Thursday, September 1, 2011

I'm sorry, sir, this road cannot be completed. It seems we've spooted a tree frog.

I was surprised to learn last year that only 14 percent of Brazil’s roads are paved. When I heard the now-infamous story of the hylidea tree frog it started to make a lot more sense.

The government has for years been trying to complete a road that would link towns to the southeast and northwest of Rio de Janeiro, an expanding metropolitan area with traffic problems that are likely to worsen in the coming years as it prepares to host the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. Two years back, workers were ready to inaugurate one particular stretch of it after completing a tunnel, when someone spotted one of these.

Scientists weren’t sure if it was an endangered tree frog, so they halted the project. The tunnel sat for six months, sending Lula, who was president at the time, into fits of rage. The incident spurred chortling among Brazilians of stripes, particularly because the common name for the animal in question – perereca – is also a term frequently used to refer to the female anatomy. Brazilian sit-com A Grande Familia did a spoof episode about a ne’er-do-well son-in-law who is jailed for trying to build a community pool in area found to have endangered tree frogs.

The incident is one of many that highlight the difficulties facing Brazil as it tries to expand roads, bridges, railroads and ports, all of which are overtaxed by explosive economic growth. The country is in effect trying to carry out an infrastructure development campaign much like the U.S. did in the 1930s – only with environmental legislation of the 1990s. And it’s not hard to find cases like the perereca.

Workers at the same project slowed by the tree frog recently discovered the presence of the Barredtail Spearfish, which lives almost exclusively in a forest that lies in the path of the planned road. Scientists are considering building a metal barrier that would protect the species.

Contractors building a road in the western part of the state of Rio de Janeiro now trying to figure out how to deal with a strange rat known called the Blarinomys breviceps, also dubbed the Brazilian shrew mouse, which had in the past been assumed to be extinct.

In this context, it’s a bit easier to understand why Brazilians bristle at the rabidly annit-development invective of environmental crusaders living in places like Seattle, which are powered in large part by hydroelectric dams that Brazil would be prevented from building today. It’s easy to be righteous about other people’s environments when we’ve already gotten molded and shaped our own without regard to wildlife, greenhouse gas emissions or endangered species. For example, I grew up thinking that malaria was an exotic tropical disease. It is now. A hundred years ago it was quite prevalent in the American South, and was only really eradicated through extensive application of DDT. It’s the sort of thing nobody would advocate today, but something we all take for granted.

It’s hard to imagine the collective hysterical laughter that would have ensured during the Franklin Roosevelt era if someone had suggested that a federal highway project would have to be slowed or halted to protect the spotted owl or to inspect a set of rocks that could potentially be Native American relics. I’d be surprised if anyone in the Roosevelt administration was losing sleep over how salmon spawning migration would be harmed by dams in the Pacific Northwest – which, incidentally, were crucial in helping us win World War II.

Lula once famously quipped that he didn’t want conservation of the Amazon to come at the expense of the 20 million people that live there. Though the developmentalist beast he set in is often quite scary, the guy has a point. Which is why I think it’s unfair to take the “thou shalt not” approach to any infrastructure project that comes in conflict with the natural world (they all do). I can hope Brazil will do things differently than America did, but I can’t blame the country for wanting the same things that I’ve always had.

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