Expansion into the Amazon is ultimately made possible by access to remote lands, by investments in transportation infrastructure, often associated with major development projects such as the construction of hydroelectric dams. Remote areas with little contact with the global economy have become the new frontiers for infrastructure development with investments in infrastructure development projects, particularly in the transportation and energy sectors, significantly escalating in the last decade.
The Amazon has a long history of dam construction, and in many Amazon countries, governments have prioritised the construction of new hydroelectric dams in order to guarantee national energy security. One of the most controversial infrastructure development projects currently under development in the Amazon is the Belo Monte dam situated on the Xingu River - a major tributary of the Amazon. There are major worries about the Brazilian government’s strategy:
“Belo Monte is a struggle about the future of Amazônia. The Brazilian government has plans to build more than 60 large dams in the Amazon Basin over the next 20 years. Many Brazilians believe that if Belo Monte is approved, it will represent a carte blanche for the destruction of all the magnificent rivers of the Amazon - next the Tapajós, the Teles Pires, then the Araguaia-Tocantins, and so on. The Amazon will become an endless series of lifeless reservoirs, its life drained away by giant walls of concrete and steel.” (International Rivers)
There is major opposition to dam projects both within Amazon countries and within the international community. There are doubts about their economic viability, their predicted generation efficiency (especially as reservoirs have a tendency to silt up over time), and their impacts on communities and the environment.
The companies involved in dam projects often fail to obtain free, prior, and informed consent from the affected communities, while exposing these populations to potential displacement.
The majority of the energy produced is used to promote the establishment of major aluminium industries in the Amazon, further exposing the region to infrastructure development, disruption and environmental degradation.
Road network expansion
Road network expansion is often driven by national strategic policies and major infrastructure projects, such as dam building, which in turn facilitates settlement, logging, cattle ranching and mining, in a vicious circle of ever expanding road networks, deforestation and resource exploitation.
The first two major highway projects into the Amazon: the Belém-Brasília (1958) and the Cuiaba-Porto Velho (1968) allowed a significant expansion of settlement into Amazonia. These two highways are at the heart of the ‘arc of deforestation’, an arc which takes in the South East, South, and South West of the Amazon. The Belém-Brasília highway attracted nearly two million settlers in the twenty years after its construction. Other recent projects have included the construction of roads linking the landlocked Brazilian Amazonian state of Roraima to the Caribbean Sea through a road which passes through Guyana, unleashing another hotspot of deforestation in the northern part of the Amazon.
Impact of road infrastructure on indigenous communities
The highway projects not only have an impact on deforestation, but generate concerns for the indigenous communities which lay in their path. Communities don’t have much influence. Indeed, they can end up being split in two, as described by Marissa Vahising, working with EarthRights International, in her blog.
This page is part of our series of articles on the Amazon System, emerging out of the experience of Dr Andrea Berardi, a Lecturer in Environmental Information Systems at The Open University to support the BBC Two series I Bought a Rainforest. See the full reference list for these articles.
Dr Berardi is a co-investigator on Project COBRA. COBRA is researching ways to integrate community solutions within policies addressing escalating social, economic and environmental crises, through accessible information and communication technologies.