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An illegal dirt road running through protected areas of the Brazilian Amazon is now just a few miles from connecting two of the worst deforestation areas in the region, according to satellite images and reports from people familiar with the area. If the road is completed, it will transform a large area of forest left into an island, under the pressure of human activity on all sides.
Environmentalists have been warning of just this kind of rainforest development for decades. The roads are significant because most of the deforestation occurs next to them, where access is easier and the land value is higher.
On the east side of the new road is a massively deforested area where the largest herd of cattle in Brazil now graze, 2.4 million head. This municipality of Sao Felix do Xingu is the second country for greenhouse gas emissions, thanks to deforestation, according to the Climate Observatory, a network of environmental groups. It is roughly the size of Maine and has a population of 136,000.
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To the west is an area where ranchers coordinated the burning of several areas of virgin forest three years ago in an episode known as the Day of Fire. This municipality, larger than Maryland, is Brazil’s eighth largest greenhouse gas producer.
Wedged in the middle is the Xingu basin. The Xingu River running through it is one of the main tributaries of the Amazon River. It begins in the driest biome of the Cerrado, surrounded by tens of thousands of square kilometers of protected areas.
The Xingu River is home to several indigenous peoples, who are now crushed on both sides by an onslaught of settlers who have built a vast network of dirt roads and illegal airstrips. Experts said the stakes couldn’t be higher.
The opportunities of a new deforestation “at the center of the corridor of protected areas of the Xingu carries the risk of an irreversible rupture of the Amazon rainforest, dividing it into islands of degraded forest, which does not have the strength to resist climate change. We need to protect and maintaining broad forest corridors to support the resilience of the threatened biome, “Biviany Rojas, program coordinator of the Socio-Environmental Institute, a Brazilian non-profit organization, told The Associated Press.
Nearly half of Brazil’s climate pollution comes from deforestation, according to the Climate Observatory. The destruction is so vast now that the eastern Amazon, just east of the Xingu Basin, has ceased to be a carbon sink, or absorber, for the Earth and has turned into a carbon source, according to a study published in 2021 in the journal Nature.
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“They come to deforest, extract lumber and search for gold,” indigenous leader Mydjere Kayapo told the AP in a telephone interview. His people, the Kayapo, have suffered invasions by loggers and gold miners, who contaminate the rivers with mud and mercury, co-opt leaders and cause internal divisions.
The new road was taken over earlier this year. According to satellite images analyzed by a network of nonprofits called Xingu + and reviewed by the AP, it is 27 miles long.
The road passes through two seemingly protected areas: the Terra do Meio (Middle Earth) ecological station, a federal unit, and the state-owned Iriri forest, managed by the state of Pará, famous for its deforestation rates.
From January to August, Terra do Meio alone lost 9 square miles of forest and Iriri lost 2 square miles of rainforest along the illegal road. In July, Xingu + reported illegal road construction to Brazil’s Attorney General.
The city of Novo Progresso is also west of the new road. In recent days, the city has been covered in thick smoke from the deliberately set fires. On Monday alone, satellite sensors detected 331 fire outbreaks in the municipality, according to monitoring by the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research. August, which falls in the dry season, is typically the second worst month for both deforestation and fires.
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The Brazilian federal agency ICMBio, which manages the protected areas, and the environment secretary of Pará, did not respond to AP’s emails seeking comment on the illegal road. These are the bodies responsible for protecting the areas alongside the road.
Under far-right president Jair Bolsonaro, the deforested area in the Brazilian Amazon reached its 15-year high, according to official data. The space agency said its national monitoring systems showed that the Brazilian Amazon lost more than 5,000 square miles of rainforest in the 12 months from August 2020 to July 2021. New data is expected to be released by the end of the year. year.