Sunday, 16 November 2008
THE COST OF A TRANS-OCEANIC HIGHWAY
With market security directed towards the Asian economy Latin American countries have embarked on a series of megaprojects in order to reach raw materials to the Pacific. One of these is the Trans-Oceanic Highway in Southern Peru, connecting Brazil –China’s main soya exporter– to the Pacific. The highway however presents a double-edged sword exposing areas of the Amazon previously closed to large-scale agriculture and corporate energy interests.
Worse still the highway is likely to aggravate the problems caused by informal gold mining and illegal logging. This in the region of Madre de Dios containing 17% of the World’s plant species, also home to some of the World's last remaining indigenous peoples living in voluntary isolation.
Construction is well under way, with only the last remaining engineering feat, the Billinghurst Bridge, delaying its near completion. The highway will link to an already existing asphalted Brazilian network reaching the Atlantic. So far, the general public and national opinion is in favour of the construction and road improvement who, influenced by the government’s propaganda, consider that the highway will bring huge economical benefits. However similar experiences in Brazil of asphalted roads cutting through the Amazon show that neighbouring protected areas have been violently degraded as an affect. Other than tourism –generally run by foreigners¬– no programs have been made to create about an alternative commerce for the region. In the absence of public mechanisms to mitigate the socio-environmental impacts indigenous peoples of the area have become the sole watchmen of the protective norms supposedly established by the state.
The reality is of course much starker.
Since the Peruvian Government’s announcement in 2003 that it would convert a connection of dirt roads into a modern highway, a new wave of immigrants from various impoverished Andean regions in Southern Peru have arrived enchanted by gold and other potentially lucrative findings. Over 200 people are said to migrate per day to the regional capital called Puerto Maldonado. Already an unbridled anarchic rush is taking place. Studies suggest that the exploitations will be further facilitated by the road improvements, incrementing contamination, the most serious of which being mercury poisoning through river afluents. Gold exploitation, as it stands, already amounts to 50% of the gross regional product.
Similarly the hugely sought after mahogany and rare timber market will aided by the highway, further allowing illegal loggers to enter the lands of voluntarily isolated Indians. Following his trumpeted free trade agreements Peruvian President Alan Garcia recently proposed to open up the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park of Madre de Dios, located near the Brazilian border to gas exploitation. The government has given a green light to foreign investment in the region.
Owing to its historical isolation Madre de Dios has been exposed to modernity’s whims, where by, by not being able to offer anything sustainable to the regional or international markets informality, illegality and subsequently wide deforestation will reign supreme. The Peruvian government out of inaction and supposed ‘development’ has created an unfettered playground for oil, gas, mining and logging interests.
Araseire family, who live next to the highway. Purely for the photo they dressed in their 'traditional' attire. This is no longer what they usually wear, as modernity and generally their new and more numerous Andean neighbours mock their traditions.