In the summer of 1970, the northeast of Brazil was suffering under one of its periodic droughts. Tens of thousands of small farmers were being driven off their land. Hundreds of children were dying of starvation.
General Emílio Garrastazu Médici, military ruler of Brazil, visited the area to study what might be done. “Nothing in my life,” he later wrote, “has ever shocked and upset me so deeply. Never have I faced such a challenge.” Land reform, the obvious solution to the peasants’ plight, was out of the question. The military who ruled the country relied too much on the support of the wealthy fazendeiros. And there was no way to convince those great landowners that they should make presents of even the smallest fraction of their lands to the rural poor.
But the general wanted a solution. And being a general, and in charge of the country, a solution he got. It was the Trans-Amazonian Highway, one of the most ambitious Brazilian government programs ever attempted, and one of the greatest failures.
The idea was to bisect the country with a 5,000 kilometer road, joining the Atlantic coast on the east, to the border with Peru on the west, thereby opening up the rainforest to economic development.
Settlers would be given 250 acre plots of land, 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 project was begun with great enthusiasm. On the 9th of October, 1970, a bronze plaque, nailed to the trunk of a mighty castaneira tree, cut down on the previous day by Médici himself, was unveiled.
The legend on the plaque read: On these banks of the Xingu, in the midst of the Amazon jungle, the President of the Republic began the construction of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, a historic start to the conquest of this gigantic green world.
But the reality turned out to be something quite different. The soil of the Amazon basin consists mostly of sediments, which make the roadbed unstable and subject to inundation during heavy rains.
It soon became apparent that the road would be unusable during six months out of every year, causing the settlers to be cut off and leaving the products of their labors to rot.
Natural nutrients in the region are few, resulting in low crop yields. New forest had to be cleared for each year’s planting, and after every clearing, rampant erosion occurred. Logging was difficult due to the widespread distribution of commercially valuable trees. Colonists, unfamiliar with banking, and lured by easy credit, went deeply into debt.
Indians, living in the forest, were exposed (many for the first time) to the white man and his diseases. Those diseases killed them by the thousands.
And then there were the long-term environmental costs. After the construction of the highway, rampant deforestation soared to new heights.
Within five years, the government withdrew their support, leaving the settlers in abject misery.
These days, the road has little traffic. The thin layer of fine gravel that was used in the original construction was unable to withstand the torrential downpours that occur from November to April. A heavy outlay is required, each May, to repair the wooden bridges, fill in the potholes and replace the broken drainage pipes.
At points further west of the little town of Itaituba, and all the way to the Peruvian border, there are stretches where the “highway” is less than two meters wide.
But all is not yet lost. An effort is now underway to pave the entire length of it. Some estimates are that it will take ten years and cost more than a billion US dollars.
A lot of money, as one Brazilian journalist remarked, for a road that links nothing to nowhere.
Leighton - Monday