Three explorers — an astronaut, a mechanical engineer and a biologist —crossed the Amazon by bicycle, with an aim to document the socioenvironmental impacts of the Transamazon Highway and inspire people to conserve the forest and protect the rights of the people who call it home.
The Transamazon Highway
In 1972, two decades after the great post-war push for “modernization” around the world had begun, Brazil began to construct the Transamazon Highway. Cutting across nearly 2,500 miles, the road was meant to help literally pave the way to occupying the interior of the rainforest, and to integrating the Brazilian states in the north and northeast to the rest of the country.
Yet by the late 1970s, while cautionary tales and lessons of modernization’s flaws were surfacing, Brazil also found itself in the throes of a financial crisis. The Transamazon project stalled, and much of the highway remained a dirt path. As a consequence, the deforestation and other environmental damage that would have resulted had the entire stretch of the road been paved was partially mitigated. Even today, during the rainy season (October to March), much of the road remains impassable. However, this road continued to attract Brazilians from the south looking for cheap forested lands to convert into pasture.
Even with only intermittent segments finished, the Transamazon Highway has had undeniable impact on the surrounding ecosystems. Scientists have studied the road’s effects on nearby forests and wildlife, as well as its links to activities like mining and agriculture. And some 60-70 percent of the deforestation in the region is concentrated along the road.
Returning to the highway 25 years later
Because our Andes-Amazon Initiative aims to ensure the long-term ecological integrity and climatic function of the Amazon basin, we have begun supporting work in the region to address the negative environmental impacts of roads and dams, so that infrastructure development is improved, in socioenvironmental terms. Within this work, documenting the way roads interact with natural systems is important, as is building wider understanding and awareness about these dynamics.
So what impact has the Transamazon Highway had on the ground? Twenty-five years ago, a trio of brave Brazilians took to the road to find out. Inspired by the 1992 Earth Summit, they navigated the Amazon by bicycle. Over the course of two months, they made their way through blistering sun, biting insects and thick stretches of mud, observing and documenting environmental changes and conflict along the way.
A quarter of a century later, one of these explorers, IPAM’s Osvaldo Stella, took to the road again to document the ensuing years of impact. With him on the follow-up transect, “TransAmazon +25,” were Paulo Moutinho, a biologist and co-founder of IPAM, and Chris Cassidy, a NASA Astronaut and U.S. Navy SEAL. With partial support from the Moore Foundation, their September 2017 journey spanned 1,000 kilometers of the road in Brazil’s Pará and Amazonas states. Their adventure combined scientific fact-finding and documentary filming to report the continued and contested changes to the landscapes and local communities over the last two and a half decades.
“Hopefully the documentary…will reach a large audience,” Cassidy told Mongabay.
“T25 is not a group of elite athletes doing something that regular people could never do. It’s just three regular, middle-aged guys pushing their limits, and doing so in an important region of the planet. It should appeal to a broad range of people, including those interested in sports or adventure travel — regular people who perhaps don’t currently give much thought to the Amazon, or the environmental challenges we face in general.”
While the stretch of road they covered crossed indigenous territories and parks, it is also experiencing expanding infrastructure and accelerating deforestation. They witnessed a rapid advance of gold mining, land speculation and illegal logging in public forests. Through their expedition, the cyclists wanted to show the world what’s really happening in the Amazon, and inspire people to help defend and preserve what is the last large tropical rainforest remaining on the planet.
Continued deforestation in the region can be potentially damaging not only to the future of the forest itself, but to other regions of Brazil and the world. “The Amazon rainforest works as a giant spring, providing water to the region and far beyond,” says Paulo. “Even the agricultural activities in the rest of the country depend on a robust standing Amazon forest in order to maintain the rainfall that is crucial for food production.”
“Every trip to the region is a new learning experience,” explained Osvaldo. “In the latter it was no different. But in addition to learning came surprise. It is surprising to realize that new technologies and infrastructure have served only to catalyze a process of destructive development. It is necessary to rethink our mode of seeing and thinking about the Amazon.”
The cyclists navigated smoke, dust, heat, thirst, rain and mud—as well as sublime landscapes, astoundingly rich biodiversity and chance meetings with those who call the region home, carving out a life for themselves on Brazil’s frontier.
Juxtaposing his experiences of pedaling the Transamazon Highway for three weeks with orbiting Earth 16 times every day, Chris reflected, “I remember from the space station just how breathtakingly green and vibrant everything looked in the Amazon, but you can definitely see evidence of human activities too. Just as a spaceship sustains the lives of those on board, Earth sustains 7.5 billion of us. I’ve seen from above and I’ve seen at ground level how important it is to take better care of our planet.”
Continuing the journey
The adventurers are currently turning their experience into a documentary film, which they hope will help raise awareness of the complexity of challenges the Amazon faces from infrastructure projects and other drivers of environmental degradation, and inspire people to create actions to help make change happen.
To see the changes in the Amazon through their eyes, and to hear the stories they uncovered, visit TransAmazon25 at Facebook, Instagram and transamazonica25.org.
To find out how you can help bring these stories and the documentary to a wider audience, contact the team at firstname.lastname@example.org.