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Journey down BR-319: The path towards the destruction of the Amazon rainforest | USA

Voice Of EU



At 7am, the sun is already high in the sky. A man gets out of a pickup truck at the gas station and approaches the first woman in sight, introducing himself as Carlinhos Raimundo de Auxiliadora and waving a bill worth 200 reales (€31). “Do you have a husband?” he asks, his breath giving off a waft of alcohol. He is looking for company after getting paid and to celebrate something big: “I’m so happy, I’ve finally bought a piece of land!” To anyone who warns him to watch the wad of notes he is brandishing, he replies with a laugh: “Me, I’ve got a .38 hanging from my belt.” His shirt is untucked, making it difficult to know whether the claim is true.

This is Realidade, the Brazilian Amazon’s promised land for hustlers and the poor. We have stopped at the first gas station to be found after driving 500 kilometers south on the BR-319, the most controversial road in the Amazon.

A home in front of the road on the way to the Igapó Açu community.
A home in front of the road on the way to the Igapó Açu community.Avener Prado

President Jair Bolsonaro has made a promise to pave the entirety of the road for this region, one of the poorest in Brazil, as he considers it strategic for local economic development. An EL PAÍS team traveled from the city of Manaus down to Porto Velho to observe the impact produced by settlers who flock to this area, drawn in by cheap land and promises of development. Meanwhile deforestation is advancing rapidly.

On a map, the road is just a small line. From the view of a drone, it is a straight orange line streaking through a thick green mass, like a head of broccoli. Probably few of those attending the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow were aware of its existence, but conservationists trying to save the world’s largest tropical rainforest keep a constant eye on it. Its future will tell whether the most pristine part of the Amazon can continue to protect biodiversity and capture carbon dioxide, or not. Rainforests like this one are crucial to regulating global temperatures on the planet.

The small town of Realidade is a succession of bars, motels, trucks, workshops, evangelical churches and little wooden houses on dirt roads that turn into a quagmire in the rain. In the last few years it has grown and now has its own school and health clinic, in a boom driven by the lucrative businesses that destroy the jungle: illegal logging, cattle ranching and soybean farming.

The law is a distant and flexible concept here, and suspicion prevails towards the curious outsider. After all, no one comes here by chance. Everyone has an agenda and is on constant alert, and there is no police presence for hundreds of kilometers. The locals have been anxiously awaiting the paved road for decades, convinced that it will bring prosperity. For scientists and environmentalists, that would be a nightmare scenario because the easier access could create many more “Realidades” further up the road.

The 887 kilometers of BR-319 slice through one of the best preserved areas of the Amazon, a rainforest that covers half of Brazil in an area the size of the European Union. For half the year, the road is a mud bath. Travelers pass by farms christened Big Hope, Rich Earth or God Provides.

Dona Mocinha is one of the biggest supporters of the paving plans. She runs a motel at kilometer 260 and at age 64 still has the energy to attend night school. It’s been decades since Dona Mocinha settled in Igapó Açu, a community of houses built on wooden stilts to avoid floods. “There was a time when from November to May no one passed through here at all,” she said.

With the road now more or less passable all year round, she sees more trucks and 4x4s going by. “They say that the paved road will have an impact [on the environment], but what impact? Look, I’m not a biologist, but the biggest impact was generated when it was built,” she said about the original project, undertaken in the 1970s by the dictatorship in power at the time. The task must have been monumental, because the terrain is swampy and rich in biodiversity. “It is criss-crossed by rivers full of fish, crocodiles and mosquitoes,” explained Rómulo Batista from the environmental group Greenpeace.

Dona Mocinha, a resident of Igapó Açu, which is inside a natural reserve. She belongs to the BR-319 Friends and Defenders Association.
Dona Mocinha, a resident of Igapó Açu, which is inside a natural reserve. She belongs to the BR-319 Friends and Defenders Association.
Avener Prado

Mocinha, a member of the Association of Friends and Defenders of BR-319, knows that the improvements to the road will bring other, less desirable consequences. “When development comes along so does deforestation, burglaries, prostitution, drugs… but not having BR-319 would be worse,” she said from her rocking chair. People feel trapped in this beautiful but isolated corner of the country because it is the only land route from Manaus, capital of the state of Amazonas, to the heart of Brazil.

Mocinha has met many who are attracted by the area’s seemingly endless opportunities. “Many come from Rondônia or Mato Grosso. They are looking for land, land, land. I tell them no, I don’t have land to sell, this is a nature reserve! Look, I arrived 44 years ago and I have never sold a plot of land. And they have even threatened to kill me,” she revealed. Selling plots in protected areas is a crime, but huge tracts of public land flank the highway. Anyone can easily appropriate them with fake documents and the blind eye of local politicians. This land grabbing is known in Portuguese as grilagem.

The landscape offers a glimpse of the catastrophic scenario anticipated by scientists such as the tropical agronomist Jolemia Chagas, who has monitored the stretch of highway between kilometers 250 and 280. “Paving the road will intensify the appropriation of the last five years,” she warned. Real estate speculation, violent conflicts with the locals and environmental problems are just some of the consequences. “The removal of forest cover directly interferes with the production of ‘flying rivers’ or air currents carrying water vapor that supply part of South America, which will directly impact agriculture,” she added.

The area is populated by families who live largely from subsistence agriculture or selling produce, though there are 18 indigenous villages scattered far from the main road. One of the secondary dirt roads that is under construction is within touching distance of the territory where a group of around 30 isolated indigenous people live. They are probably descendants of the Juma people who survived a massacre in 1964, explained the anthropologist Pedro da Silva, of the Indigenous Missionary Council.

A maintenance team working on a paved part of the road on the way to Careiro do Castanho.
A maintenance team working on a paved part of the road on the way to Careiro do Castanho. Avener Prado

With the increase in traffic, restaurants, farms and churches have sprung up. Along the route there are trucks, cars carrying all the possessions of people pursuing a better future or seeking the business opportunity of a lifetime, whether legal or not; there are also bikers in their fifties on personal road trips. The journey starts in Manaos, where the lanes are carefully divided with yellow lines and the curbs are painted white. Soon later we come to the Amazon River, which can be crossed by raft. Though expensive and slow, travelling down the river is the most common form of transportation around here.

Kilometer 198 marks the end of the paved road and the beginning of the so-called middle stretch, which lost its concrete top at the end of the 1980s due to neglect. The impact of humans is much less marked than in other regions of the Brazilian Amazon thanks to this and to the environmental and indigenous reserves created since then.

Even visitors unfamiliar with the rainforest can tell when they are passing through a nature reserve. The trees and vegetation form such a dense green blanket that it is impossible to penetrate with the naked eye. From above, satellites photograph three-square-meter plots to measure where and how fast the rainforest is being destroyed. Deforestation was already on the rise before, but it has skyrocketed under Bolsonaro. Last year was the worst of the previous 12, when 11,000 square kilometers of trees disappeared. The Amazon lost the equivalent of three soccer fields every minute last year, according to Greenpeace.

Joeliton Silva, a 53-year-old fazendeiro (large-scale farmer), does not deny that deforestation is happening. For years he has cleared paths through the vegetation for visitors who then cut down the most valuable trees as part of a multimillion-dollar business. But he challenges journalists to tell what he calls “the truth”, a theory that hinges on the forest being so large that the destruction barely registers. Silva says that the effect of human action on temperature is “insignificant,” denying current scientific consensus. “At this rate it will take 140 years to deforest 10% of Brazil,” he says. Silva repeats this idea in YouTube videos he uploads from his home outside Realidade.

He is convinced that the international alarm about the disappearance of the Amazon’s unique flora and fauna is excessive, and nothing more than an excuse to camouflage the greed of foreigners who want to take away Brazil’s natural wealth. He is the owner of two large estates totaling 6,400 hectares, but one is up for sale because his foray into fish farming has not taken off.

Contributing to illegal deforestation does not keep Silva awake at night because doing it legally is impossible, he counters. He has tried. It’s better business, he adds, to do it the hard way and if you get caught, to appeal the fines. A Bolsonaro fan, he proudly plays a video showing him hugging the current minister of infrastructure while the latter declares that a paved BR-319 is on its way.

Many agree with Bolsonaro’s claim that environmental protection hinders development, which then opens the door to exploitation, easy profits and impunity. Brazil is fighting its image as an environmental villain, but the perverse idea that other countries deforested to develop, and so must Brazil, has legs, said Fernanda Meirelles of the BR-319 Observatory, an alliance of NGOs that monitors the road from Manaus. “We are not against the road, but first we want to solve the problems of land ownership, oversight, and how the nature reserves are managed,” she explained. After a long explanation of the innumerable challenges that lie ahead, she added: “My dream would be an elevated walkway.”

Joeliton Silva, who clears paths for loggers and has 6,400 hectares of land, on his farm in Realidade.
Joeliton Silva, who clears paths for loggers and has 6,400 hectares of land, on his farm in Realidade.Avener Prado

Back in Realidade, Dona Mocinha participated in recent public hearings that offer the best proof that the bureaucratic process is moving forward. The Bolsonaro government has given more impetus to the project than any of its predecessors. It remains to be seen whether or not IBAMA, the government agency that manages environmental policy, will authorize the paving of the road. None of those consulted believes it will reject it, but the NGOs underscore that indigenous people should have already been consulted.

Often, a truck stuck in the mud cuts off traffic, even at the end of the dry season. Truck driver Aulcides Costa, 49, was trapped for eight days. “After five days we ran out of food and mineral water,” he recalled. People in these areas lived cut off from the world until the internet arrived, turning them into a community and entertaining them during the long rainy season. Now the state of the road is documented in real time thanks to the 46 WhatsApp groups of the Association of Friends of the BR-319, with a total of 10,000 members.

Cows eating grass in a deforested area near Realidade district.
Cows eating grass in a deforested area near Realidade district.Avener Prado

As one moves south, clearings start to appear on the hard shoulder. Suddenly, cows can be seen grazing on the sides of the road. The bucolic scene disguises its damaging effects on the Amazon. The cattle and the felling of trees to create grazing pastures are the main sources of Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions. These increased even in the first year of the pandemic while they plummeted in the rest of the world as global commerce came to a standstill. After the logging, the pastures are used for feeding, and then come the soybean crops.

The businessman Antonio Graças, 71, is convinced that it is now or never. In his warehouse in Careiro de Castanho, surrounded by beds, household appliances and fans, he believes that the president and his minister of infrastructure, both of whom have links to the military, will take up the mantle of a project promoted by Brazil’s dictatorship half a century ago. These military men cleared the jungle to build roads and gave away land. In the midst of the Cold War, the obsession was to populate an area inhabited for millennia by indigenous people, to ensure that no one could take it away from the new settlers.

The bridge over Madeira River in Porto Velho, the city where the road ends after starting in Manaos, 900 kilometers north.
The bridge over Madeira River in Porto Velho, the city where the road ends after starting in Manaos, 900 kilometers north.

Avener Prado

Graças fervently hopes that Bolsonaro won’t let the occasion pass him by. “If he doesn’t give the initial impetus for one company to [pave] 100 kilometers, and another the next 100… it’s not going to happen. Then, only God will tell.” The businessman dismisses any risk of an increase in environmental crimes because that is what the state is for, he says. On paper his long list of institutions with supervisory powers could stop exploitation, but in practice it’s a different story.

Towards the end of BR-319, at the point where it crosses the famous Trans-Amazonian Highway, one arrives at Humaitá. A mob set fire to the state environmental agency’s headquarters in the city in 2017. Vegetation already covers the ruins of the building. The country’s vice president, General Hamilton Mourão, freely admits that the risk of deforestation will increase with the paved road, and maintains that surveillance will have to be reinforced. But he says it will also facilitate the eventual arrival of the Federal Police to this remote area.


Text: Naiara Galarraga Gortázar

Images: Avener Prado

Visual editor: Héctor Guerrero | Adriana Kong

Design: Alfredo García

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UK government honoured anti-abortion figure before editing women’s rights statement | Global development

Voice Of EU



The British government presented a vehemently anti-abortion former US envoy with an award for his services to freedom of religion just days before watering down a statement on gender equality to remove commitments to reproductive rights.

Sam Brownback, a former governor of Kansas who targeted abortion rights while in office and then became Donald Trump’s ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, was given the award during the international ministerial conference for freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) held in London last month.

Organised by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) and opened by the Tory leadership candidate Liz Truss, the gathering has since become engulfed in controversy after a statement signed by more than 20 countries was quietly removed from the FCDO website and significantly edited.

Conference organiser Fiona Bruce, the prime minister’s special envoy for religious freedom or belief, with Sam Brownback in background, 5 July 2022.
Fiona Bruce, the prime minister’s special envoy for religious freedom or belief, was involved in organising the conference. Photograph: Courtesy of FCDO

It has now emerged that a number of participants to the conference, which Fiona Bruce, the prime minister’s special envoy for religious freedom or belief, was involved in organising, are known for their strong anti-abortion views.

Three, including one speaker, were from ADF International, the global wing of a US legal advocacy organisation considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Centre (SPLC), which monitors extremist groups in the US.

Founded by leaders of the Christian right, the Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF) has long opposed abortion. It writes on its website: “In 2022, the pro-life movement achieved what was thought impossible by many: the overturning of Roe v Wade. But there’s more work to be done.”

Other participants were from the Religious Freedom Institute (RFI), a rightwing thinktank based in Washington DC, which, alongside the ADF, is pushing for more laws protecting anti-choice medics from performing “procedures in violation of their conscience”, from abortion to gender transition surgery.

Ján Figel, a former EU special envoy for FoRB, was among the speakers. Figel’s mandate was not renewed in 2020 after a group of pro-choice MEPs complained he had “undermined [the mandate’s] credibility … by showing highly problematic acquaintances with organisations opposing women’s sexual rights and LGBTI people’s rights.”

Figel said the MEPs’ criticism had been rooted in “false arguments … based on lies”, and added that he had nothing to do with the statement.

It is understood that Brownback, who received warm applause at the London conference, was given the award by the UK government in conjunction with the Dutch special envoy for FoRB, Jos Douma, in recognition of their work on FoRB around the world.

While in office, Brownback signed a number of pieces of anti-choice legislation. Last week, he bemoaned the decisive victory of pro-choice campaigners in a Kansas referendum on abortion, adding: “We fight on defending all life, mother and child, from beginning to end.”

Sam Brownback speaking at the conference, 5 July 2022.
Sam Brownback speaking at the conference, 5 July 2022. Photograph: Ottr Works/Courtesy of FCDO

According to one participant at the London conference, who requested anonymity: “The UK government says it advocates ‘freedom of religion or belief for all’. But some of those featured and celebrated at the ministerial don’t support this. What they do instead is use their ‘religious freedom’ as an excuse to trample the rights and freedoms of others. People like Sam Brownback and the ADF, who seek to take away others’ freedom of choice in this way, should be challenged, not celebrated.”

The conference is an annual gathering that began in the US during Trump’s presidency. This year it was held on 5-6 July.

Its agenda was centred on how to “protect and promote freedom of religion or belief internationally”, with topics ranging from the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in the Xinjiang region of China to the terrorist attacks of Boko Haram in Nigeria discussed by academics, analysts, politicians and faith leaders, including the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby.

But its aftermath has been controversial, since it emerged that its statement on FoRB and gender equality had been edited to remove commitments to “sexual and reproductive health and rights” and “bodily autonomy”. The FCDO initially said it had made the changes to focus on key FoRB issues and to achieve a broader consensus of signatories.

FCDO minister Lord Ahmad
FCDO minister Lord Ahmad said last week the statement had been edited to become ‘more inclusive of all perspectives and views’. Photograph: Courtesy of FCDO

Tariq Ahmad, a Foreign Office minister and former FoRB special envoy, said last week the statement had been edited to become “more inclusive of all perspectives and views” and “to allow for a constructive exchange of views on all issues”.

However, the watering-down of the statement, which had been painstakingly worked on and signed by more than 20 countries, provoked anger in a number of governments, many of which are refusing to sign the modified version. It currently has eight signatories, including Malta, where abortion is illegal, and the UK.

It is understood that the pushback on the gender equality statement began the day after the conference, at a “next steps” meeting at Lancaster House, convened by Bruce. Among those present were Jim Shannon, of the Democratic Unionist party, and David Alton, a crossbench peer, who were also conference speakers.

After the overturning of Roe v Wade, Lord Alton told the Universe Catholic Weekly he hoped the decision would lead to “new laws and resources” in the UK.

Rachael Clarke, chief of staff at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said the vast majority of British people saw through the “fiction” that there was significant opposition in the UK to abortion rights. But words mattered, she added, which was why there was concern over the conference statement.

“I think what we’ve really seen when it comes to abortion rights is the power of words and the power of the direction that governments are moving [in] … I think what we really are concerned about seeing is any indication from this government or the next government that they are valuing women’s reproductive rights as less than where they are currently,” she said.

Clarke added that, with Bruce as special envoy, it would have been hard for the government to put out a statement on freedom of belief that was not inclusive of “incredibly anti-abortion views”. “[Bruce] is the most anti-abortion MP in the House of Commons.”

A spokesperson for Brownback said he had no involvement in drafting the conference statement or in organising the event. Brownback was “proud to be pro-life”, a stance that is “immaterial to his support for freedom of religion or belief”, he added.

“Ambassador Brownback has not tried to connect his support of unborn human life to the issue of religious freedom … Ambassador Brownback believes that anyone can support FoRB regardless of their position on abortion. At a time when people are being killed and persecuted for what they choose to believe, Ambassador Brownback believes that the FoRB movement best moves forward by focusing on FoRB and not diverging into non-FoRB issues.”

The ADF denies the accusation it espouses hate, accusing the SPLC of besmirching “huge swaths of well-respected, mainstream, conservative America” in that categorisation of its beliefs.

A screen showing the logo of the conference.
The conference’s agenda centred on how to protect and promote freedom of religion or belief internationally. Photograph: Courtesy of FCDO

A spokesperson said: “As the world’s largest organisation committed to protecting religious freedom, ADF International were proud to take part in the ministerial. Our current projects include defending girls in south-east Asia who have been abducted, forcibly married, and ‘converted’ from their faith; challenging the Russian authorities for prohibiting church communities from gathering to worship; and supporting those on death row for ‘blasphemy’ in Pakistan to escape to safety in Europe. We believe in the equality and dignity of all people.”

Nathan Berkeley, communications director of the RFI, said the thinktank worked to advance religious freedom throughout the globe and to defend those of all faiths who were persecuted.

An FCDO spokesperson said: “We invited experts and representatives from a wide range of different fields and beliefs to the conference in the spirit of fostering positive discussion and collaboration on issues of freedom of religion or belief.”

Bruce, Alton and Shannon did not respond to requests for comment.

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FBI Handovers – 09.08.2022, Sputnik International

Voice Of EU





On Monday, the FBI, for the first time in history, conducted a search of the home of a former president, which took place at Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago residence in Florida. After the raid, Trump issued a statement denouncing the incident and accusing the US court system of using it as a weapon against him.

Following the highly controversial FBI raid on the property of Donald Trump, many US conservatives and members of the Republican Party expressed their indignation on social media, reiterating claims that the former president had been unfairly targeted by the agency for political purposes.

And while the White House said it had no idea about the raid, and President Joe Biden refused to comment on what happened at all, many noted law enforcement officers have never visited either Biden’s son Hunter or his partners regarding his purportedly rather dubious international business dealings.

But here’s the mystery, why did the FBI need to take the unprecedented step of invading the home of the former president? Reports say the agency took documents and boxes in the raid, likely the same ones the National Archives were looking for that Trump’s team allegedly took from Washington last year.

Conservatives, on the other hand, recalled another scandal involving the misuse of confidential data and recklessness by a high-ranking official – Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state – and her infamous lost and leaked emails. Back then, Clinton set up her own email server instead of using the government-issued one because it allegedly offered her complete control over her correspondence. And, not surprisingly, her staffers purportedly deleted some emails that, by law, were supposed to go to the archives.

A 2016 FBI inquiry found that while Clinton and her staffers handled sensitive information with “extreme carelessness,” no “reasonable prosecutor” would pursue a criminal case against her.

Well, while they’re looking into the former president’s boxes at Mar-a-Lago, we can all hope that maybe the FBI will soon be able to find the time to not only recover Hillary’s lost emails, but also determine the coordinates of Jimmy Hoffa’s burial site – that is if they’re not too busy, of course.

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Concern grows as Western automakers lose ground in China | International

Voice Of EU



Political meddling is just one of the many headaches that Western automakers endure in China. In July, Stellantis CEO Carlos Tavares blamed interference by the Chinese government for the cancellation of the Jeep-maker’s joint venture in the world’s largest auto market. But local car manufacturers may pose a bigger threat to foreign companies as they continue to grab a larger share of the Chinese market.

For decades, the world’s large car manufacturers had to establish onerous joint ventures with local companies to establish a foothold in China. Beijing hoped that this strategy would transform inefficient local partners into industry leaders. But the policy failed – the local companies failed to develop export markets, and even the most patriotic Chinese consumers preferred to buy cars made by Nissan, General Motors and Volkswagen. By 2000, the German company had claimed more than 50% of the Chinese market.

Now, as China relaxes its international joint venture requirements, local competitors are stepping on the gas. In 2021, foreign automakers saw their combined share of the Chinese auto market shrink to 45.6%, and Volkswagen’s market share dropped to 15.5% in the first half of 2022.

Two factors are driving the growing competitiveness of Chinese automakers. The growing pool of domestic technical talent has fed the growth of thriving, privately-owned vehicle manufacturers such as BYD, Geely (which owns Volvo) and Great Wall Motor. China now has a competent group of manufacturers of conventional, mid-range passenger vehicles that can lure foreign designers away from the likes of BMW and the Italian design firm, Pininfarina.

The second factor is Beijing’s push to outpace the West in manufacturing electric vehicles. In 2021, 3.3 million hybrid and battery-powered cars were registered in China, accounting for 16% of total sales. Meanwhile, European consumers bought 1.1 million fewer electric vehicles. McKinsey consultants say that the Chinese companies are able to manufacture safe auto bodies that are lighter than those built by their international rivals. The Chinese also have local access to cutting-edge battery expertise from global leaders such as Amperex Technology, valued at $194 billion.

Tesla is currently the only foreign automaker that has succeeded in claiming a spot on the list of China’s top 10 best-selling electric vehicles. Research firm Redburn estimates that Volkswagen now has only 10.8% of China’s electric vehicle market, although the $89 billion company is planning to launch new models and is investing in research and sales centers.

The increasing competitiveness of Chinese automakers has impacts beyond its borders, as they continue to reinvest profits to take on Western giants in other markets. BYD, the Warren Buffett-backed Chinese automaker that is challenging Tesla for the title of the world’s largest electric vehicle manufacturer, shipped its first lot of 1,000 SUVs – the ATTO 3 – to Australia in August. As more Chinese cars start showing up on Western roads, complaints about political meddling by the Chinese government will surely grow louder.

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