View of the Trans-Amazonian highway (BR230) near Ruropolis, Para state, Brazil.
Trucker Erik Fransuer spends months at a time driving back and forth on highways that cut through the Amazon in northern Brazil, delivering soy or corn to river ports.
Fransuer is one of thousands of truckers plying the BR230 and BR163, major transport routes that have played a key role in the development and destruction of the world's largest rainforest, now being ravaged by fires.
"I like the freedom of being on the road," Fransuer, 26, says as he and other drivers relax in hammocks strung up between trucks parked side by side at a gasoline station in the dust-blown town of Ruropolis.
But it is changing.
Eager to develop the Amazon to bolster Brazil's weak economy, President Jair Bolsonaro's government this year plans to finish asphalting the 1,770-kilometer (1,100-mile) BR163 stretching north from Cuiaba -- the capital of the central-west state of Mato Grasso, Brazil's grain-growing powerhouse to Santarem.
Single-lane wooden bridges, barely able to support trucks hauling trailers loaded with 30 tons of grain, are also being replaced with concrete spans.
"There are a lot of accidents, a lot of deaths here," says Darlei da Silva, as he toils in intense heat to install a new bridge on the BR230. It is one of 18 being built along the highway, he says.
The highways were built by the military dictatorship in the early 1970s to populate the remote region, which it saw as deserted notwithstanding the indigenous tribes and traditional communities living there -- and vulnerable to foreign invasion.
During a recent trip to Para, where Ruropolis is located, an AFP team drove past swaths of land stripped of trees and ranches with names such as "My Dream" or "Good View."
Where virgin forest once stood, herds of Brahman cattle graze on pasture or huge machines harvest grain.
The more than 2,000-kilometer round trip from Sinop in Mato Grasso to ports in Miritituba or Santarem in neighbouring Para should take truckers three days.
But they often end up spending several days queued up at terminals on the Tapajos River waiting to unload, with port operators overwhelmed by China's insatiable demand for Brazilian soy.
That compares with the current 1,500 trucks a day.
Dirt and dust
Highway and port upgrades will cut transport costs for grain growers in Mato Grosso, who will be able to export more of their crops through terminals in the north instead of the south, which are further away from their farms.
But not everyone in Para feels they are benefiting.
Locals fear increased truck traffic will make the highways more dangerous and churn up more dust that already leaves a red stain on everything.
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