Brazil highways drive Amazon development — and destruction
Trucker Erik Fransuer spends months at a time driving back and forth on highways that cut through the Amazon in northern Brazil, delivering soy or corn to river ports.
Fransuer is one of thousands of truckers plying the BR230 and BR163, major transport routes that have played a key role in the development and destruction of the world’s largest rainforest, now being ravaged by fires.
“I like the freedom of being on the road,” Fransuer, 26, says as he and other drivers relax in hammocks strung up between trucks parked side by side at a gasoline station in the dust-blown town of Ruropolis.
Fransuer spends at least 12 hours a day sitting in his big rig listening to fast-paced music as he bounces along the highways constructed nearly 50 years ago — and somehow still not finished.
Meter-wide potholes, bone-jarring corrugations, rickety wooden bridges and billowing red dust that wipes out visibility along dirt sections of the mostly two-lane roads make them hazardous to navigate at the best of times.
“That way, there’s no road,” says Fransuer, gesturing in the direction of the BR163 connecting Ruropolis and Santarem, which until recently was a rough dirt track.
But it is changing.
Eager to develop the Amazon to bolster Brazil’s weak economy, President Jair Bolsonaro’s government this year plans to finish asphalting the 1,770-kilometer (1,100-mile) BR163 stretching north from Cuiaba — the capital of the central-west state of Mato Grasso, Brazil’s grain-growing powerhouse — to Santarem.
Road workers are also paving sections of the more than 4,000-kilometer BR230, known as the Trans-Amazonian highway, which cuts across the rainforest from the Atlantic coast city of Joao Pessoa to Labrea in the west.
Single-lane wooden bridges, barely able to support trucks hauling trailers loaded with 30 tons of grain, are also being replaced with concrete spans.
“There are a lot of accidents, a lot of deaths here,” says Darlei da Silva, as he toils in intense heat to install a new bridge on the BR230. It is one of 18 being built along the highway, he says.