Fri, Apr 27, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Illegal roads speeding destruction of Amazon

Despite a crackdown, illicit logging is on the rise in lawless areas of the world's largest rainforest

By Tom Phillips  /  THE GUARDIAN , ON THE TRANS-IRIRI HIGHWAY

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 169,000km 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 210km, 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 to last year about 16,700km2 was cleared, 11 percent 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 percent 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 777km2 cleared between 2005 and last year, according to the government.

Hemmed in by the Xingu and Iriri rivers, the Middle Land -- an expanse the size of Scotland -- is at the center 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.

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