Death in the forest

A highway is speeding the destruction of the vital global resource. Along this stretch, the killings have already begun.

Terrence McCoy, who covers Brazil for The Washington Post, traversed the length of Highway 319 to report this story.

First the road was cragged and cracked. Then it was a thick slop of mud. Then a swirl of red dust. But now, after we had traveled hundreds of miles through the densest of jungle, the highway was finally good — paved and smooth — and it was here that the driver stopped the truck.

There was an unmarked dirt road branching off from the highway. It cut into the jungle and led out of sight. Lucas Ferrante, the environmental scientist leading this journey, wanted to go down the road and see what — and who — was hidden behind the trees.

“This is illegal deforestation,” he said.

The driver, who lives on the highway, told him it would be too dangerous to proceed. These rough-hewn side roads are often the work of armed criminal groups. The groups, which dominate this stretch of the forest, had unleashed a wave of fire and destruction that was transforming much of southern Amazonas state into smoldering pastureland. The way they solve problems is with violence. People disappear. Their bodies are never found. Our driver feared the trouble that following this road would bring.

Ferrante, who has spent years detailing the region’s lawlessness in academic journals, understood the highway’s dangers and uncertainties better than most. He had been threatened in anonymous calls and messages — then abducted in November 2020 and told to keep quiet.

Another researcher documenting the destruction received this text: “You’re going to burn in the fire. It will be a barbecue. Message delivered.”

But Ferrante, 33, believed traveling here was worth the risk. He had come to see this highway, a reddish gash scarring a quilt of green, as one of the Amazon’s last stands. A photographer and I had now joined him on this journey to its further reaches.

BR-319 begins along the banks of the Amazon River and runs more than 500 miles, slicing through the largely preserved core of the Brazilian Amazon to connect the cities of Manaus and Porto Velho.

Scientists argue that the only thing protecting this reserve — one of the region’s last bastions of contiguous forest — is the profound deterioration of the road itself.

Its decay has for years left much of it impassable, repelling criminal land grabbers and helping to preserve an area scientists say is vital to the survival of the entire forest.

But that protective barrier is now being paved over.

Stretches of the highway have been improved in recent years, making travel easier and unleashing a surge of deforestation. Many in the rainforest want the government to complete the job. President Jair Bolsonaro, who has worked to ease and undermine environmental regulations to promote development, says paving the highway would fulfill “a wish of the Amazonian people.” His vice president, a general in reserve, said he’d eat his own military beret if current officials don’t get it done.

For many in Manaus, a city of 2.2 million cut off from Brazil’s main highway system, the road symbolizes something close to freedom — a lifeline that connects them to the rest of the country and paves the path toward development.

“BR-319: It’s our right,” says the slogan plastered across social media and highway signs. In a region of both vast resources and pervasive poverty, many say the time has come to use what’s there for the taking, to seize the better life long denied by isolation and geography, to push back against federal laws and environmentalists who seem to care far more for trees than people.

The outcome of the emotional political clash, scientists say, has implications not only for the rest of the forest but the world. The Amazon is a crucial bulwark against global warming, helping to slow the inexorable march of climate change. But researchers warn that finishing the highway and subsequent state roads would open up its core to destruction. Scientists at the Federal University of Minas Gerais found in 2020 that paving the highway would quadruple deforestation here over the next three decades.

“That would be the end of the forest,” said Carlos Nobre, a climate scientist who focuses on the Amazon.

Learn more about the state of the Amazon

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The Amazon is already believed to be at the precipice. If much more is lost, scientists warn, the forest could suffer destabilizing ecological changes that convert immense swaths into degraded open savanna. What has historically been a carbon sink could suddenly become a “carbon bomb,” upending the world’s efforts to avert catastrophic warming. Already, some regions of the Amazon are exploding — emitting more carbon gas than they absorb. The shift has been particularly acute in the most deforested sections of the Amazon’s degraded southeast, where in the past 40 years the average temperature during the annual dry season has risen more than 4 degrees.

But the wave is now moving deeper into the forest. The two cities in Brazil that produce the most carbon gases — São Félix do Xingu and Altamira — are far from the most populous. They’re both in the Amazon, near large infrastructure projects that have brought development, but also deforestation and extreme violence.

Along this stretch of BR-319, where the destructive process is well underway, the killings have already begun.

Humaitá, the town closest to our position, recorded 15 homicides in October alone — five times the monthly average. Police said most were connected to rising land-grabbing and deforestation. On one cattle farm built on cleared land, several workers had recently disappeared. First went a farm worker named Jeferson Bungenstab, 37. Then followed one of the last men to see him alive, a housekeeper named Nelson Antônio da Conceição, 33. Police didn’t yet know what had happened to the men, but had begun to suspect the worst.

Ferrante, unaware of the rash of killings and disappearances, peered down the road. He had made up his mind. He told the driver to pull out onto it. The photographer, Raphael Alves, and I looked at each other. I felt a wave of nerves. Alves got his camera ready. The truck started forward.

“We’re entering an area of great risk,” warned the driver, who asked not to be named out of concern for his safety.

Heading down the path and into the forest, we didn’t yet know how much.

‘Catastrophic’ environmental consequences

In the late 1960s, several years into Brazil’s two decades of military rule, a small group of generals started drawing lines on the map. They were strategizing the greatest military excursion in Brazilian history: the conquest of the Amazon. They charted out a blitzkrieg of highway projects to tame and integrate the rainforest into the larger country. The Trans-Amazonian Highway cut across the Amazon’s belly. Another road cleaved massive Pará state. A third highway lassoed Venezuela to the Brazilian Amazon.

The new roads fueled surges in both migration and deforestation. In a region where people have long seized land and tried to establish ownership by occupying it, the highways filled with travelers — poor migrants, land speculators, ranchers — chasing fortune and opportunity. Many ended up along the Amazon’s southern sweep, a bow-shaped area that now concentrates 75 percent of the forest’s losses and has come to be known as the “arc of deforestation.”

Years of analyses illustrate how roads often lead to deforestation. It’s called the fishbone pattern. The highway forms the spine. Then speculators, illegal loggers and local officials build roads radiating outward: the ribs. Studies have shown that the vast majority of deforestation in the Amazon has occurred within 30 miles of a major road.

BR-319 was different. It was constructed in the 1970s, like the others, but attracted far less notice. Merchants in Manaus found cheaper methods to transport goods. Migrants went to other parts of the forest. The highway — built hastily during the rainy season and battered annually since then with an average rainfall of 87 inches — fell into disrepair and became impassable for much of the year. In 1988, it was effectively shut down, sealing off both the core of the Amazon and also Manaus, where a divisive debate over its future has seesawed ever since.

Transportation and environmental authorities in 2007 approved the restoration of portions of the highway, but not its vast middle. Then they authorized the rudimentary “maintenance” of the highway’s decayed midsection — but not paving it. Local politicians promised before the 2018 elections to finish the whole thing. Environmentalists countered that it made no economic sense: Studies showed it was cheaper to transport goods along river routes.

Then, last year, a new coronavirus variant crushed the city, depleting its oxygen supplies. The road’s supporters seethed: If the highway had been passable, oxygen would have arrived in time. Instead, dozens suffocated to death.

The raw nerves surrounding the issue have been exposed at boisterous public hearings.

At one September session in Manaus, an American scientist read a lengthy prepared statement. “The BR-319 highway is economically unviable,” said Philip Fearnside, who contributed to the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for climate research. He called Brazil’s decision-making process “deficient.” And the environmental consequences if the highway were paved? “Catastrophic.”

The highway’s supporters in the audience started to boo. Fearnside yelled over them in his heavily accented Portuguese. Then his mic was cut. Video shows the next speaker striding to the front.

“Why would someone from the United States come here for this?” demanded Sérgio Kruke, director of the Conservative Amazonas Movement, pointing at Fearnside. “How could that be?”

The audience clapped and cheered. Kruke shouted into the microphone.

“This house is ours! If we want to knock down all of the trees, we’ll knock them down!”

A highway in three acts

Ferrante, a researcher affiliated with the National Institute of Amazonian Research, sat in the front row at that hearing, increasingly restive. He is Brazilian, but believes the forest belongs to the world. Terrified by the implications of paving the highway, he had partnered with Fearnside to show how even its simple maintenance had already harmed the rainforest, and also threatened Indigenous communities.

But sitting in the audience, the PhD candidate saw the studies hadn’t been enough. Few were convinced of his view. He needed more proof. He needed to make another trip down the highway. We asked to join him.

We set out at 3 a.m., caught the first ferry out of Manaus and, as the sky reddened over the Amazon River, reached the highway. Ferrante thought about the long road ahead.

BR-319 is a highway in three acts. The first 100-some miles are paved, marked by road signs and split by yellow stripes. Then it begins to devolve into what’s known as the “middle stretch”: 250 miles of dirt and crevices and mud-slicked stretches so formidable that they cause vehicles to spin out and tumble off the road. The final act is smoothed out — and speeds travelers into one of the most dangerous parts of the Amazon, on the edge of the arc of deforestation, where environmental destruction and violence are rampant.

Ferrante secured his N95 mask, less to protect him from Brazil’s rampant coronavirus than to hide his identity.

“We are going against the entire world here,” he said, a world he worried wished him harm. Intense and combative, Ferrante knew his work and demeanor had made him enemies. He’d argued heatedly with highway proponents. He’d accused the government in opinion pieces of intentionally destroying the Amazon. He’d written academic study after academic study: On illegal loggers along the highway. On remote Indigenous groups sidelined during highway discussions. On illegal gold prospecting near the highway.

Now he feared he was a marked man. In November 2020, he’d climbed into a car he’d assumed was his Uber outside his apartment. The driver took him far off course and, according to the statement Ferrante gave state authorities, attacked him with a sharp object, scratching his arms. “You’re messing with things you shouldn’t be,” Ferrante said the man told him. Ever since, Ferrante has perceived threats nearly everywhere.

He saw them again here now, as his driver pulled to a stop before a stagnant body of water. Runoff from road maintenance had turned the water a soupy brown. Ferrante looked back and forth — coast clear — and got out to investigate. “We have to hurry,” he said. “We can’t stay in one place for too long.” He noted the environmental damage — fish killed, water source poisoned — and got back in the truck. The next water source down road was the same. And the one after that: brown and dead.

As we drove on, the forest was an uninterrupted blur of verdant greens — except where it wasn’t. Every now and again, a whole chunk of the forest had been bitten off, leaving behind charred trees, smoldering earth, smoky air. Cattle, cultivated for beef, wandered through the burned brush. Often at the center of these ashen expanses was a single shack inhabited by a squatter. The forest was gone, and the land had been claimed.

“You can still smell the fire,” Ferrante said.

“This was all forest three months ago,” the driver said.

The road beneath the truck began to change. The asphalt cracked open, then receded. The remnants looked like pieces of broken pottery. A sign said the paved portion of the highway had come to an end. There was now only a line of red earth streaking into the distance. We had reached the worst part of the road.

“The middle stretch,” Ferrante said.

Plunging deeper into the forest’s grip

There were no signs of humanity here. The temperature was lower. The forest was dense and dark. As we pushed deeper into its grasp, the highway became a bog of thick mud. The vehicle struggled forward — past a marooned truck, an abandoned van, a jaguar skirting across the road. Finally, we reached a small collection of dirt-covered homes along a river.

Inside a wooden house on stilts, an old woman had spent 50 years waiting.

Nilda Castro dos Santos, 74, was young when she came here, following her father from a dead-end town elsewhere in Amazonas. The road then was “new and beautiful.” She viewed it as a promise: There would be work, opportunities, a better life for her children. The people built a community with small restaurants, shops, serving residents and visitors. But then their lifeline — the highway — began to atrophy. No one came to fix it. The flow of travelers stopped. Neighbors moved away.

Now the town felt as dead as the highway itself: silent and sun-wilted.

Every day now, Castro sits and waits — for the government to remember this place, for the highway to be paved, for the fulfillment of a promise she feels has been delayed a half-century.

“I’m scared I’ll die without ever seeing it paved,” she said. “We have been able to survive here, but we haven’t been able to live.”

A gnarled man walked down the dirt street. Rosineu Batista, 59, spoke of his brother-in-law. The man had recently fallen ill. But the highway had been impassable, and without proper care, he died. Batista believes a paved highway might change things here. Maybe he’d be able to have more to eat than whatever he can fish out of the river.

“But you’re not worried about criminal land grabbers coming in with a paved highway?” Ferrante asked.

“Yeah,” he said. Then he looked out at the desolate village: “But …”

We continued on. The truck bumped and jostled across a river, over rickety bridges, past signs hailing the coming maintenance. Rains rushed through. Darkness enveloped the forest. Vila Realidade, a gritty highway village settled by squatters, came and went.

Then, as suddenly as it had deteriorated, the road improved. The dirt smoothed out. Shacks appeared in the distance.

Anderson Ferreira, 30, stepped out of one. He’d grown up on the highway. For most of his life, the forest was all there was. But then workers began improving the highway. Outsiders arrived from faraway states.

The forest started to burn.

Now Ferreira tends a small house on recently deforested land, looking after someone else’s cattle. He badly wants the highway paved — it’s all anyone here talks about. But he also thinks of the cost.

“To be human is to want to live in harmony with nature,” he said.

Beyond his house, the smoke was rising. We had made it to the arc of deforestation.

‘This is going to be a massive hidden farm’

Since 2015, deforestation along the highway has grown ninefold. A sweep of forest nearly the size of Washington, D.C., is lost every year. Nowhere is the destruction more evident than here, in the vast city limits of Humaitá, the largest municipality along the highway, where the road finally smooths out. Patch by patch, the forest here is being stripped clear. Illegal roads streak into the receding tree line.

Ferrante’s research team has started mapping the roads, even driving down several. They have found illegal gold prospecting, logging and burned forest. One criminal forest broker tried to sell them land, the team wrote in the academic journal Land Use Policy. He offered two acres of deforested land for $570. The same amount of forested land would go for $3.80, but the buyers would have to deforest and occupy it themselves. During a visit to the site, the “land-grabbing agent” kept a gun in his hand.

The deforestation has been closely accompanied by the threat of violence. In 2017, armed illegal miners in broad daylight burned down the offices in Humaitá of Ibama, the federal environmental law enforcement agency. Inspectors investigating illegal sites now equip themselves for combat: long rifles, camouflaged fatigues, bulletproof vests. Rural landowners have been targeted. Criminals “come and execute the people on the land so they can lay claim to it,” Amazonas state police detective Mário Melo said.

Ferrante had thought extensively about the perils of his work. Brazil is one of the world’s most dangerous countries in which to investigate environmental crime. Twenty environmentalists were killed in 2020 alone. But he told himself — and his family — that it wouldn’t happen to him. He was too methodical, too careful. Still, some risk was unavoidable: “We can only discover certain things by going inside.”

Now he was inside again, going down another illegal path, looking out into the dark forest.

“This is new,” he said. “We don’t know what we’re about to find.”

Then it was upon him: A mile down the road, there was a large wooden sign. It said the land here — which was public and protected — was private and for sale. It listed a phone number and the name “Martelos.” Ferrante shook his head and took a picture. The road forked to the right and opened on a vast clearing.

A wash of blackened earth. A string of shacks. Electrical wiring. A fence to hold in the cattle.

“This is going to be huge,” Ferrante said. “This is going to be a massive hidden farm.”

If someone found him here, he worried, there would be trouble. Difficult questions would be asked. Someone might recognize him. He could easily be disappeared. He was hours out of cellphone range. No one would ever know. Working quickly, Ferrante marked the property’s coordinates, took some pictures and, planning to alert the authorities, got back into the truck. He was furious.

“This is land that belongs to the country!” he fumed. “They have just invaded it and ripped out all of the trees!”

He then heard the squawking of birds. It was getting louder. The truck approached a fence post. Vultures were sitting on it.

Alves, the photographer, went out to document the scene. Ferrante and I followed. We were looking down at the dirt path when we heard the screaming. It was coming from Alves.

Alves was running toward the truck. He yelled that he’d found a body. It had been a man. His hands were tied. Ferrante told the driver to start the truck and keep it running. He then went to see for himself. And there, at the base of a ditch beside the fence, he came upon the motionless form.

The man’s face was disfigured. His wrists were bound. He appeared to have been executed.

The body of Nelson Antônio da Conceição, the farm housekeeper who had disappeared, had lain in this ditch for days. Police say he vanished shortly after telling them what he knew about the disappearance of the farm worker Jeferson Bungenstab. Both men, police say, worked for the same cattle rancher, Celso Deola, 59. Conceição, police told me, had accused him of ordering the disappearances of Bungenstab and others. Police said Deola, an alleged land grabber and illegal deforester, would cheat his workers on payday and then resolve the resulting pay disputes with his “pistoleiro” — a reputed hit man named Edmilson de Jesus Chagas, 35, who carried a Glock 9mm.

Deola did not respond to multiple requests for comment. A relative said: “Unfortunately, he’s my uncle. I hope this time he pays for what he’s done.”

Ferrante took one last look at one of the alleged victims. Then he raced back to the truck. The driver pulled out as his door closed. Ferrante looked up, then felt a swell of panic: In front of the truck, two men on a motorcycle were coming toward us. “Don’t stop,” Ferrante told the driver. “Whatever you do, keep going.”

The truck passed the motorcycle.

“Go, go, go.”

The men kept going in the other direction. The truck broke the tree line and made it back onto the highway. No one was following.

“That’s not going to happen to me,” Ferrante said. “I’m not going to end up dead.”

The truck sped to the nearest town. We heatedly discussed what to do. In a region where many local officials are connected to environmental crime, the police would be difficult to trust. It would be easier and safer to wait until after we’d left the region to report the body. But then we thought of this man’s family, waiting, never knowing what had happened to him. We had to tell someone now. So that evening, Ferrante reported the body, then took the police back to it.

In the weeks to come, police would accuse Chagas and Deola of killing his two employees and announce warrants for their arrest. Officers would mortally wound the alleged hit man in a firefight at his house, police said. Next they would try to visit the rancher, police said, but Deola had already fled. Police say that he is now considered a fugitive. Authorities would release pictures of what they say was discovered at his ranch: heavy-caliber rifles, silencers, scopes, rounds and rounds of ammunition. Ferrante would feel sickened by how close he’d come to meeting that violence.

But for now, on this highway, Ferrante felt as if it was receding behind him. The road took us further south — back into cell range, out of the lawless frontier, and, finally, into a placid expanse. The highway was now fully paved and marked. On either side were pastures stretching to the horizon. The wave of deforestation had already passed through.

The highway had been traversed, and this was how it ended: not in pitched lawlessness, but in a stream of pleasant farmhouses, in cattle meandering through well-maintained fields — in another chunk of the forest cleared away and the Amazon brought yet closer to its death. The guns were gone. There were no more bodies. The criminals had been replaced by legitimate business people. It was as if the forest had never existed at all, and the future was already here.

“The transformation is complete,” Ferrante said.

Gabriela Sá Pessoa contributed to this report.

About this story

Editing by Matthew Brown. Copy editing by Vanessa Larson. Graphics by Laris Karklis. Graphics editing by Lauren Tierney. Photography by Raphael Alves. Photo editing by Chloe Coleman. Video by Raphael Alves, Avener Prado and Terrence McCoy. Video editing by Alexa Juliana Ard. Design and development by Allison Mann. Design editing by Matt Callahan. Project management by Julie Vitkovskaya.

Map sources: July 2021 satellite image mosaic compiled by Planet Labs PBC. Hydrography, transportation, conservation and Indigenous data via TerraBrasilis.