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China’s Trans-Amazonian railway might be the lesser of two evils

What’s worse than a railway through a rainforest? This. Andrew Snyder, CC BY-SA

China recently announced plans to build a 5,300 km railway linking the Atlantic with the Pacific, cutting through the heart of the Amazon jungle in Brazil and Peru. Environmental groups are concerned that the railway will threaten sensitive ecosystems, wildlife and indigenous peoples. Indeed on the face of it, this would be a disaster for conservation in the most biologically rich place on Earth. But is a train line in fact the lesser of two evils? If the alternative is more roads, then yes it is.

Roads bring access to previously remote areas – and consequently bring down a cascade of problems on tropical forests. Logging, mining, and hunting result in the destruction of forests, all paving the way for their complete conversion to agriculture. Indeed, in the Amazon 95% of deforestation occurs within 5km of a road. Train lines on the other hand are usually state-controlled and more easily regulated. Therefore land speculation is much more difficult around railways than roads.

The proposed line will cost an estimated US$10 billion to build and will reduce the cost of shipping oil, iron ore, soya, beef and other commodities from Brazil and Peru to Asian markets. With the promise of investment from China the venture has gained considerable traction, with the leaders of each country signing a memorandum on the project. So it seems there is a good chance the railway will go ahead.

All roads lead to deforestation. CIAT, CC BY-SA

China recently lifted a ban on beef from Brazil, and China’s beef imports are likely to increase by 50% (770,000 tonnes) over the next five years. Opposition to the rail proposal is therefore relatively futile, as it is reasonable to assume that supply links between China and Latin America will continue to increase in one way or another, transporting goods by rail or by road.

The problem of the ever-expanding beef industry is thus not the proposed railway, but the policies that fail to prevent deforestation across the Amazon basin. Therefore, environmental groups should be advocating the best possible route for the railway, rather than blocking the plans – and subsequently paving the way for more road building.

So what are the potential problems of a railway and how can they be avoided? Reports suggest that the proposed route could increase access to remote tribes living in voluntary isolation throughout the forests of Peru’s Madre de Dios region. This area is also among the most species-rich places on Earth: home to more than 10,000 species of plants, 600 species of birds and 200 mammal species. In addition, the railway is likely to pass through Brazil’s Cerrado, a unique area of tropical woodland and grassland which provides key habitat for iconic and threatened species including the maned wolf, giant anteater and Spix’s macaw.

Unfortunately, previous mega-infrastructure developments in the Amazon such as the Trans-Amazonian Highway, and the Belo Monte dam were implemented with little consideration for the impact on nature and local people, so these areas could be threatened by the construction of a railway.

But the railway is still just a line on a map. In fact the approximate route can be achieved by following existing roads and passing through land that has already been cultivated for the majority of the way. And this can easily be seen from Google Earth.

The Cerrado in Brazil, where the majority of the proposed route is through agricultural land. Google

There is almost no need for the train line to pass through any virgin forest. Even in the critical part of Peru, the Inter-Oceanic Highway already passes along the eastern portion of the Madre de Dios, and this area has already suffered from land speculation, mining and small-scale agriculture throughout its length. To meet the demand of export channels west of Brazil without the train line, this road would need expansion, increasing the likelihood of the area falling foul to the complete deforestation as seen around nearly all other major highways across the Amazon basin.

The Inter-Oceanic highway through the Madre de Dios in Peru along the approximate proposed route of the railway. Google

If Latin American governments want this railway to have negligible impact on their precious forest resources, they can achieve that – with advice from environmental voices and proper investment in best practices from the planning stage all the way through to the management of the railway. The precise route of the railway is yet to be determined, so there is still time for the environmental community to help to minimise the impact of an inter-continental railway across South America.

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