Roosewelt Pinheiro (Agência Brasil) A paved section of BR 163
There are a lot of breathtaking road trips in the Americas. There is Highway 1 on the U.S. California coast that takes in rugged Big Sur along the Pacific Ocean; there is the Blue Ridge Highway that runs the misty spine of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia where I lived for five years, and there is the Inter American Highway that goes past soaring and fuming volcanoes and verdant farmlands throughout Central America and Panama.
And then there is BR 163 that runs 1,767 kilometers from Cuiabá, Mato Grosso to Santarém, Pará, the second largest city on the Amazon river after Manaus, and most of it, about 900 kilometers, still unpaved. The Word Wildlife Fund in an understated way notes “many of the paved parts are in desperate need of repair.” To drive to Santarém is not a weekend jaunt; Brasília is 2,910 kilometers away, Sao Paulo 3,922 and Rio de Janeiro 4,411. But what makes this road really important it has become Brazil’s soy highway and economically probably just as important as the vaunted silk road that traversed Asia.
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The Stage: Breadbasket and Lungs
The legendary Great Silk Road was unpaved as well and ran from China connecting East, South and Western Asia with the Mediterranean World including North Africa and Europe. Wikipedia notes “Trade on the Silk Road was a significant factor in the development of the civilizations of China, India, Egypt, Persia, Arabia and Rome.” And BR 163, in large part one muddy track is the starting part for soy, wood and spices and meat and nuts going to all parts of the world.
Ok, I have been on many unpaved muddy roads when I was in the Peace Corps in Panama and Colombia and rural Appalachia in the US and even Espírito Santo in Brazil on a manioc project, but never have I seen a road like this which carries the heaviest traffic imaginable through conditions you would cannot really describe. So imagine the Autobahn in Germany, or Interstate 95 in the United States being unpaved yet carrying the heaviest possible truck and bus traffic over thousands of unpaved kilometers and 70 rickety one lane crumbling wooden bridges. But as one Brazilian told me when you drive north BR 163 you are driving through the “world’s breadbasket and lungs.”
It is impossible to describe the condition of the road in words but I’ll try: dusty, desolate and beyond bumpy in the dry months and in the rainy months from December to June it becomes an elongated sink hole, swampy, slippery, and desperate. Don’t travel in a suit with tie and you might at any moment have to step out into the mud (“fango” in Portuguese) and help push your vehicle out of a sink hole. Shorts and hip boats would be proper attire and a big bath towel to clean yourself off with after you step into the mud.
Words can’t really describe it, but you can see it for yourself on You Tube.
The “potholes” literally swallow semis and buses. And the amazing thing about seeing these videos is that no one is particularly furious or angry in extracting the trucks and buses from the grips of the mud. It’s just something that has to be done, so why get upset? And no one asks when you will get to Santarém, you arrive when you arrive. And regardless of your station in life you develop a bond with the people you are traveling with. Your goal is the same to get to the Amazon River.
A writer for The Economist decried driving on BR 163 this way “You do not drive on the right of the BR-163 nor do you drive on the left but on whichever side of the road seems less likely to tear off the undercarriage of your vehicle. During the six month rainy season when the road becomes a river of mud, men with tractors and bulldozers wait for you to founder and haul you out for a fee.”
But even more impressive than the slippery mud is the “jeito” you can see at work there. Jeito is a solely Brazilian expression meaning innovation if not hope, and can be seen at work in extracting huge trucks, buses and an occasional SUV out of the slimy red mud. All the bus passengers get out and rock the bus back and forth (without music) to get it out of the knee deep mud and a bulldozer often acts like a ferry and hauls three and four semis out together, all hooked up through the deepest mud holes. And we North Americans complain about potholes and our “crumbling infrastructure!” Finally, when you see how overloaded the trucks are and that the semis are in tandem - they pull not only one but two trailers - you see that these truckers make no exceptions for the condition of BR 163; they load the groaning trucks as if they are going on the world’s finest highway over the sturdiest bridges.
This is not a road where you can take your Porsche for a spin (well you can but that all your wheels will do is spin!) but one where you need a four-wheel drive jeep with chains and a winch and really large balloon tires and probably a trip you would like to take in the dry season. Yet the dirt track is being touted as Brazil’s soy super highway, which one day will be paved. The military first cut it through the jungle in the 1970s to get small farmers out of Brazil’s grinding rural poverty in the Northeast. Nothing much happened to help small farmers; they came in, cut down and burned huge trees, and exhausted the soil and started the worldwide debate about reckless deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. Pallor of smoke still hangs over BR 163 as you head north.
Large commercial farmers raising soy and corn, loggers and sawmill operators, and cattle ranchers have now taken their place and Santarém on the Amazon River has become a major commercial trading center. The US commodity trading giant Cargill has put in a grain export terminal and still receives the major portion of its grain by barge, but increasing amounts are coming in by truck from the largely unpaved BR 163.
All the issues of the world involving food and the environment are being played out on BR 163. Advocates of paving the remainder of BR 163 point out that it is needed to get Brazil’s growing agricultural production to world markets, while environmentalists claim its paving will increase deforestation, cutting the world’s oxygen supply, increase global warming, and benefit no one but giant multinational corporations. And as the Technical University of Munich points out, the issue is not the road but "the main issue is the capacity of the government to conduct efficient land polices for the area to guide the occupation of the territory in a sustainable way as a check to the human pressure that the paving of the road will bring.”
Greenpeace, the environmental group, is more strident and claims that soybeans are now a major cause of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. A total area of 1.5 million hectares of what used to be forest has -most of it illegally - been destroyed to plant soybeans. The growers are also involved in other illegal criminal activity such as land grabbing and slavery, according to the NGO.
The current Brazilian administration however is committed to seeing the road paved. Brazil is now finally recognized as one of the four new emerging world powers, the so-called BRIC countries: Brazil, Russia, India and China. Brazil produces abundant amounts of food, Russia energy, India software and China manufactured goods. The Chinese need food as their manufacturing growth and urbanization has depopulated the countryside. Besides, China agricultural production can really be likened to gardening with one to two hectares lots prevailing. Contrast this to Brazil, where some of the giant farms in Mato Grosso, on the southern terminus of BR 163 produce soy, sugarcane and corn. Every day some 1,000 soybean trucks head some 2,000 kilometers to Brazil’s congested southern ports. And according to Fortune magazine, while it takes $77 dollars to ship a ton of soybeans from Iowa to Shanghai, it will take $202 to ship from this area of Brazil given current conditions.
The Chinese have money and have expressed willingness to finance the paving of the rest of BR 163. World Trade magazine reports that a delegation from Brazil was recently in China seeking to get Chinese capital to upgrade road and ports. “The biggest difficulty we have is logistics,” says Celio B. Porto, Secretary of Agribusiness for International relations at Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply. “Our biggest problem in improving our production is lack of capital.”
The Actors: “Grileiros” and More
What a cast of characters on the stage that BR 163 provides. On the Brazilian side are landless migrants, colonists and small farmers, ranchers, scruffy drug traffickers and money launderers, gold miners, capitalized farmers planting thousand of hectares, land grabbers (“grileiros”), loggers and saw mill operators, zoned out and exhausted truck and bus drivers, small restaurant and hotel operators and yes, the anxious tractor drivers waiting to pull you out of the mud - for a fee.
Throughout history in whatever country where tracts of land open up for settlement, land grabbers rush in, it is human nature. In Brazil, the land grabbers are called grileiros who are particularly destructive. They follow the roads into the forest, and then destroy the forest to make it look like they have staked out the land. National Geographic sent a writer named Scott Wallace to BR 163 and described the situation this way: “Land thievery is committed through corruption, strong arm tactics, and fraudulent titles and is so wide spread that Brazilians have a name for it, “grilagem,” from the Portuguese word “grilo,” or cricket. Grileiros have been known to age phony land titles in a drawer of hungry crickets to make them look old. By one estimate, 500 people have been murdered by grileiros in the last 20 years over land titles in the Amazon. When the government announced that they would pave the last segment of BR 163, there was such a land grab along the route that offices suspended paving until they could formulate a forest management strategy for the region.
Lost in this mélange of people that you can find on the road everyday are the few, very few Brazilian authorities with no resources, whose job is to protect the environment and keep law and order. Again, Scott Wallace of the National Geographic put it this way: “In this wild west frontier of guns, chainsaws and bulldozers, government agents are often corrupt and ineffective or ill equipped and outmatched.“
From the rest of the world you have the well meaning but arrogant environmentalists particularly from Europe and especially Germany who, having seen their own ecosystem disappear beneath autobahns and shopping centers, take it upon themselves to tell the Brazilians what to do with their land. One even called BR 163 Brazil’s “notorious main north south highway.” The Guardian in the UK calls BR 163 the “long road to ruin.”
North Americans are perhaps less arrogant but not fully understanding of the hypocrisy of promoting alternative energy like soy diesel and the need to grow soybeans someplace. The Asians are in desperate need of food and getting it is their main priority and their main concern. And finally we have armies of journalists who hop aboard buses and rented cars and drive parts of BR 163 and report back home to their readers. I can see why newspapers in the US are in trouble, they have spent tons of money sending their reporters to Brazil to check out BR 163 and to find out who the bad guys are. And still very few tourists either from Brazil or elsewhere but some adventurers.
Best Available Accommodations
One Brazilian tour operator, Gaia Expediçoes, already offers “expeditions" on BR 163. On its web site (both in English and Portuguese) it notes that paving BR 163 will bring dire consequences to the region so go see its natural state while you can. They periodically offer a three-week trip to the Amazon via four-wheel drive vehicles that includes a stretch of BR 163.
You can go in one of their vehicles or bring your own. If you bring your own, this is what you will need: "Four-wheel drive cars, pickups, or SUVs with a minimum soil clearance of 25 centimeters at least 70% off-road tires (e.g. BR Goodrich All Terrain Tires are acceptable) in excellent operating condition. A winch is desired but not essential (the support team cars have winches). Two spare wheels equipped with the same tires and extra 20 liter fuel reservoir and fuel tank protection. Diesel engines are preferred but gasoline cars are also accepted. A radio for communication among cars during the expedition is essential.”
As to accommodation, they offer “best available” and they explain “we mean exactly that. That the best available accommodations may be the only lodgings available.” For the BR 163 stretch, calculate an average speed of less than 10 kilometers per hour (six miles per hour).
Gaia has a support team that accompanies each expedition and whose members speak Portuguese, Spanish, English, Italian and German. I wonder if those truck drivers outfitted in faded T-shirts struggling up BR 163 have this package, which comes with each expedition: travel instructions, a complete checklist (including documents, camping equipment, clothes, spare parts, etc.) suggested reading list, vaccines, a detailed road book that contains detailed activity and routing instructions along with relevant GPS way points (with coordinates), a map book showing the start and way points for each day’s ride, promotional materials from our sponsors, stickers for your car (white or black on transparent background) and of course, two Gaia Expedições silk screened T-shirts. Finally they note that more and more gringos are making the trip to Santarém.
Cargill: Stuck in the Middle
Santarém really came into global prominence due to the actions of Cargill, the US based trading firm which has had a long involvement in Brazilian agribusiness. Having worked for Cargill competitors most of my adult life, and being married to a daughter of an innovative soy trader, I don’t see them as a monolithic Satan; yet this is how they are cast by many, especially Greenpeace, for building a grain export terminal in Santarém. Cargill to me has always been about logistics. When they saw that frozen concentrated orange was being shipped out of Brazil in 55 gallon drums, they figured out a way to develop a tanker. The same with commodities that were shipped in bags and now go in bulk. And building the facility in Santarém was the closest option to get Mato Grosso soy to the water. Anticipating the eventual completion of BR 163, Cargill built the export elevator in 2003 at a cost of US$20 million and thus far has exported almost two million tons.
But Greenpeace didn’t just use angry words against Cargill In May 2006 its activists blocked the port of Santarém and stopped the loading of soybeans. Five climbers went to the top of the facility and hung banners reading "Fora Cargill" (Cargill Out). It was chaos: people fell into the water, arrests were made and rocks were thrown.
Where are we now in terms of receiving soy? I asked Lucia Pinheiro with Corporate Affairs at the Cargill’s office in São Paulo. Her reply: “Regarding your question about BR 163 in Pará state, Cargill port Terminal receives the soy bought in the Middle West of the country carried from Porto Velho, Rondônia, to Santarém area on barges. Just a small part of soy from the Santarém area arrives on trucks. Cargill has committed to buying soy from not recently deforested land and has given money for a major nature conservation project calling for ‘responsible sourcing.’”
But it is the world scene and the need for food that is changing the Amazon and BR 163; only time - and the Brazilian government‘s actions will tell if and when BR 163 will be paved. Then maybe we can all jump into an SUV and go on the expedition while we still can. I want that T-shirt!