One of the tributaries of the Amazon river in Brazil forms a “meeting of the waters” so beautiful it rivals the one with the dark waters of the Rio Negro. The clear blue waters of the Tapajós river can be seen even in the city of Santarém, Pará state’s third most populous municipality.
The Tapajós basin comprises an area the size of France between Brazil’s Pará, Mato Grosso and Amazon states. It is in this basin that agricultural production emerges to the south, while the central and northern areas face the challenges of a development agenda based on forest conservation and sustainable development. It is also here that Tapajós’ key role in the public and private logistics of Brazil’s agriculture, power generation and mineral potential emerges.
Significant infrastructure investments are aimed at the Tapajós.
Energy sector. Currently there are two hydroelectric plans in construction, one in the bidding process, and another six being designed for auction within the next four years. Many other hydropower uses, of varying scale, are planned for the basin. To give you an idea: the projects planned for the Tapajos basin amount to almost three times the size of the Belo Monte hydroelectric dam complex on the Xingu River, currently the second largest in Brazil.
Transportation and logistics. The 621 mile-long road linking the cities of Cuiabá and Santarém (BR -163), which cuts through forests, protected areas and the Tapajós basin, is expected to be fully paved by 2015. The trucks on this highway will carry at least 20 million tons of soybeans (some estimate 40 million tons) to nearly a dozen port terminals along the river. The soy will travel in trucks from Mato Grosso to the city of Itaituba in the state of Pará. Once through Itaituba’s transhipment terminals, the soy will navigate the Tapajós and Amazon rivers in balsa barges, to the Bacarena and Macapá ports.
But these investments also bring challenges.
As a simple and frightening side-note –leaving for a moment the multiple water, dams, ports and shipping issues– if we take into account that each transshipment terminal has the capacity for six million tons of soybeans (conservative estimate), and that each barge can carry around 40 tons per travel, we could reach the conclusion that the six terminals planned for Itaituba (also conservative estimate) would have to handle nearly 2,500 trucks per day. This influx of trucks will surely be felt in the BR-163 highway.
The social pressure of this traffic load is huge . Along with it, one can predict to the proliferation of secondary roads, the flow of illegal timber and illegal settlements in conserved areas. The frontier of agricultural production, which once flowed production via ports in southern and southeastern Brazil, will no longer be bound by this limit. Producing along the BR-163 will be very attractive economically. Historically, the scientific literature shows that 75% of deforestation in the region runs with the asphalt.
Thankfully, with challenges come opportunities.
We also have some good news regarding the role of Tapajos river in its role as exporter axis:
- Brazil’s National Rural Environmental Registry. Now a reality, this tool allows the management of individual rural properties, monitoring compliance with the Forest Code and permitted deforestation levels. This is big news. Farmers and agribusiness companies increasingly recognize the benefits of combining production with the forest management as a way to add – or guarantee – the production’s value.
- The Brazilian government has targets for reducing deforestation within their commitments to climate equilibrium. Deforestation in the Amazon has been a downtrend for almost a decade, and the government is committed to maintaining trend.
- Protected Areas along the BR-163 highway. The federal government designated these areas nearly a decade ago, and also began a process of structuring the timber use in National Forests. An agenda to be continued and consolidated , but they already have their bases .
- Green Municipalities Program by Pará’s state government (PMV). Complementing federal initiatives, this program supports municipalities and farmers seeking environmental regulation of production and reduction of deforestation. The Tapajos is still not a prominent area for PMV, but is expected to become one very soon.
The agenda of investment in infrastructure is needed for the growth of the country . However, ports, waterways, roads and hydroelectric plants are as necessary as making sure these plans and works consider local development and environmental aspects.
We will need to tread responsibly, making infrastructure an agent of development. The opportunities are huge. Investments in infrastructure generate significant income to the region through compensation and taxes. Infrastructure works in the Tapajós could generate the conservation units close to US$90 million. The financial compensation from the electricity sector alone should generate nearly another US$90 million a year. Each year! An environmental package could be included in the BR -163 bidding, leveling up the environmental contribution of companies in partnership with the government . There is no doubt that the opportunity to chart a different path towards the sustainable development of Brazil’s Amazon region is immense. The key question is: how will it be orchestrated?
* Ana Cristina Barros is Smart Infrastructure Director for Latin America in The Nature Conservancy