In the first months of government, President Jair Bolsonaro prioritized approving the budget for the Ministry of Defense. Of the more than R$150 million (about US$40 million) allocated to the Ministry, 98% – practically its entirety – is expected to fund the Calha Norte program for the Amazon region, a project developed in the 1980s that responded to a geostrategic concern of the military with the region. The Calha Norte project sought to ensure the presence of strategic infrastructure for the defense on the country’s remote and relatively pristine northern border.
Government officials say that there is no political motivation behind the efforts made this year to guarantee these funds, and that this allocation has a simple, practical reason: to increase the operational capacity of the Ministry of Defense.
The government states that reviving the Calha Norte project is important in bringing opportunities and dignity to the northern people, a region that covers a territory of 1.5 million km² throughout eight states – Acre, Amapá, Amazonas, Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Pará, Rondônia and Roraima – occupying an area larger than all of Colombia. But the reality shows that Bolsonaro and members of his government are more concerned about fighting off international pressures that seek to prevent the exhaustive economic exploitation of the Amazon than they are about bringing dignity to the local populations.
In February, the ministers Gustavo Bebianno (Secretary-General of the Presidency), Ricardo Salles (Environment) and Damares Alves (Women, Family and Human Rights) traveled to Tiriós (Pará) to speak with local leaders about the construction of a bridge over the Amazon River in the city of Óbidos, a hydroelectric plant in Oriximiná, and the expansion of the BR-163 highway to the Suriname border.
If there was still any doubt about the government’s true intentions with regard to the Calha Norte project, a PowerPoint presentation to which democraciaAbierta has obtained access, used during the meeting detailing the works announced by the Bolsonaro government for the region, does not leave room for interpretations. The slides make clear that the project is about building strategic infrastructures in the Amazon region to prevent a multilateral project for the protection of the rainforest, called the "Triple A: Andes – Amazon – Atlantic" ecological corridor, from being implemented.
"Calha Norte must be implemented on the Amazon basin to integrate it into the rest of the national territory in order to fight off international pressure for the implementation of the project called Triple A. To do this, it is necessary to build the Trombetas River hydroelectric plant, the Óbidos bridge over the Amazon River, and the implementation of the BR-163 highway to the border with Suriname," one of slides read.
One of the tactics cited in the document is to redefine the paradigms of indigenism, quilombolism and environmentalism through the lenses of liberalism and conservatism based on realistic theories.
During his campaign in 2018, Bolsonaro cited the "Triple A" project as a threat to the country's sovereignty. The “Triple A” project, which is based on a development commitment called "AAA Corridor", was proposed a few years ago by a Colombian environmentalist with the purpose of forming a large ecological corridor covering 135 million hectares of tropical forest, which would extend from the Andes to the Atlantic, passing through the Amazon, the three regions that give the plan its name.
According to another slide of the government presentation, the country is currently facing a globalist campaign that "relativizes the National Sovereignty in the Amazon Basin," using a combination of international pressure and also what the government called "psychological oppression" both externally and internally.
This campaign mobilizes environmental and indigenous rights organizations, as well as the media, to exert diplomatic and economic pressure on Brazilian institutions. The conspiracy also encourages minorities – mainly indigenous and quilombola (residents of settlement founded by people of African origin who escaped slavery) – to act with the support of public institutions at the federal, state and municipal levels. The result of this movement, they say in the presentation, restricts "the freedom of action of the government".
This shows that part of the government's strategy of circumventing this globalist campaign is to depreciate the relevance and voices of the minorities that live in the region – which, after all, are the ones who will be most affected by these decisions, both in the case of the “Triple A” project or the Calha Norte.
One of the tactics cited in the document is to redefine the paradigms of indigenism, quilombolism and environmentalism through the lenses of liberalism and conservatism based on realistic theories. Those are, according to a slide, "the new hopes for the Homeland: Brazil above everything!"
The planned development
Specifically, the Calha Nova region in Pará is located north of the Amazon River, between the states of Amazonas and Amapá. The cities that stand out in the region are Oriximiná, Óbidos and Monte Alegre, all of them riverside. To achieve its military-nationalist goals, the project plans to build infrastructure that seeks to "develop" the region, expanding roads, building a bridge as well as a hydroelectric power plant.
The first part of the project plans to expand the BR-163 highway to the border with Suriname, which currently connects Cuiabá and Santarém. The expansion would connect the region to the national highway system, facilitating access to Manaus (Amazonas), Porto Velho (Rondônia) and Caracas, Venezuela. This highway would also improve access to roads leading to Peru and Bolivia.
The BR-163 highway is expected to cross the lower Amazon River into the Óbidos region, with the help of a large bridge – whose construction is also planned in the project. The bridge would be built in front of the Óbidos port in the narrowest part of the lower Amazon River, which is about 2 km long, but whose channel reaches 100 m in depth. The bridge would also allow the Railway EF-170 (Ferrogrão) to run along the BR-163 road to the Port of Óbidos as a type of railroad-highway hybrid.
The Calha Norte project was developed in 1985 during the José Sarney administration, when the international context was still that of the Cold War and Brazil lived under the influence of the United States.
The third phase of the project includes the construction of the Oriximiná hydroelectric power plant on the Trombetas river. As indicated on the slides, the plant would have the capacity to generate power for the entire Amazon, promising to put an end to the blackouts in Manaus, Macapá and Boa Vista.
International political context
The Calha Norte project was developed in 1985 during the José Sarney administration, when the international context was still one of the Cold War and Brazil lived under the influence of the United States. One of the justifications for the project was the strong presence of Cuban troops in Suriname, which, at that time, suggested a hypothetical communist threat to Brazil.
In addition to the supposed communist threat, another reason was the presence of Colombian guerrillas, mainly the National Liberation Army (ELN) and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). Similarly, the government also wanted to combat smuggling on the border and mediate conflicts between mining companies, gold washers and indigenous peoples.
In the 1980s, the project was strongly criticized by the local populations, who believed that the military presence in their territories would have a negative effect on the inhabitants and natural resources. During that time, the Church was the only institution in the country to officially oppose the project, stating: "The project will accelerate the destruction of the indigenous culture, in addition to being a waste of financial, material and human resources that could be destined to infrastructure and support to the population of the Amazon." The Church also contended that the Calha Norte project would negatively impact 50,000 natives of 33 nations.
The Collor de Mello administration (1990-92) coincided with the fall of the Berlin Wall, which caused the Calha Norte project to plummet on the government's list of priorities. The works that had already been started as part of the project – like hospitals – were deactivated at that time, showing that the overall motive had never been the development of the region, but geopolitical.
Later on in the ‘90s, the international order gained a multipolar approach, from the point of view of commercial and financial relations. However, the world became very much unipolar from the military point of view since — with the fall of the Soviet Union — the United States stands as the only truly operative power.
With this restructuring, the new Brazilian national defense policy now includes issues such as terrorism, smuggling, drug trafficking and biopiracy in the Amazon. Therefore, at the turn of the millennium, coinciding with the final years of the Fernando Henrique Cardoso administration (1994-2002), the project regained visibility.
With these changes in the international order, environmental and Amazonian protection issues arise from exploitation, particularly international, and the project regains importance, as well as a new interpretation, in the Lula administration (2003-2011).
In these years, priority is given to the protection and economic and social development of the border, taking into consideration issues of sustainability and also the protection of existing cultures.
Can’t let our guard down
Throughout its three decades, the Calha Norte project evolved from being merely military to being a well-rounded project that sought to push forward development of the region and the river towns.
But that is not what we are seeing today, as the slides of the meeting held this year show. The project, again revived by the Bolsonaro government, wishes to take it back to the ‘80s, restoring tactics that have already proved unsuccessful.
The development of the region is necessary. The local populations need greater access to national production and equality. But it is important to remember that the region has historically been used for political purposes that had little to do with development and concern for the well-being of local peoples.
The information contained in the slides openly shows the contempt of the Bolsonaro government for sustainability and the minorities that inhabit the Amazon regions. This shows, once again, that neoliberal developmentalism cannot come at the expense of the (few) rights conquered with blood from those who continue to fight for their existence and also for our forests and natural resources.