Conservationists Fight Proposed Amazon Road

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Pucallpa, Peru roadsLeaders of conservation groups from the United States and South America are requesting that international donors end their support for a road that would connect Amazonian towns in Brazil and Peru.

The 250-kilometer (155-mile) corridor would allow farmers and businesses based around the western Brazilian town of Cruzeiro do Sul to access Pucallpa, a city in eastern Peru. From there, goods could travel to the Peruvian coast and continue on to destinations in Asia and North America. 

While the road may offer economic benefits, the Pucallpa-Cruzeiro do Sul project may also imperil already-threatened ecosystems and expose indigenous communities that have chosen to live in isolation.

Disagreement on the road's future exemplifies the difficulties that South American leaders face as they seek to develop rural economies while preserving the region's lush forested areas.

"The new roads and waterways have to be built, but built in compliance with local communities looking for protection of the forest," said Marina Silva, a senator from the western Brazilian state of Acre, and the country's former environment minister, during a visit to Washington, D.C., this week.

Cruzeiro do Sul is the last major town along the Cuiabá-Porto Velho Highway (BR-364) before the road reaches a dead end at the Peruvian border. Merchants who want to travel between Cruzeiro do Sul and Pucallpa must travel by plane.

"Pucallpa currently has no options for a rapid road or river connection with Brazil, despite its proximity to the border," said Mariano Castro Sánchez Moreno, an environmental lawyer with Lima-based Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental (SPDA).

The lack of reliable roads across rural South America has contributed to relatively stagnant economic growth throughout the region for decades, whereas many rural areas of South Asia and the Middle East have experienced rising annual growth rates, in part due to infrastructure development, according to the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB).

"The region has slipped in world rankings of infrastructure quality," a 2008 IADB oversight report stated. "South America needs to re-launch integration infrastructure endeavors to bolster cross-border connectivity and the region's global market foothold."

The Pucallpa-Cruzeiro do Sul road is one of five corridors being planned across the western Amazon. The projects are part of a $69 billion Initiative for the Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA), an international effort to build hundreds of projects, mostly roads, across the continent.

Conservationists are concerned, however, that the recent acceleration of infrastructure projects will cause a wave of deforestation across the Amazon.

"Such a vast amount of road construction will seriously threaten the future of many indigenous groups and of the biological integrity of the western Amazon headwaters region," the leaders of Amigos da Terra-Amazônia, Fundaci ón Peruana para la Conservación de la Naturaleza, Conservation International, Environmental Defense Fund, and Cultural Survival wrote last month in a letter to Inter-American Development Bank President Luis Alberto Moreno.

The groups suggested that the IADB delete the Pucallpa-Cruzeiro do Sul road from its list of approved projects until the Bank has designed a comprehensive public consultation process, measured the project's environmental impact, and gained indigenous communities' full consent.

After BR-364 was paved in 1984, droves of ranchers moved into the Amazonian frontier. Migrants clashed with indigenous peoples, and rare tropical forests were removed at a rate much faster than government planners had expected.

Conservation groups fear that a Pucallpa-Cruzeiro do Sul corridor would have similar consequences. The road would run through Serra do Divisor National Park, home to dozens of threatened species. On the Peruvian side, the road would enter a territorial reserve established by the regional government as a shelter for the Isconahua tribe.

"In addition to crossing through these reserved areas, the proposed road would impact two additional proposed reserves, the Yavari-Tapiche and Kapanahua, for indigenous peoples that are uncontacted or living in voluntary isolation, as well as other indigenous groups including the Ashaninka and Shipibo-Conibo," the letter said.

With previous infrastructure projects, environmental and social concerns were often raised after construction already began. For the Pucallpa-Cruzeiro do Sul corridor, civil society groups are acting more proactively, according to Connie Campbell, the Amazon conservation coordinator with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

"People in the Amazon basin have seen what roads can bring into frontier areas, in terms of destructive forest clearing and uncontrolled economic activities," Campbell said. "It's not that civil society is against any and all infrastructure. As they've made clear, they're looking to build capacity, so there's much more informed decision making process by people who live in the region."

Local environmental groups, government representatives, and business interests have met regularly in Pucallpa and Cruzeiro do Sul during the past 18 months to monitor the corridor's potential environmental impact. Workshops have also been arranged with indigenous groups to explain how their communities may be affected.

"The regional group has developed measures to obtain information and disseminate it with indigenous representatives near the possible construction zone," said SPDA's Castro, who has helped coordinate the monitoring group through the Iniciativa de Conservación en la Amazonía Andina (ICAA), Instituto del Bien Común (IBC), and USAID.

The new corridor would come as construction on Interoceánica Sur, or the Interoceanic Highway-South, draws to a close. The roadway connects São Paulo, Brazil's financial capital in the south, to Puerto Maldonado in the Peruvian Amazon and eventually to Peru's ocean ports.

Conservationists argue that once the Interoceanic Highway is complete, the Pucallpa-Cruzeiro do Sul corridor becomes less economical.

"It was inevitable for there to be a road from Brazil to the Pacific-it was in the nature of things, a geopolitical fact," said Bruce Babbitt, former U.S. Secretary of the Interior in the Clinton administration, in an interview. "But you don't need three more or six more, just for the sake of building roads. The price of construction on indigenous peoples, uncontacted people, and biodiversity to create those roads is too great."

Babbitt, who currently serves on the board of directors of the Amazon Conservation Association, suggested that the governments instead improve port infrastructure to maximize the Amazon River tributaries that connect the region. The Ucayali River flows north through Pucallpa.

"The Ucayali River is navigable all the way to Pucallpa for boats or heavy machinery," Babbitt said. "Obsession with vehicular travel has led to a complete neglect of traditional river systems."

Campbell agreed that roads are not the only option for Pucallpa's business community to extend their commerce.

"While we don't want to deny places like Pucallpa the necessary economic connections they need for sustainable development in the region... there are alternatives to land routes that could be explored," she said. "Fluvial transport is an obvious one."

Ben Block is a staff writer with the Worldwatch Institute. He can be reached at bblock@worldwatch.org.

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