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

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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.

Credits

Text: Naiara Galarraga Gortázar

Images: Avener Prado

Visual editor: Héctor Guerrero | Adriana Kong

Design: Alfredo García

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Vulnerable Malians could ‘pay the price’ of heavy sanctions, warn aid groups | Global development

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More than a dozen aid organisations have called for humanitarian exemptions to heavy sanctions imposed on Mali after the military leadership postponed planned February elections.

The EU has announced support for the sanctions imposed earlier this month by the Economic Community of West African States (Ecowas), which include closing borders and a trade embargo.

But this week, 13 international groups working in Mali warned of devastating consequences for the population, a third of whom rely on aid.

Humanitarian access is hindered by the Malian interim authorities’ decision to reciprocate border closures with Ecowas member states, except Guinea.

Thousands of people demonstrated against the sanctions last week in the capital Bamako, carrying placards saying “down with Ecowas” and “down with France”.

The country is in the grip of the worst food insecurity in 10 years.

A joint letter signed by the NGOs, including the International Rescue Committee (IRC), Care and the Norwegian Refugee Council, said: “To continue their work effectively, humanitarian actors must have unfettered access for the transportation of life-saving goods including food and medicine, as well as guarantees that they can transfer funds into the country without violating the sanctions.”

Mali’s current insecurity dates back to early 2012 when northern separatists rebelled against the government. Islamist militants that initially allied with the separatists, including Ansar Dine, al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM), and the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa, ultimately hijacked the rebellion.

France, the former colonial ruler, made a military intervention in 2013 on the government’s side against the militants. The UN has also deployed an estimated 18,000 peacekeeping staff, in what was called its most dangerous mission.

The Malian military, led by Col Assimi Goïta, has conducted two coups in two years and reneged on promises to hold new elections. The junta’s most recent power grab, in May 2021, was the fifth coup since Mali’s independence in 1960 and it has been unwilling to commit to transition to civilian rule, despite international pressures.

Postponement of elections has been blamed on Islamist insecurity, an impasse that has deepened with the arrival of private military contractors belonging to the Russian mercenary firm Wagner Group. European states have condemned Wagner’s presence, concerned it will enable the military to hold on to power.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said this month that EU sanctions on Mali were in part in response to the involvement of Russian contractors. France is withdrawing troops, but 14 other EU members, led by Sweden, had established a taskforce to replace them in a three-year mandate. As tensions intensified over the Wagner Group, Sweden said last week that it had decided to withdraw its troops.

France, which holds the rotating EU presidency, has been vociferous in its support of sanctions but Russia and China have blocked the UN security council’s move to follow suit.

Ecowas has frozen financial aid and Malian assets at the Central Bank of West African States.

Elena Vicario, director for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Mali, said: “Malians are already bearing the brunt of the humanitarian catastrophe, punctuated by horrifying attacks against civilians. Sanctions must not hold us back from delivering essential assistance in a country where drought, rising insecurity, and the economic impacts of Covid-19 are already pushing millions of Malians over the edge.”

Franck Vannetelle, the IRC’s country director in Mali, echoed Vicario, saying: “Despite more than a third of the country’s population being dependent on humanitarian aid, organisations working in Mali already face severe access constraints. It’s imperative that the international community keeps responding to people’s urgent needs, and that any new sanctions have concrete humanitarian exemptions. These must be monitored and implemented, or the most vulnerable people in Mali will pay the price.”

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Lawyers threaten action over new EU gas and nuclear rules

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Environmental lawyers are threatening to take legal action against the European Commission if gas is included in the new EU guidelines for sustainable energy investment.

The draft proposal, controversially released late on 31 December, would see certain investments in gas and nuclear included in the so-called EU taxonomy, under the category of “transitional economic activities”.

But a legal analysis carried out by ClientEarth found that such a move would clash with several EU laws — the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the EU Climate Law and the Taxonomy Regulation itself — and international commitments under the 2015 Paris Agreement.

“Failing to take these legal obligations into account puts the commission at serious risk of legal challenge,” environmental lawyer Marta Toporek from ClientEarth warned on Friday (21 January).

The London-based NGO said that they are exploring all legal avenues, including an internal review request.

Under the Aarhus regulation, NGOs have the right to ask EU institutions to assess their own decisions — with a right to appeal before the Court of Justice of the European Union.

The commission must respond to such requests within 22 weeks.

“While it is a lengthy process, it is an important right for environmental NGOs, and in very limited cases individuals, to ensure that EU institutions and bodies comply with EU laws that are meant to protect the environment and human health,” ClientEarth told EUobserver.

The draft taxonomy has triggered discontent not only among environmentalists but also among some EU member states, MEPs and some financial institutions.

Spain, Austria, Denmark and Luxembourg united to reject the draft proposal, ahead of an informal meeting with EU environment ministers taking place on Friday (21 January) and Saturday — where EU countries can tell the commission what they think about including gas and nuclear into the EU taxonomy.

“This draft sends the wrong message to financial markets and seriously risks being rejected by investors. It jeopardises the purpose of the taxonomy to create a common language,” the group of four countries said in a statement earlier this week.

They argue that natural gas and nuclear power do not meet the legal and scientific requirements to be qualified as sustainable activities.

Vienna previously said it would sue the EU executive if it goes with its plans to include gas and nuclear in the EU taxonomy.

And the Dutch parliament said this week that it will not accept the inclusion of gas, because “‘green’ should really be green”, as Dutch Green MP Suzanne Kröger put it.

No impact assessment, no public consultation

Similarly, centre-right MEP Sirpa Pietikäinen and Green MEP Bas Eickhout, who lead the European Parliament’s work on this file, have said that the draft proposal fails to live up to the co-legislators expectations.

They see the selection criteria used for gas power plants, co-generation and district hearing as being in breach of the “principle of technological neutrality”.

Scientists from the EU Commission expert group concluded that for gas power plants a threshold of 100g CO2e/kWh of electricity should be applied to be compatible with a 1.5°C pathway under the Paris Agreement.

But under the draft proposal, instead, gas power plants would be taxonomy-compliant if their emissions are lower than 270g CO2e/kWh of electricity.

“We see no legal ground for the commission to create an exemption to this principle of technological neutrality,” the two MEPs said in a letter, regretting the lack of an impact assessment.

Earlier this week, MEPs Irene Tinagli and Pascal Canfin, chairs of the parliament committees for economy and environment, also deplored the lack of public consultation “in the light of the controversial nature of the subject”.

Meanwhile, civil society organisations and academia have warned the commission that the EU taxonomy, as it stands, would damage Europe’s reputation and ambitions to climate leadership.

Last year was marked by “a string of intense political rows, backroom deals and manoeuvring over how to bypass scientific evidence and classify fossil gas and nuclear energy as sustainable,” said Tsvetelina Kuzmanova from NGO E3G.

Experts had until Friday to provide feedback on the EU taxonomy. The EU executive will now analyse their contributions and it is expected to formally adopt the proposal before the end of the month.

A majority of EU countries, or the European Parliament, could still object and revoke the decision, after four months of scrutiny.

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Taliban launch raids on homes of Afghan women’s rights activists | Women’s rights and gender equality

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Taliban gunmen have raided the homes of women’s rights activists in Kabul, beating and arresting female campaigners in a string of actions apparently triggered by recent demonstrations.

Tamana Zaryabi Paryani and Parawana Ibrahimkhel, who participated in a series of protests held in Kabul over the last few months, were seized on Wednesday night by armed men claiming to be from the Taliban intelligence department.

Shortly before Paryani and her sisters were detained, footage was posted on social media showing her screaming for help, saying the Taliban were banging on her door.

“Help, please, the Taliban have come to our home … Only my sisters are home,” she says in the clip.

Associated Press footage from the scene on Thursday showed the apartment’s dented metal front door sitting slightly ajar. A witness said the armed men went up to Paryani’s third-floor apartment and began banging on the front door ordering her to open it.

The spokesman for the Taliban-appointed police in Kabul, Gen Mobin Khan, tweeted that Paryani’s social video post was a manufactured drama. A spokesman for the Taliban intelligence, Khalid Hamraz, would neither confirm nor deny the arrest.

He tweeted that “insulting the religious and national values of the Afghan people is not tolerated any more”, a reference to Sunday’s rally during which the protesters appeared to burn a white burqa, the head-to-toe garment that only leaves a mesh opening for the eyes.

Hamraz accused rights activists of maligning Afghanistan’s new Taliban rulers and their security forces to gain asylum in the west.

Similar raids were reported across homes of female protesters in Kabul. In another case, an Afghan protester whose name has been concealed to protect her, said she was physically assaulted and injured. She told the Guardian that the Taliban visited her house and “attacked” and “severely beat” her. Her whereabouts are now unknown.

“The Taliban had been patrolling near our homes since [Wednesday] afternoon. I talked to Tamana in the evening and then around 9pm I saw the video of her asking for help. We tried calling her from our burner phones, but her phone was switched off,” said Wahida Amiri, 33-year-old librarian and a fellow demonstrator, who is also on the run. “When we realised that they were raiding our homes one by one, the rest of us decided to go into hiding,” she added.

Since sweeping to power in mid-August, the Taliban have imposed widespread restrictions, many of them against women. They have been banned from many jobs outside the health and education field, their access to education has been restricted beyond sixth grade and they have been ordered to wear the hijab. The Taliban have, however, stopped short of imposing the burqa, which was compulsory when they ruled Afghanistan in the 1990s.

At Sunday’s demonstration, women carried placards demanding equal rights and shouted: “Justice!” They said they could be forced to wear the hijab. Organisers of the demonstration said Paryani attended the protest, which was dispersed after the Taliban fired pepper spray at the crowd.

Paryani belongs to a rights group called Seekers of Justice, which has organised several demonstrations in Kabul, including Sunday’s. Members have not spoken publicly of Paryani’s arrest but have been sharing the video of her.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said that since taking over, the Taliban “have rolled back the rights of women and girls, including blocking access to education and employment for many”.

“Women’s rights activists have staged a series of protests; the Taliban have responded by banning unauthorized protests,” HRW said in a statement after Sunday’s protest.

The Taliban have increasingly targeted Afghanistan’s rights groups, and local and international journalists covering demonstrations have often been detained and sometimes beaten.

“It is obvious the Taliban are intensifying their attacks on the civic space, and more specifically on women who are pioneers of the civic space,” said Shaharzad Akbar, chairperson of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.

“For over a month, we have seen the Taliban stifling dissent and intensifying their attacks on protesters across Afghanistan,” added Akbar. “Earlier we heard reports of protesters in Mazar being detained. There were also allegation of them being tortured, assaulted and harassed while in detention.”

Heather Barr, associate director of the women’s division at Human Rights Watch, said the Taliban’s reaction was a sign of fear. “It might seem hard to understand why the Taliban would have such a violent reaction to 25 women standing on the sidewalk, protesting peacefully. But their fears make sense when you see how powerful and brave these women are, to be stepping out again and again even in the face of escalating violence by the Taliban,” she said.

She urged the international community to step up in support of Afghan women. “The Taliban seem to be struggling on how to respond to this, and seem to have decided now that increased brutality is the answer, and that is a very frightening moment. The international community has to stand by these women.”

Associated Press contributed reporting

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