amazon.

"The main tool in the federal government's hands is to create protected areas, because most of this area in Amazonas is what we call unclaimed land. So it's public land; it belongs to the government. So, the government has the authority to create this area, this protected area," he said.

Mr. Verissimo acknowledges such a move is certain to meet resistance from farmers and ranchers, who are now moving into Amazonas. But he says the federal government should make the decision, and enforce it, as the only way to stop illegal roads and preserve the rainforest.

"If the federal government works with the local government, helps them to plan the roads they are building now, that will be a win-win alternative. But as time passes, it becomes more difficult, because people get established along the road and don't want to be moved. … Outside, people have the impression that a top-down decision is always a bad thing, but sometimes this only alternative left, to do something top-down, if you want to really keep this area as a forest. Otherwise, you can come back in five years, and you'll see a disaster there. That's a story we know from the past," Mr. Verissimo Mr. Verissimo.

For now, much of the area beyond Kilometer 180 remains almost untouched, pristine jungle filled with macaws, monkeys and other wildlife.

But for how long is the question. The needs of the settlers in the area are great. Rancher Saul Franco Carvalho, who wants to buy land around Kilometer 180, sums up their mood when he says progress is unstoppable.

"What's going to happen, he says, is that the force of the people is going to open up this region. There will be services, he says, education for the children, and the government will have to help," he said.

But if development continues in its unplanned way, Amazonas state will follow the example of its neighbors, and become another region where the future existence of the tropical rainforest is endangered.