BR 319 – some news from a road in the heart of the Amazon

By Adriane Esquivel-Muelbert (University of Leeds,, Fernanda Coelho de Souza (University of Leeds, & Thaiane Sousa

It is hard to imagine the modern world without roads. There are thousands, connecting people, cities and shortening distances. However, in some places, such as the heart of the Amazon Rainforest, roads are still almost non-existent. Transportation mostly happens by river, natural paths within this ocean of forest. Within this landscape roads seem out of context, however, the few out there are making areas accessible for science. But of course, this grants access to everyone. These roads are often used as routes to take wood from the forest to industry, thus the opening of roads is usually linked to intensification of illegal logging.

BR 319 is one the largest Amazonian roads. It is an 850km abandoned motorway between the Purus and Madeira Rivers connecting Manaus and Porto Velho, two of the most important cities in the Brazilian Amazon. It was built in the 70s by the Brazilian military government, one of their most important goals being to colonise the countryside, which for a large part of Brazil means the Amazon forest. The road was active for almost 20 years, attracting people from various places in Brazil for whom its unexplored margins were an opportunity, providing cheap land to farm and escape from hunger. However, the lack of drainage and maintenance degraded the road and destroyed several bridges. By the end of the 80s BR 319 was abandoned and further closed by an environmental embargo to protect the forest. Most of the settlers moved out, populating the small towns in the North and South extremes of the road (see Fearnside & Graça 2006).

Now, the strategic location of BR 319 is aiding the understanding of tropical forest dynamics. Aiming to measure the impact of roads on the ecology of tropical forest, a group of Brazilian researchers faced the challenge of the extremely poor driving conditions on the road and installed a series of inventory plots along BR 319. These plots fill an important gap in the existing inventory plot network in the Amazon, as the road acts as a perfect latitudinal transect in Central Amazonia.

During this British summer 2015, we joined an expedition along BR 319 to remeasure the tree inventory plots installed along the road. For 8 weeks our team re-measured the diameter of almost 7000 trees, recorded information on dead trees and measured and collected samples from hundreds of recruits. These new data will be compared with previous measurements helping to understand the dynamics of tree communities and the carbon cycle in the heart of the Amazon.

This expedition was funded by a Newton Fund project funded by NERC and FAPAM (the funding body from the state of Amzonas in Brazil), which join two important tree inventory data networks: The Brazilian Program for Biodiversity Research (PPBio) and The Amazon Forest Inventory Network (Rainfor). So far the team from Manaus has monitored 21 inventory plots and collected samples from more than 3000 trees to be identified. However, this project goes beyond understanding the dynamics of Central Amazon forests: it also has a goal to train people from the rural communities close to the forest in the standard field protocols for forest carbon measurements and tree biodiversity assessment. It was a rich experience, in which we were constantly exchanging knowledge and learning from people that grew up surrounded by the forest.

Sadly, roads not only make forests assessable for science

One of the areas we were supposed to remeasure was being logged. Many trees, some over 30 meters high, had already been felled, opening a large area inside the forest. Also inside the area, small roads had been established so that machinery could remove the trees from the forest. The plots were installed inside a National Park, where logging is illegal. Not only that, large trucks filled with Amazonian wood illegally extracted from the forest could be seen at anytime crossing the village next to the area we visited, ironically called Realidade (which translates to ‘reality’ in Portuguese). Aside from significant damage to the natural environment, illegal logging brings violence to the local communities. People in Realidade had to ask for a special patrol from Manaus to combat the cases of violence that had increased since logging became common in the area. The police however, as well as the local authorities, seem to close their eyes to the illegal logging, and unfortunately this is apparently not to an exception in the borders of the Amazon. Afraid of meeting with illegal loggers more than 2km inside the forest, our team decided to move to another area under an atmosphere of sadness and fear.

BR 319 is now being slowly revived by the Brazilian government, which could help deforestation to move northwards if there is not intense monitoring and intervention from the federal authorities, as happened earlier this year in Pará (see Dawn timber-laundering raids cast doubt on ‘sustainable’ Brazilian wood). This will threaten an important area of Amazon forest, the life quality of local communities and all ecosystems services the forest provides both locally and globally.


More on roads and deforestation:

Mongabay: Roads through the rainforest: an overview of South America’s ‘arc of deforestation’


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