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Troubled Amazon corner
Barbara J. Fraser
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Grassroots forum attempts to alleviate negative impacts of Interoceanic Highway.

Marcos Chambilla Copari recalls arriving in the of village of San Lorenzo, in the southwestern Peruvian rainforest, in 1986, a refugee from flooding around Lake Titicaca in Peru’s southern highlands.

“There was no road to get our products to market,” he said. “Everything rotted in the field.”

Two decades later, he is happy to see the Interoceanic Highway being paved from the Peruvian-Brazilian border in the southwestern Amazon over the Andes to the Pacific coast.

He and the farmers’ association of which he is president want to take advantage of the highway to get their rice crops to new markets. Chambilla hopes the highway will bring a new wave of migrants who will settle in San Lorenzo and neighboring communities and give them a boost, just as his family and others did 21 years ago.

But not everyone shares Chambilla’s enthusiasm about the changes in this remote corner of the Amazon where Peru, Brazil and Bolivia meet. Once heavily forested, the area has seen boom-and-bust cycles of rubber tapping, logging, cattle ranching, and now the rise of the agrofuel industry, all accompanied by social and environmental problems stemming from demographic growth and deforestation.

Speedy development
Researchers and local government officials in the three countries worry that negative impacts of huge infrastructure projects, such as the Interoceanic Highway and a series of large dams planned for the Madeira River in Brazil, are developing so quickly that steps cannot be taken to mitigate them.

Those effects are exacerbated, they say, by global climate change, which is likely to bring more droughts like the one that led to massive forest fires in 2005, especially in the state of Acre, Brazil, and the neighboring department of Pando, Bolivia.

Those issues topped the list of concerns at a three-country conference Nov. 15-17 in Brasiléia, Brazil, where scientists, government officials, grassroots leaders, small-scale farmers, Brazil nut harvesters, rubber tappers, students and representatives of nongovernmental organizations wrestled with problems facing the area.

The forum was sponsored by the Madre de Dios-Acre-Pando Initiative (MAP), a grassroots movement that began in 1999 with a handful of scientists and non-profit organizations concerned about land-use planning. This year’s event drew more than 500 people.

MAP is a forum for discussing issues common to the three regions, including deforestation, land use planning, poverty, migration and population growth, economic development, non-timber forestry activities such as rubber tapping and Brazil nut harvesting, health care and education.

The goal is to share information that can be used to develop joint policy for the region, but participants said the results have been mixed, and that the initiative may be ahead of its time.

“MAP is a success and a failure,” said Foster Brown, senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts and professor of ecology and natural resource management at the Federal University of Acre in Rio Branco, Brazil. While it brings people together to share information, he said, “It’s a failure because it hasn’t solved the problems of the region.”

Government involvement
One obstacle lies at the national government level, according to Benedito González, a small-scale farmer and Brazil nut harvester who is secretary of conflict management in the Bolivian community of Litoral, near the border with Peru and Brazil. Official joint action by the three countries requires the involvement of their foreign ministries, which have not become closely involved with MAP, he said.

Nevertheless, this year marked a milestone because the governors of Madre de Dios and Acre and the prefect of Pando attended the forum, said José Menezes Cruz, MAP general coordinator. That could help move at least some of the nearly 30 recommendations made by the participants off the wish list and into the public policy arena, he said.

Policy development could be hampered by inequalities within MAP, however. Some observers commented that Acre, the largest of the regions that tends to drive the agenda, followed by Pando and finally Madre de Dios.
Nevertheless, Mendoza, who has been involved in MAP since its founding, said the initiative has made strides.

One tangible accomplishment is a recent letter drafted by MAP members to be sent to the Inter-American Development Bank, Corporación Andina de Fomento and Brazil’s National Economic and Social Development Bank, which are financing the paving of the Interoceanic Highway.

The letter requests US$38 million for mitigation of the project’s indirect impacts. Experts at the meeting said that the $17 million fund set up as part of the financing package is insufficient to develop programs to address the migration, prostitution, increased crime, land speculation and secondary environmental impacts of the project.

“The population is not prepared to deal with this new economic corridor,” Mendoza said.

The MAP forum also called for a broader study of the environmental impacts of a series of dams proposed for the Madeira River in Brazil. Although the dams will mainly be in the state of Rondônia, experts said the effects on water flow and fish migration are likely to be felt in Acre, Pando and Madre de Dios. Acre will probably also be affected by the migration of laborers working on the project.

With deforestation, climate change and other problems pressing on the Amazon, the challenges seem to be growing faster than either budgets or proposals for addressing them. Nevertheless, Mendoza remains optimistic.

Besides discussing joint problems, the three regions are sharing solutions, he said. When forest fires ravaged the region in 2005, MAP organized cross-border civil defense cooperation in Pando and Acre and held workshops to teach small farmers how to keep fires from getting out of control.

And the “Children’s Forest,” an environmental education program started in Madre de Dios, has become part of the official curriculum in Acre.
“These are things that take time, but they are happening,” she said.

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