Trans-Amazon Highway Is Announced

The president of Brazil announced plans to build the Trans-Amazon Highway, which would link the nation’s coastal cities with its interior in an effort to promote economic development.

Summary of Event

From the time the Spaniard Francisco de Orellano, a conquistador in search of gold and cinnamon while in the service of Francisco Pizzaro, became the first European to navigate its full length, the Amazon basin has presented a vision of riches for explorers, adventurers, and settlers. According to Orellano’s scribe, among the many Indian bands battling the Spaniards during their expedition were several tall, fair, long-haired women whose warrior skills equaled those of ten men. Orellano called the women “amazonas” and thereby gave the world’s greatest river its name. Trans-Amazon Highway[TransAmazon Highway]
[kw]Trans-Amazon Highway Is Announced (June 16, 1970)[TransAmazon Highway Is Announced]
[kw]Amazon Highway Is Announced, Trans- (June 16, 1970)
[kw]Highway Is Announced, Trans-Amazon (June 16, 1970)[Highway Is Announced, TransAmazon]
Trans-Amazon Highway[TransAmazon Highway]
[g]Latin America;June 16, 1970: Trans-Amazon Highway Is Announced[10850]
[g]Brazil;June 16, 1970: Trans-Amazon Highway Is Announced[10850]
[c]Transportation;June 16, 1970: Trans-Amazon Highway Is Announced[10850]
[c]Travel and recreation;June 16, 1970: Trans-Amazon Highway Is Announced[10850]
[c]Engineering;June 16, 1970: Trans-Amazon Highway Is Announced[10850]
Médici, Emílio Garrastazu
Mendes, Chico
Lutzenberger, José
Sarney, José
Orellano, Francisco de

Along with the name, the legend of the Amazon as a land of limitless wealth has persisted over the centuries. In the 1960’s, President Juscelino Kubitschek Kubitschek, Juscelino built the new inland capital city of Brasília to focus the attention of the Brazilian people on the untapped potential of the nation’s vast interior. On June 16, 1970, after a visit to the drought-stricken, impoverished northeast of Brazil, President Emílio Garrastazu Médici ordered the construction of a highway to open the rainforest to the northeast’s land-hungry peasants. When announcing this order, Médici called the Amazon basin “a land without men for men without land,” ignoring the many groups of indigenous people who had lived for millennia along the Amazon and its many tributaries. With this order, Médici initiated decades of unforeseen and undesired consequences.

The highway begun by Médici is still under construction. Completed portions link the cities of the northeast coast of Brazil with Manaus, the city built at the confluence of the Amazon and the Rio Negro during the late nineteenth century rubber boom, and Porto Velho, a river port situated at the uppermost navigable reaches of the Rio Madeira in the state of Rondonia. The road from Porto Velho continues westward to Rio Branco on the border with Bolivia and to Cruzeiro do Sul on the border with Peru. North of the Amazon, another portion of the road extends to Boa Vista near the borders with Guyana. Additional portions are planned to link Manaus with Benjamin Constant, where Brazil meets Peru and Colombia, and Sao Gabriel da Cachoeira, near the borders with Colombia and Venezuela.

As these roads progressed into the Amazon basin, the poor and landless of Brazil’s southern and northeastern states migrated into the rain forest in search of land upon which to build new lives for themselves and their families, but not in the numbers intended. Médici’s goal had been the settlement of seventy thousand families by 1974, but by that date only about six thousand families had migrated to the region. During the 1970’s, while the population of the whole of Brazil grew at a rate of 2.8 percent per year, the Amazon region’s population expanded at a rate of 6.3 percent, and in Rondonia it rose by an incredible 34.2 percent per year. Despite this migration, by the end of the 1970’s the Amazon basin, occupying over 40 percent of Brazil’s land area, still had less than 5 percent of the country’s total population. In fact, the population density of the Amazon was roughly equal to that of the Sahara Desert in Africa.

The lush tropical forests have long led the people of Brazil to believe that the Amazon, if cleared of its forests, could become the world’s breadbasket. The people who migrated to the region tried to realize that dream, but more often than not their crops failed, and the lives they found have proven little better, and often worse, than those they left behind. Upon arrival in the region, these people would locate a parcel of land and, like the homesteaders of the American prairies, would claim it as their own. The average size of these parcels was about 100 hectares (250 acres). The settlers would clear away the forest, often using bulldozers, and plant crops such as corn, manioc, brown beans, or other staples. These crops usually fared well for the first year or two, but soon enough the soil would take on a hard, red, bricklike quality, its fertility exhausted, and the fields would be either bare or overrun by invading woody vegetation.

The few studies of the potential productivity of the region have found that, because of the poor soils and the delicate ecological balance of the Amazonian ecosystems, perhaps no more than 5 percent of the entire region, mainly those portions lying immediately along the rivers, is suitable for annual crops. Lacking adequate knowledge and means to evaluate the potential of a parcel of land to sustain agricultural productivity, most of the migrants to the Amazon learned of the fragility of that ecosystem the hard way, and usually too late.

The tragedy of these failures spread as the migrants abandoned their land, often selling it for little if any return to the agents of absentee landowners, who typically were wealthy people living hundreds of miles away in Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The migrant families then either returned to the hard lives they had hoped to escape or moved deeper into the Amazon forests to clear land occupied by indigenous people.

In the latter case, violence was common between both settlers and Indians and settlers and the widely scattered serengueiros, rubber tappers who collected the latex needed to make rubber and harvested jungle fruits and medicinal plant products. The agents of absentee landowners, usually seeking to clear the land again and convert it to cattle pasture to collect government subsidies, also used violence to seize the land of the Indians, the serengueiros, and the migrant settlers as well. The grand plans to use the Amazon as a vast pasture also failed. The productivity of the rangelands was so low that huge expanses of land were needed to produce even the smallest profit, and just as the settlers had discovered with their crops, soon the soil would not support the grasses needed to sustain cattle. The jungle would then creep back to reclaim the land.


The impact of the Trans-Amazon Highway system was both global and local. These effects ranged from the purely theoretical to the clearly tangible. Among the theoretical effects were the claims by environmental groups in the United States and Western Europe that deforestation in the Amazon would increase the potential for global warming. These claims are based on the belief that felling the forest would not only reduce the uptake of atmospheric carbon but also release additional carbon into the atmosphere as the vegetation decomposed, although existing data on these claims are contradictory and inconclusive.

Another global-scale impact that worries some biologists, ecologists, and other natural scientists is the loss of biological diversity that occurs as deforestation eliminates species, niches, and habitat. Tropical rain forests are the most biologically diverse of all the earth’s terrestrial ecosystems, as well as the most biologically productive. Some biologists have claimed that species of both plants and animals are being eliminated at high rates by deforestation, although numbers to support these claims are so far only speculative. Nevertheless, large-scale human encroachment on these ecosystems in Asia, Africa, and Latin America, even if it does not reduce their long-term productivity, cannot help but reduce their biological diversity. Most human settlement in the Amazon has occurred in the eastern and southern portions of the basin, while the best estimates indicate that biological diversity is greatest in the northwestern regions.

A third global impact has occurred in politics and economics. Environmental groups in the United States and Western Europe have amassed enormous financial resources to lobby their governments and support the work of sympathetic scientists in an effort to bring pressure on many tropical countries, especially Brazil, to preserve their rain forest resources. This pressure has even reached the level of the World Bank, a major lender to Brazil, which in recent years has worked directly with Indians and serengueiros to set aside large areas of the upper Amazon and has pressured the Brazilian government to protect these lands as a condition for continued international financial support. Predictably, Brazilians have taken great offense at this infringement on their national sovereignty.

In the early 1980’s, encouraged by Brazil’s economic health and the anger many Brazilians felt over outside interference in their domestic affairs, President José Sarney accelerated the construction of the Trans-Amazon Highway, seeing integration of the Amazon into the nation’s economy as the best course for continued development. As his foreign minister stated, “Brazil will not see itself turned into a nature preserve for the rest of humanity. Our most important goal is economic development.”

One local event brought a global change. In 1988, Chico Mendes, a serengueiro and leader of Brazil’s Workers’ Party (Partido de Trabalhadores), was murdered. His close contacts with many American and European environmental groups meant that his death received worldwide publicity. This publicity, combined with a severe downturn in Brazil’s economy, itself caused in part by the failures of Sarney’s efforts to develop the Amazon, brought a new man, Ferdinand Collor, to Brazil’s presidency, and with him a new secretary for the environment, José Lutzenberger. Lutzenberger formed a Center for Tropical Forest Research to study the problem of sustainable development in the Amazon and began an ambitious program to zone the Amazon; that is, to designate which areas might be developed, which should be preserved for their biological value, and which should be fully titled to their indigenous occupants. These research and zoning efforts are the main focus of Brazil’s plans for developing the Amazon.

The most tangible impacts remain local and continue to occur. Thousands of Brazil’s poor chased an unrealizable dream deep into the jungle and found only misery. Instead of establishing successful farms to support themselves and their families, they left parts of the Amazon bare of the great forests that stood for millennia. Estimates indicate that almost 7 percent of the entire Amazon has been logged since the Trans-Amazon Highway was begun, and greater portions have been cleared in the states of Rondonia in the west and Amapa in the east.

Along with parts of the Amazon forest, many of the families who migrated there and were unable to support themselves were also destroyed. Men often migrated to remote gold fields in the Amazon to become laborers in near-slavery conditions. Left behind, women tried to support their children alone, in many cases becoming prostitutes in order to survive. The lands these families lost became part of vast cattle ranches. Meanwhile, traditional gatherers of the Amazon saw their forests devastated, and others, like Chico Mendes, were killed defending their lands. Rather than solving the poverty of Brazil, the Trans-Amazon Highway more often let the rich get richer and the poor get poorer.

The most tragic impacts befell the Indians. Groups of Indians have lived for thousands of years within the Amazon forests. Lacking modern medical technology and practicing traditions of warfare, these Indians rarely enjoyed long lives, but their lives have been further shortened by both economic conflict and exposure to diseases for which they have no resistance. The conflicts are over control of the land and over the desire of migrants and others seeking gold and other minerals in the Amazon. As these Indians have disappeared, so has their knowledge, acquired over the millennia, which enabled the Indians to harvest food and medicinal crops without destroying the soil or the forest. It enabled them to identify which parts of the rain forest were most adaptable for human use and which were not. To date, only these Indians have demonstrated the knowledge and ability to capture the wealth of the Amazon, wealth that adventurers since the time of Orellano could see but never hold. Trans-Amazon Highway[TransAmazon Highway]

Further Reading

  • Chagnon, Napoleon A. Yanomamo: The Fierce People. 3d ed. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1983. A classic monograph in cultural anthropology. Describes aspects of the culture of a pretechnological group of Amazon Indians, including their systems of food production, their myths, their social and political organization, and their contacts with the outside world.
  • Davis, Sheldon H. Victims of the Miracle: Development and the Indians of Brazil. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1977. A scholarly account of the impact of Brazil’s policies for developing the Amazon on the Indians of the rain forest area.
  • Peters, William J., and Leon F. Neuenschwander. Slash and Burn: Farming in the Third World Forest. Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1988. A study of the way of life of people in the world’s tropical forests. Summarizes scientific information on the distribution of slash-and-burn agriculture, the effects of fire, the vegetation in the tropical forest, and the social, cultural, economic, and political effects of this ancient system of farming.
  • Smith, Anthony. Explorers of the Amazon. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990. A fascinating history of the exploration of the Amazon. Covers the period from 1500 to the early twentieth century, focusing on the exploits of conquistadores, adventurers, Indian kings, scientists, rubber barons, and many others.
  • Smith, Nigel J. H. Rainforest Corridors: The Transamazon Colonization Scheme. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982. A comprehensive volume on Brazil’s efforts to develop the Amazon. Covers the history, ecology, politics, and public health aspects of settlement and colonization.
  • Wood, Charles, and Robert Walker. “Saving the Trees by Helping the Poor: A Look at Small Producers Along Brazil’s Transamazon Highway.” In The RFF Reader in Environmental and Resource Policy, edited by Wallace E. Oates. 2d ed. Washington, D.C.: Resources for the Future, 2006. Case study of the effects of the highway on one community and on the environment that looks at the ability of each to help preserve the other. Bibliographic references and index.

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