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The Growing Amazon Frontier - 2002-09-19

Increasing numbers of Brazilian farmers and ranchers are moving into the northern state of Amazonas, where the tropical rainforest is still relatively untouched. As settlements spring up, so do illegal roads linking distant communities to the main Trans-Amazon highway - and with the roads comes more deforestation.

The narrow dirt roads branch out from the Trans-Amazon highway like tiny veins from a major artery, winding their way through the verdant green jungle of the Amazon. Many of the roads are short, providing a simple outlet to the highway for settlers working their land.

But over time, some roads have been extended deep into the rainforest, without permission from federal authorities. Such is the case near a growing settlement, known only by its distance from the nearest city - Kilometer 180.

Kilometer 180 sits on the Trans-Amazon highway. It is a way-stop for trucks and buses traveling along the ribbon of red dirt that stretches across north-central Brazil for almost 5,000 kilometers.

Once made up of only a gas station and a few houses, Kilometer 180 now has 3,000 people - double its population two years ago.

But despite the progress, town administrator Edson Minouro Tigawa says the community suffers from being isolated from the county seat, a city called Manicore. The only way to reach Manicore, 200 kilometers to the north, is to travel 180 kilometers west on the Trans-Amazon highway to the city of Humaita, and then north by boat for three days along the Madeira river. Because Humaita is the seat of a different county, municipal services for Kilometer 180 can only come from Manicore.

Mr. Tigawa says this situation is hindering development.

"The biggest problem we have here is the inability to develop," he said. "We belong to a county, where its main city is far from here, and we are closer to a city that belongs to a different county. My idea is that, we either create a new county here, or we build another road to reach Manicore. A road would be best for us, and for our development." And a road is being built to Manicore - without federal authorization. A few kilometers east of Kilometer 180, the illegal dirt road branches off into the forest from the tiny settlement of Maravilha, on the Trans-Amazon highway.

An air of mystery surrounds the road, and residents of the area are reluctant to talk about it. No one knows for sure how far it goes, or who is building it. A recent arrival to the region, Ligiomar de Oliveira, finally speaks up. "It's a partnership between some of the settlers who own land along the road and the county of Manicore," he said. "The information we have, he says, is that the county is building the road, and that it will be finished when more people come - and little by little, this is happening."

The mayor of Manicore denies the county is helping to build the road. But Mayor Manoel de Oliveira Galdino acknowledges a road-building project is under study, though he says the county has neither the resources, nor permission from the federal government, to build it

A few kilometers up the illegal road, fires burn and clouds of billowing smoke fill the sky, as settlers clear their plots of land of brush and trees. Farmer Valdecir Conceicao Silva came from the neighboring state of Rondonia, where rampant slash-and-burn techniques have caused massive deforestation.

Mr. Silva says the land he has now is better, as he plants grains of rice in soil strewn with charred tree stumps and branches. As for the illegal road, he knows little. It goes on for another eight kilometers, he says. But, he does not know who is building it.

In fact, the road extends for at least another 50 kilometers, before reportedly turning into a narrow trail that eventually leads to Manicore.

These illegal roads are becoming more common in the state of Amazonas, as settlers and loggers move in. Adalberto Verissimo of the environmental research group, IMAZON, is worried about this development, saying illegal road-building is the first step toward massive deforestation. "Most of these roads are completely illegal, because to build a road, you need to have an environmental assessment plan, or follow a lot of rules," he said. "So those roads do not comply with any such requirement, and that is one main problem. Roads provide access to small landholders, to colonists, to clear-cut areas, so a road is the first step toward deforestation. It's a widespread problem in this area of the Amazon."

And it's a problem that Brazilian authorities seem unable to solve, despite efforts to stop illegal road-building. But for the settlers pouring into the region federal regulations are irrelevant, because the government is far away.

Like frontiersmen everywhere, they feel they can only rely on themselves whether it's to clear the land, or build a road. This attitude is evident, as a group of settlers sits on the porch of a wooden house, singing a ballad about the hardship and loss that face those who travel through the Brazilian countryside.