(CNN) — Government documents show that the president of Brazil’s environmental agency overrode previous recommendations by experts from his own organization when he approved the construction of a controversial highway through the Amazon rainforest.
Last week, Eduardo Bim, president of the IBAMA environmental agency, authorized the Brazilian federal government to begin repaving the BR-139 highway between the cities of Manaus, in the state of Amazonas, and Porto Velho, in neighboring Rondônia, route that crosses the most virgin area of the Amazon jungle in the country.
The decision was immediately criticized by environmental groups who say resurfacing the road would encourage deforestation.
The road project was originally a key part of a plan by the country’s military dictatorship to develop the wilderness area and integrate it with the rest of the country. It was officially opened in 1976, but poor maintenance led to its abandonment in 1988. Since then, the road has only been partially used.
As highlighted this Wednesday by the climate NGO Climate Observatorythe authorization also goes against previous recommendations of a working group made up of other IBAMA officials, who warned that paving the highway would cause deforestation in the region.
The group also pointed to a link between some well-maintained sections of the highway and higher levels of traffic, “occupation” and deforestation in the Amazon.
“The monitoring and inspection activities carried out by environmental organizations in the region have shown that the process of disorderly occupation, associated with high rates of deforestation, has intensified in recent months,” they wrote.
“This is particularly noticeable at each end of BR-319, where the asphalt is in good condition, traffic is heavy, and road development has favored occupancy,” the document continues.
That document, published in 2008, also recommended ten “preconditions” for resurfacing the highway, including the creation of protected areas along the more than 400 km of highway to be paved and the creation of ecotourism programs involving to local communities.
“It is impossible not to point out (those) additional recommendations to be considered as preconditions by the federal government” before the start of works, he adds.
The Observatorio do Clima said that IBAMA experts issued similar recommendations this July, but the agency’s leadership also ignored them.
Critics of the decision were quick to point to the timing of the decision, noting that Brazil is headed for new elections this fall, where President Jair Bolsonaro is expected to face former President Luis Inácio Lula da Silva.
Bim is a appointee of Bolsonaro, who made repaving the highway a campaign promise in the run-up to the 2018 elections. Previous presidents have also promised to fully repave and reopen the highway, including da Silva.
“The decision is clearly politically motivated” and the project is a source of “great concern,” said Fernanda Meirelles, executive secretary of the BR-319 Observatory, an NGO created to promote the sustainable development of the highway region.
CNN has contacted IBAMA for comment but has not received a response.
Brazil’s Infrastructure Minister Marcelo Sampaio celebrated the decision as “the result of courage and technical work” in a post on Twitter.
“We are going to bring Amazonian society out of isolation,” he wrote, referring to the Brazilian state of Amazonas.
Although the new license greenlights the resurfacing project from an environmental perspective, it does not include provisions for the 10 conservation measures recommended by officials in 2008.
Under the terms of the license, the inspections will be the only measure designed to limit the environmental impact of the highway, which runs through a vast remote area in northwestern Brazil.
“Inspection operations are insufficient to stop land grabbing, invasions, deforestation and land speculation, pressures that have increased exponentially in recent years (in the area),” Meirelles also said.
Civil society organizations plan to push for IBAMA’s decision to be overturned in court, according to Suely Araujo, a public policy expert at the NGO Climate Observatory.
“The license does not even require the installation of inspection posts (along the road). There is no guarantee that deforestation in the region will be controlled once the road is built,” Araujo said in a statement.
“Since deforestation is the main negative impact associated with paving, the declaration of viability of the work, which is inherent in all prior licences, is not duly substantiated. It is a license that must be judicially annulled,” he added.
Brazil’s Amazon rainforest has been deforested by a record amount in the first half of 2022, according to the country’s Institute for Space Research (INPE).
INPE satellite data shows that 3,750 square kilometers of the world’s largest rainforest was lost in Brazil between January 1 and June 24, the largest area since 2016, when the institute began this type of monitoring.