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Inter-Oceanic Highway´s benefits questioned
Azzurra Carpo
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Indigenous peoples and environment expected to suffer the brunt of the impact.

With a massive, lateral cut across the continent, the Inter-Oceanic highway will unite Brazil’s Atlantic coast cities with Peru’s Pacific ports, and has been called a "key strategy" to spur development along the path’s route through Brazil, Bolivia and Peru. But many analysts warn of the road’s social and environmental impact.

In November 2004, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil and Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo finalized plans for the Southern Peru-Brazil Inter-Oceanic Highway that will connect the Brazilian industrial cities of Sao Paulo and Parana with the Peruvian ports of Ilo, Marcona and Matarani.

The roadway will begin in Assis in the Brazilian state of Acre, bordering on the Peruvian Amazon Madre de Dios Department and the northern Bolivian department of Pando.

Construction on the Peruvian side began in July 2004, and the 2,063 kilometer- (1,281 mile-) roadway is expected to be completed by 2010. The roadway will fork in the town of Inambari, 230 kilometers (143 miles) west of Puerto Maldonado, capital of Madre de Dios. In one direction, the roadway will cross the Andean departments of Cusco and Apurimac, and the Pacific coast department of Ica, before reaching the Marcona port. The other will veer to the southern Andean departments of Puno, Arequipa and Moquegua to the ports of Matarani and Ilo.

In terms of trade, no one will deny that the Inter-Oceanic Highway will help development in these areas, but many predict that this will be coupled with a massive impact on the environment and indigenous communities.

This was a popular view as the first section of the highway was constructed. The BR-364, built by Brazil with support from the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), crosses the states of Matto Grosso and Rondonia on the Bolivian border to the state of Acre, which borders Bolivia and Peru.

The scale of devastation

Marc Dourojeanni, a Peruvian engineer and an expert on environmental issues, says that "indirect impacts from these big highways on the Amazon ecosystem are very grave." These effects are "infamous," and the BR-364 highway received particular attention, according to Dourojeanni.

Increased deforestation, the invasion of indigenous territories and even deaths led the World Bank and IADB to adopt reforms establishing new environmental standards and requirements, as well as new internal measures to avoid to being held responsible for future disasters tied to their projects.

A highway that cuts through the Amazon is estimated to affect at least 50 kilometers (31 miles) of forestland on either side of the roadway, generating severe social and environmental damage, and indigenous communities — many live in complete or partial isolation on both sides of the Brazilian-Peruvian border — are the most vulnerable.

Illegal logging, a trend that is expected to worsen with the Inter-Oceanic Highway’s development, poses one of the greatest threats to these communities. These loggers, most of whom focus on valuable mahogany lumber, ignore the industry’s current laws and any criteria for maintaining a sustainable environment, generating radical changes to the Amazon ecosystem.

Two-fold diversity

Madre de Dios is home to a variety of ecosystems and stunning landscapes, and it has been recognized worldwide as a high-priority zone for the preservation of its biodiversity. There are 361 mammal species, 1,701 bird species, 251 amphibian species, 297 reptiles, 1,800 fish species, and 1,300 varieties of butterflies in the region.

Biodiversity, however, coexists with cultural diversity, as the area is also home to the Arawaca, Ese Eja, Harakmbut, Kichuaruna, Mascho Piro, Matsiguenga, Shipibo, Yine and Yora indigenous groups, most of whom live along the shores of the Las Piedras, Los Amigos and Tahuamanu rivers.

But most indigenous organizations do not oppose the highway, says anthropologist Jaime Málaga, advisor to the Madre de Dios Native Federation (FENAMAD).

According to Málaga, these communities face challenges in four areas: judicial security, sustainable development, the need to strengthen the region’s institutions, and the need for civil society to have the chance to monitor these works projects. Indigenous peoples need to be consulted, Málaga says, "as it is established in Convention 169" of the International Labor Organization, which focuses on indigenous peoples

Germán Chinipa Amanga, a member of the Harakmbut and FENAMAD official, is fearful that the highway will allow for these communities living in isolation or experiencing initial outside contact to be easily invaded.

Peruvian economist Hugo Cabieses, consultant for the Italian institution Cooperazione e Sviluppo (CESVI), says that in a regional context characterized by an evident institutional fragility the question is not only one of "conservation," which is how many ecologists define the issue. Rather, he says, "it is an agreement among all the social participants in the region on an integral policy that identifies viable alternatives to the unsustainable and illegal economic activities," such as illegal logging, smuggling and the trade of endangered species. There needs to be a policy that "respects the rights and cultural differences of the indigenous."

Without these conditions, the Inter-Oceanic highway could be another case of "poor development," a cause of interethnic violence and renewed social instability, Cabieses warns.


Civil society demands monitoring rights of the Inter-Oceanic Highway´s construction. (Photo: Azzurra Carpo)
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