Road Projects Have Major Socioenvironmental Losses With Low Economic Income30.03.2020 • News
A summation of economic, social, and environmental losses encapsulates most projects for construction or improvements of roads in the Amazon, as published this month in the “Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences”. A new analysis by an international group of scientists evaluates 75 projects in the name of a regional economic development and easy access to basic public services. But, for 45% of them, it just isn’t worth it.
The analysis was led by a team from the Conservation Strategy Fund (CSF), in collaboration with the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) and the Fundación para la Conservación y Desarrollo Sostenible (FCDS), and included Brazilian, Bolivian, Peruvian, and Colombian researchers. They focused on 75 highway projects in Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru, which add up to more than 12,000 kilometers, scheduled for the next five years, and a total investment of around 27 billion USD. If all of the projects go through, the associated deforestation should be at least 2.4 million hectares in the next 20 years.
The most significant impact on the forest will be in Brazil: 1.42 million hectares of additional deforestation expected in 24 projects, of which 561 thousand hectares are only associated with the improvement of the Trans-Amazonian Highway (BR-230). “Roads in the Amazon are major drivers of deforestation. When a road is paved in the Amazon, it causes the land to appreciate. Then, a race for the illegal occupation of its roadsides begins. In order to curb this process, we need a government-charged fight against the organized crime of land-grabbing,” says the director of Science at IPAM, Ane Alencar, one of the authors of the study. “It is essential that the road-licensing procedures already in effect in the Amazon are maintained to prevent illegal deforestation.”
Roads are key vectors of deforestation in the Amazon. They pass through regions that were previously difficult to access and allow people to stop easily, unlike waterways and railways. The impact on the forest is estimated to be 20 kilometers to each side. Since the study does not take opening secondary and tertiary roads off of the new highways into account, the affected area of deforestation tends to be even larger.
The projects are customarily moved forward under the justification of economic need, such as product flow and the transit of goods, and social need, by allowing local populations to access services more easily. But the delivery sometimes falls short of the expectation, as the researchers show in the same study.
When analyzing variables such as traffic and investment estimates, among other factors, the authors saw that 45% of these projects would cost more to build and maintain than the dividends they could generate. In Bolivia, this index reaches 85%. “Even when we don’t consider the socio-environmental impacts, almost half of the projects are economically unfeasible. These projects should be excluded, or at least reevaluated by the governments,” explains CSF senior economist Thaís Vilela, the lead author of the scientific article. “Also, the number of projects with negative economic returns may be greater than what we found in the study. We use official investment data, but we know that costs tend to increase throughout a road construction project.”
Even among projects that have some positive value, there are more losses than gains. Either the environmental and social issues are sacrificed for the sake of economic gain, or the financial return is lower for the sake of socioenvironmental objectives.
“For projects that have a positive economic return, it is important that governments, together with society, determine what would be the acceptable level of environmental and social loss in exchange for an economic gain. For example, it is possible to obtain 77% of the total economic return, considering all projects have a positive return, with 10% of the expected socio-environmental damage. Just select the best projects,” says Vilela.