- A recent study confirms concerns from environmental groups that the reopening of a long-closed road through Brazil’s Iguaçu National Park would lead to increased environmental violations in the protected area.
- Two bills currently before Congress call for the reopening of the Estrada do Colono, or Settler’s Road, which was closed in 2001 and has since been reclaimed by the jungle.
- The study found that its reopening would expose at least 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres) of the park, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, to wildlife poaching, illegal fishing and mining. heart of juçara palm.
- Between 2009 and 2019, over 1,300 environmental violation notices were issued in the park; with the reopening of the road, the study predicts a 10% increase in illegal fishing and an increase of almost 15% in the harvesting of hearts of palm.
The Iguaçu Falls, the largest in the world, lie on the border between Brazil and Argentina and are protected by national parks in both countries. Located in Brazil’s Paraná state, Iguaçu National Park covers 185,000 hectares (457,000 acres), has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is what is locally known as a integral protection and conservation unit, created to preserve one of the most important vestiges of the Atlantic. Forest. Hunting, fishing and other forms of exploitation of natural resources are prohibited in areas with this conservation status.
Nevertheless, between 2009 and 2019, environmental authorities issued more than 1,300 advisories for a range of infractions in the park, including poaching wildlife and harvesting hearts of palm from an endangered native palm tree, jucara (Euterpe edulis).
Experts say these crimes could increase if one of two bills – known as Bills 7123/2010 and 984/2019 – currently being debated in the lower house of Congress is approved. The latter was introduced by Nelsi Coguetto Maria, a member of Congress popularly known as Vermelho, and openly supported by President Jair Bolsonaro.
Both bills call for the reopening of the Estrada do Colono (Settlers’ Route), which crosses Iguaçu National Park from north to south, to create a new type of conservation unit in Brazil: a boardwalk. The road has been closed since 2001 by order of the country’s Superior Court of Justice.
Built in the 1950s, the road stretches for 17.6 kilometers (10.9 miles). It connects the municipalities of Serranópolis do Iguaçu, with a population of approximately 5,500 inhabitants, to Capanema, with just over 19,000 inhabitants.
Since its closure, the road has been almost completely covered in vegetation, and its reopening remains a controversial issue in the region. Environmental organizations oppose it, warning of the impact an influx of vehicles and people will have on the park’s jaguar (panthera onque) population, the only one increasing in the Atlantic Forest.
Vermelho, however, says the reopening of the road will “correct a historic injustice” and respond to “decades of social outcry from the people of Paraná, restoring the region’s history and its socio-economic, environmental and tourism relationships”.
In order to shed light on the ongoing debate, a group of researchers decided to measure the impact that vehicles circulating again on the Estrada do Colono could have on environmental damage in the park.
“Our main objective was to measure its potential effects on the main role played by the Iguaçu National Park, namely the integral protection of biodiversity,” explains Neucir Szinwelski, professor of biology at Western Paraná State University. (Unioeste) and co-author of a study published earlier this year in Environmental Research Letters.
Ten thousand hectares open to violations
For their study, the researchers used a statistical model. Most environmental violations occur along the roads surrounding the park, as well as near rivers and flatter terrain.
“We already know that these areas are more likely to [environmental] crimes, because it is difficult to move around in the forest,” explains the lead author of the study, Victor Mateus Prasniewski, a doctoral student in the Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation Program at the Federal University of Mato Grosso (UFMT ).
The researchers used data from several sources, such as the inspection service of ICMBio – an agency of the Ministry of the Environment which administers national parks in Brazil – as well as the body of forest guards of the neighboring national park. from Iguazú in Argentina. They compared records of four types of environmental violations over the past decade: poaching, illegal camping, fishing, and palm heart mining. They then modeled the trend if the Estrada do Colono was in use and thus made more of the protected area accessible to potential violators.
“All the scenarios we modeled show an increase in crime rates,” Szinwelski says. “If the road is reopened, 10,000 hectares [25,000-acre] the area around it will be more exposed to poaching, illegal fishing and the extraction of hearts of palm. Opening a road in this area is completely impossible. The vegetation has completely regenerated and there is no reason to reopen. We know that species will be affected.
All small and medium-sized mammals would be more at risk, says Szinwelski. This includes not only jaguars, but also dozens of other species, such as cougars (concolor puma), agouti (Dasyprocta leporina), pacas (Cuniculus paca), collared peccaries (Tajacu with peccaries), lowland tapirs (Tapirus terrestris), and deer and wild pigs. Szinwelski also says there would be a higher risk of birds such as toucans, guans and macaws being poached for the illegal wildlife trade.
Aquatic species would also be impacted by the reopening of the road, according to the study. It predicted a 10% increase in illegal fishing, as well as an increase of almost 15% in the illegal harvesting of hearts of palm.
“When you open a road, access becomes easier. Bill 984/2019 calls for the creation of a regular rural road, so it will be freely accessible,” says Prasniewski.
Supply of the illegal market
Hunting is part of the culture of many rural communities and is still considered acceptable, especially by older generations.
“Many of the offenders arrested by the police are between the ages of 50 and 65,” Szinwelski says. “They have always hunted and they continue to hunt. The cultural aspect is very clear here. People go there just for fun and enjoyment of this activity. They set up camp, cut down a palm tree for its heart, kill an animal and either eat it there or bring it home, and that’s it.
But these activities, along with fishing, are known to supply an illegal market with products considered delicacies by wealthy consumers without regard to the law.
In other words, animals are killed for their meat. According to Szinwelski, locals say a paca, a cat-sized rodent, can sell for between 800 and 1,000 reais (about $150 to $200) and a deer for up to 2,000 reais (about $380). ).
“Poachers prefer to risk being caught – which may not happen – if they can earn the minimum monthly wage or even more in one night of hunting,” says Szinwelski.
What makes the prospect of the Estrada do Colono reopening even more worrisome is the proliferation of firearms among the general population in recent years. Since Bolsonaro took office as president in early 2019 and promoted a pro-gun policy encouraging all Brazilians to carry a gun, there has been a 333% increase in new gun registrations for the category of hunters, snipers and gun collectors. In 2021 alone, there were more than a quarter of a million new gun registrations, compared to less than 60,000 in 2018, the year before Bolsonaro took office.
With more guns in people’s hands and the prospect of a road reopening that will increase the vulnerability of wildlife in Iguaçu National Park, it will be next to impossible for this UNESCO World Heritage Site to to fulfill its main function: to protect biodiversity.
Banner Image: Aerial view of Iguaçu National Park. Image by Maury Santos via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0).
This story was reported by the Brazilian Mongabay team and first published here on our Brazilian site on July 18, 2022.
Prasniewski, VM, Szinwelski, N., Bertrand, AS, Martello, F., Brocardo, CR, Cunha, J., … Sobral-Souza, T. (2022). Iguaçu National Park in Brazil Threatened by Illegal Activities: Predicting the Consequences of Proposed Decommissioning and Road Construction. Environmental Research Letters, 17(2). doi:10.1088/1748-9326/ac4e39