Brazilian government officials are targeting resources from the Amazon Fund, one of the main bilateral tools for countries to invest in the Amazon, to pay for a controversial road project in the rainforest.
The plan, announced in late August by the country’s Minister of Transportation, Renan Filho, was met with suspicion by environmentalists who are familiar with the fund’s guidelines.
During a press conference announcing new infrastructure investments, Filho said he plans to pitch the fund’s governing board a project to pave BR319, a road that cuts through the Amazon forest and connects two major cities in the north of Brazil — Manaus and Porto Velho.
But environmentalists argue that this is not the kind of project that the fund is supposed to support.
“The Amazon Fund is meant to keep the forest standing, to maintain its biodiversity, and to fight climate change. I don’t see its resources being used for paving. It would be completely incompatible with its guidelines,” says Sila Mesquita, president of the NGO Amazon Working Group and current representative of civil organisations in the Amazon Fund committee.
One of the fund’s creators, forest scientist Tasso Azevedo also disagrees with the Ministry of Transportation’s plan.
“I don’t think it makes any sense. This project does not fit into any of the fund’s planned support lines,” says Azevedo, currently coordinator at MapBiomas, an initiative to monitor land use in Brazil developed by a network of universities, NGOs, and technology companies.
Created in 2008, the Amazon Fund has over $1.2 billion available for projects that prevent, monitor and combat deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. The fund gets its money mainly from its largest donors — Norway, Germany and state-owned oil company Petrobras.
In 2019, the Amazon Fund was virtually paralysed by former president Jair Bolsonaro, who dissolved the committee that sets guidelines on how the money should be spent.
Because of this political move, the money was frozen for over three years, since new projects could not be analysed. Donor countries Norway and Germany also suspended new contributions during Bolsonaro’s term.
Revived by president Lula on his first day in the office, new potential investors have lined up.
Last week, Denmark announced a donation of $22 million, joining the UK, USA, Switzerland, and the EU, all of which advertised new contributions since Lula reinstated the fund.
The initiative had funded 102 projects amounting to over $360 million until it was paralysed by Bolsonaro.
But none of the supported projects were related to road infrastructure, according to the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES), which manages the fund.
“So far, the BNDES has not received any requests for financing a road infrastructure project using resources from the Amazon Fund,” BNDES told Climate Home News.
The bank also highlighted that any requests are processed “in accordance with the strategic vision, guidelines and focuses” outlined in the 2023-25 Biennium, a new set of guidelines created by the Amazon Fund’s Guiding Committee.
The new rules for how the money should be spent in the next two years were set by a committee formed by representatives of NGOs, environmental agencies and governmental institutions such as Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Environment.
One of the members of this committee, Sila Mesquita, believes that the guidelines do not align with the project presented by the Ministry of Transportation.
The ministry, however, argues that the paving of BR319 would turn the road into the world’s “most sustainable highway” and would allow easier access for police patrols to monitor and prevent deforestation.
“Our commitment, in addition to guaranteeing economic and social development by granting citizens the right to come and go, is also to ensure that the BR319 is a model in terms of environmental conservation,” the Ministry of Transportation told Climate Home News.
Road through the rainforest
The BR319 is a federal highway that serves as the only link between two large states in the North of Brazil: Amazonas and Rondônia.
Built during the 1970s, the road was delivered completely paved, but was closed a decade later due to lack of maintenance. Since then, only branches of the highway are paved and allow for regular traffic.
According to BR-319 Observatory, a collective of organisations that operate in the highway’s area, re-paving the road without conservation measures and proper consultation to indigenous communities can be prejudicial to the Amazon and encourage deforestation.
The BR319 cuts through several conservation areas, including indigenous territories. Its indirect impact spans an ever larger perimeter
Several studies show that proximity to transportation networks is a major proximate driver of deforestation in the Amazon. Recent research has pointed out that 95% of the deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon happens within 5.5 km of a legal or illegal road. Considering only the official road network, most of the deforestation happens within 50 km of the nearest road.
The complete paving of BR319, planned by the current Ministry of Transportation, still depends on several approvals from the Brazilian Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama).
“For this road to be sustainable, like the government says, it needs to be beneficial for all those conservation parks and indigenous territories that it cuts through. We have to ask the people who live there what is sustainable for them. It’s not about being for or against the paving of a road: it’s about taking into consideration science, technology and the local communities as well,” says Sila Mesquita.