The Amazon, the world’s mecca of biological diversity, no longer looks like it did four decades ago. More than 17 percent of the rain forest has been destroyed to make way for human activity since then — and a debate held Saturday on road development in the Amazon confirmed that the conflict is far from over.

Organized by the Environment and Development Student Interest Group of the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, the debate brought together experts from around the globe to offer their views on Brazil’s most recent development projects. The projects include two major highways that will clear significant acreage in the southern Amazon, creating bitter tension among indigenous groups.

“The forum’s goal was to discuss the complexities of the road development debate in the Amazon,” co-organizer Jen Lewis FES ’08 said. “We hoped to initiate discussion about the costs and benefits of these projects and their associated social, economic, ecological, cultural and political implications.”

Co-organizer James Leslie SOM ’08 said the general consensus from the speakers was that, since development is inevitable, global efforts should be redirected into building a sense of community and ownership among the projects’ various stakeholders.

“The issue at the crux of it all is … not whether development should happen, but how,” Leslie said. “Development is necessary for any country, and roads are a vital mechanism for development. But planning must be transparent and careful and include the interests of all parties involved.”

Speakers said the key proponents of development projects in the Amazon are Brazilian agriculture producers and local business owners, who believe development will bolster trade, improve the local job market and increase security in impoverished areas.

Before development began, “the Amazon region was seen as a huge demographic void that should be integrated into the national economy,” former Brazilian government official Mary Allegretti said. “New possibilities are created when roads are connected to organized groups.”

Roads would allow these organized groups, consisting of local farmers and indigenous tribes, to participate in the expansion of the Brazilian economy, she explained.

One advantage of new roads is that they will connect agricultural centers to economic centers, speakers said. Marina Campos, a doctoral student at the forestry school and the moderator for the first panel’s debate, said road development projects have the potential to increase soybean production by reducing transport costs.

Francisco Ruiz, executive director of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization, added that Brazil’s status as the world’s largest exporter of beef largely depends on its use of Amazonian farm land contiguous to roads. The Amazonian region currently provides over 30 million hectares for cattle breeding.

But speakers also said road development comes at a cost, including environmental degradation, social conflicts over land use, illegal logging activities and the displacement of indigenous groups.

For instance, several studies indicate that large-scale deforestation is linked directly to road development. Campos highlighted a study showing that more than two-thirds of Amazon deforestation takes place within 50 kilometer radius of major paved roads.

The negative social impact of roads is as important as their environmental impact, Ruiz argued.

“In spite of the goodwill of official planners, the social and economic dynamics generated by infrastructure projects, particularly by highway construction, inevitably lead to land occupation processes and relentless landscape changes,” Ruiz said. “This is so particularly [when] it leads to the degradation of forest ecosystems and the erosion of traditional lifestyles and production systems.”

Ruiz cited the example of the Belem-Brasilia Trans-Amazonian Highway, which, built during the ’60s, “left behind a legacy of violence, unlawful land occupation, illegal logging and interethnic conflict.”

“Deforestation is a crime against people as much as a crime against nature,” added Ane Alecar, research coordinator of the project Regional Planning Along the BR-163 Highway in Central Amazonia.

The speakers emphasized the importance of reaching a middle ground through policies that both account for affected groups and take environmental conservation measures.

“Migrant farmers should neither be seen as victims or villains, but as potential partners in forest conservation,” Campos said. “I want to stress the importance of social movement, and of establishing protective areas and indigenous territories.”

Most speakers were optimistic about the government’s ability to reach viable solutions but urged strengthened communication lines at every step of the process.

Lewis said the debate was fruitful, although logistical constraints limited the scope of the dialogue.

“We were limited in the breadth of the topics we were able to discuss, based on participants who couldn’t come at the last minute,” Lewis said. “But the debate was productive … It exposed crucial uncertainties about the Amazon’s future. What will the Amazon look like in 10 or 20 years? We really can’t say for sure.”