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Illegal Roads Speeding Destruction of the Rainforest
Officially Geroan's chainsaw shop doesn't exist. Nor does the newly opened petrol station next door, or the motorbike workshop or even the Uniao supermarket, a rickety shack where the dusty shelves droop under the weight of dozens of cachaca spirit bottles.This is the Trans-Iriri highway, a clandestine yet very real road that cuts hundreds of miles through an area of the Brazilian Amazon called the Terra do Meio, or Middle Land.
But look at virtually any map of Brazil and you won't find any of these places. Officially the Trans-Iriri doesn't exist.
Illegal roads, or viscinais - often built by illegal loggers looking to cash in on the world's largest rainforest - represent one of the biggest challenges to the Brazilian government in its fight against deforestation. It is estimated that there are more than 105,000 miles of viscinais in the Amazon region - illegal dirt tracks that meander through indigenous territories, government land and ecological reserves and which pave the way for the continued destruction of the world's largest rainforest.
At around 130 miles, the Trans-Iriri, which cuts westward across the Middle Land from Sao Felix do Xingu, is the king of these illegal roads.
Government officials recently claimed some success in reducing deforestation, saying that from 2005-2006 about 6,450 square miles was cleared, 11% less than the previous year. Yet supported by this network of hidden roads loggers continue to destroy the forest at an astonishing rate. In the state of Para, where the Trans-Iriri is located, satellite images produced for the government show that deforestation has jumped by 50% since 2004.
Sao Felix do Xingu, the municipality where the Trans-Iriri begins, remains for the fifth year running the Brazilian champion of deforestation, with around 300 square miles cleared between 2005 and 2006, according to the government.
Hemmed in by the Xingu and Iriri rivers, the Middle Land - an expanse the size of Scotland - is at the centre of this destruction. Since the 1990s loggers have swept along the Trans-Iriri highway, cutting secondary paths - picadas - into the forest and gradually replacing rainforest with sprawling cattle ranches.
Since 2005 the Brazilian authorities have created two huge preservation areas in this region, known as conservation units. Environmental protection areas have also been created along the Trans-Iriri highway, and the army was sent in to patrol the region.
Yet clamping down on the loggers and ranchers is proving far from simple. Environmentalists say that while the conservation areas temporarily reduced logging, the destruction is gathering speed again - largely because there is no permanent government presence to enforce the protected areas.
"The presence of the army in 2005 genuinely did have some effect," said Marcelo Marquesini, a Greenpeace activist. "However, two years later the operations continue sporadically. The government has not managed to establish a presence in the region. When they go away the people just come back."
Tarcisio Feitosa da Silva, an environmentalist who received the prestigious Goldman environmental prize last year because of his work to protect the rainforest, said the secrecy surrounding roads such as the Trans-Iriri helped cloak the continuing wave of destruction. "Officially this road does not exist. It never received permission from the government," he said. He claimed that in the absence of government, local ranchers employed an illegal police force of gunmen in order "to maintain this structure of invisibility".
"That is why nobody speaks about the road," said Mr Feitosa, who has received death threats because of his work. "It continues like this because it is here that you find the biggest ranchers."
The Middle Land is a species of autonomous zone - a black hole over which authorities exert little control. Catia Canedo, the environment and tourism secretary in Sao Felix do Xingu, admits for example that she has never visited the illegal road even though it starts a few miles from her office. And with little enforcement (the environmental agency in Sao Felix do Xingu recently closed) the illegal logging continues.
Maria Nizan de Souza, who works for a Catholic group that is fighting the use of slave workers, many of whom are used in logging, said it was common to see wood coming out of the forest. "Today three trucks full of wood have already passed through here. No one does anything - everyone is scared."
While environmentalists call this area the Middle Land, those impoverished Brazilians who live in a handful of small settlements on the illegal road have a very different name for it. "It's the Terra sem lei" - land without law - said a resident of Vila Caboclo, a settlement on the road, who refused to be named.
Wantuil Selvatico, 42, a shopkeeper, said gunmen were "common for us".
"It's not something that is hidden," he added, before abruptly changing the subject. "I think I'll stop here," he said.
This week the environment ministry said that from May a satellite imagery system known as Detex would be used to identify logging, allowing rapid intervention by members of the environmental agency Ibama.
Activists remain sceptical. "The state must intervene first with some kind of police action to stop the land grabbers," said Mr Feitosa. "It cannot continue to act as if the road does not exist."
In the meantime Brazil's network of illegal roads continues to expand. According to a recent study by Imazon, an environmental group based in the state capital Belem, around 1,200 miles of new roads are built each year.
"It's a complete mess," said Mr Marquesini. "The government created the conservation areas but they have no control over these places." In reality, the protection areas were "paper parks" that existed only theoretically.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007