TROPICAL RAINFORESTS: Imperiled Riches—Threatened Rainforests

The Trans-Amazonian Highway

The Trans-Amazonian Highway was one of the most ambitious resettlement-economic development programs ever devised, and one of the greatest failures. In the 1970s, Brazil planned a 2,000-mile highway that would bisect the massive Amazon forest, opening rainforest lands to settlement by colonists from the crowded, drought-plagued north and development of its timber and mineral resources to maintain the country's impressive economic growth.

Colonists would be given 250-acre lots, six months' salary, and easy access to agricultural loans, in exchange for settling along the highway and converting the surrounding rainforest into agricultural land. The plan would grow to cost US$65,000 (1980 dollars) to settle each family, a staggering amount for Brazil, a developing country at the time.

The project was plagued from the start. The sediments of the Amazon Basin rendered the highway unstable and subject to inundation during heavy rains, blocking traffic and leaving crops to rot. Harvest yields for peasants were dismal, since the forest soils were quickly exhausted, and new forest had to be cleared annually. Logging was difficult due to the widely spaced distribution of commercially valuable trees. Rampant erosion, up to 40 tons of soil per acre (100 tons/ha), occurred after clearing. Many colonists, unfamiliar with banking and lured by easy credit, went deep into debt.

Adding to the economic and social failures of the project, were the long-term environmental costs. After the construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, Brazilian deforestation accelerated to levels never before seen, and vast swaths of forest were cleared for subsistence farmers and cattle-ranching schemes. The Trans-Amazonian Highway is a prime example of the environmental havoc that is caused by road construction in the rainforest.

Learn More:

Deforestation & Infrastructure Projects in the Amazon

Deforestation in the Amazon 2004

Saving the Amazon Rainforest

Soybeans in the Amazon

Continued: Economic Restructuring

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