Interoceanic Highway – Road to Ruin?


Billinghurst bridge still under construction as of March 2011 in Madre de Dios (Photo: Erik Jennische)

When outgoing Peruvian President Alan García Pérez inaugurated the 723-metre Continental Bridge over the Madre de Dios river last month, he was actually putting the finishing touches on a much larger project. The bridge completed the 2,600km long road known as the Interoceanic highway, or Carretera Interoceánica and Estrada do Pacifico in Spanish and Portuguese respectively, which links Brazilian ports on the Atlantic to Peruvian ports on the Pacific by road for the first time.

The Interoceánica is part of the wider project of the Initiative for the Integration of the Infrastructure of the Region of South America (IIRSA), set up in 2000 by 12 South American governments the IIRSA is a wider objective to improve integration of the countries. Construction on the highway has been ongoing for almost five years, while the total figure of investment has been put at US$1.6bn by the IIRSA project sheet.

In Peru, the new road heads West from the border town of Iñapari, in the Amazonian Madre de Dios region, rising up to cross the Andes with a pass higher than Mont Blanc, before descending towards three southern seaports on the Pacific Ocean—San Juan Marcona, Matarini, and Ilo. In Brazil, the highway reaches into the Arce and Rondonia regions, where it connects to the country’s existing network of highways offering multiple routes to the Atlantic.

Why Build?

A banner on the new road declares: “Once a promise, now a reality.” Certainly, the highway’s completion is a major achievement: from the Darien scheme in Panama which nearly bankrupted the Scottish state in 1698 to the failure of the Brazilians’ 2,000km trans-Amazonian highway in the 1970s, the dream to cross the Americas and connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans has inspired numerous doomed projects.

The road is a beacon of what numerous Presidents of Brazil, Peru and indeed all of South America have promised for decades; development followed by prosperity. Ahead of the unveiling of the road, Peru’s president called it “an injection of wealth in the south”.

So how did both these presidents envisage this road enriching and improving their economies and lives of their citizens?

A soy farm carved from the Brazilian rainforest in the Mato Grosso province. (Photo:Leonardo F. Freitas)

Principally, according to the governments and organisations behind the projects, the road will open up a resource-rich, but previously impenetrable, area of the continent—the Amazon jungle.

CAF, the Latin American bank for development created in 1970, released a report ‘visión negocios’ about the potential impact of the road. The report has analysed the potential business from products considered as ‘traditional’ in the geographical area and predicted that ‘export potential will increase because of business’ position in the export market, and quality of their supplies, which may generate a significant increase in demand.’

The key driver here is China and ‘the new global economic order’. China overtook the United States of America as Brazil’s largest trading partner in 2009 and the road will make it far easier and cheaper to ship resources to her insatiable market. Peru will also gain economically as the necessary middle-man, on top of increased trade of its own products. Other benefits envisaged from the road include the development of tourism in the south of the country—one branch of the highway passes through Cusco, the gateway to Machu Picchu.

According to the think-tank the Bank Information Centre, the ex-president of Peru, Alejandro Toledo, asserted that the highway will lead to an 1.5% annual increase in Peru’s gross domestic product.

‘Disastrous’ Impact

However, despite the positivism and optimism that has accompanied the construction the road, it has not escaped the controversies which inevitably and consistently follow these types of developments. Many social and environmental concerns remain about the impact of the road.

The highway cuts through the Isconahua Reserve, which is home to some of Peru’s estimated 15 uncontacted tribes. The factors which caused the eradication of millions of indigenous peoples with the arrival of contistadores centuries ago—such as disease and loss of hunting grounds—still threaten these remaining tribes.

Yanamami Tribe is one of the many indigenous tribes in Brazil affected by modern development. (Photo courtesy of Survival International)

Survival International, an NGO that works with uncontacted tribes around the world, is sure of the impact of the road; it would be “disastrous”. They say that as soon as any type of communications and transport infrastructure is implemented in any sort of undeveloped area, it will inevitably bring migration and this means houses, demands on local resources, and further building and destruction of the local habitat.

There are similar environmental concerns. Greenpeace Brazil is currently working with areas in the Amazonas region which are experiencing high levels of deforestation and development, mostly related to the country’s booming agricultural sector. They fear that the interoceanic highway is only going to increase the pressure in the area. According to Andre Muggiati from Greenpeace, quite simply “development would not happen without the road”, but this type of development is destructive and unsustainable.

Fears for the Future

Both these organisations and many others involved in social and environmental protection of the Amazon however do not object the road itself so much as the ability of local authorities to deal with the additional pressures that it brings with it.

Development in this region has begun to be accepted as inevitable. But Greenpeace believes that authorities are “not prepared” for the challenges they will soon be facing and that the road is merely the product of “short-term thinking”. Survival international were not consulted on the construction of the road and the potential impact it could have on the tribes it represents. Rebecca Spooner from the organisation also said that as far as Survival International knew “the communities who could be affected” were not consulted either.

This is an issue endemic with development in the Amazon region, according to Spooner: “It is carried out without the free, prior and informed consent of the indigenous peoples who are most affected”. Since the 1970s there have been dozens of studies that have documented the social and environmental impacts of roads in Brazil, the lessons of which aren’t being learnt in Brazil, according to the organisation Wildlife CPR.

What remains to be seen is how bad these side effects will be.

The majestic Amazon river snakes through the untouched rainforest. (Photo courtesy of Greenpeace)

A 2009 book written by Marc Dourojeanni, Alberto Barandiarán, and Diego Dourojeanni — all experts on the Peruvian Amazon — identifies highways as “the principal socio-environmental risk for the Amazon”.

The authors of the study, entitled Peruvian Amazonia in 2021, conclude that due to poor planning and management, “highways, which could have provided an opportunity for true [sustainable] development, have become another obstacle to the protection and good use of the forest.”

The report also claims that in a worse-case scenario, less than 10% of the Peruvian Amazon will be unaffected by deforestation or degradation by the year 2041.

Banking on Economics

Unfortunately, the real worth of the road is unlikely to be measured in how many tribes are left standing after 20 years or how many thousands of hectares have been saved from destruction. Yet even the economic benefits promised by a succession of political leaders are questioned by some.

Interviewed by Christian Science Monitor, Cesar Bonamigo from the Brazilian Embassy in Peru, says products such as soybeans and iron ore are unlikely to be carried by truck over the mountains, as it’s cheaper to send them by barge down Brazil’s rivers.

The road, despite its modern appearances and new coat of asphalt remains a challenge to lorries. Winding bends, steep inclines and sharp descents, combined with unpredictable weather, remain a challenge for drivers of large vehicles. A bus crash in 2007 on a developed section of the road, which injured 43 people, is an example of how treacherous the road remains, even after all the work has gone into it.

Amazonian lumber in Pucallpa-Iquitos, Peru (Photo: Szymon Kochanski)

There are also fears that without government action, the new highway will benefit illegal traders as much as companies. According to Rebecca Spooner of Survival International “illegal logging is already a huge issue in the Peruvian Amazon and a new road would only exasperate the situation”.

Peru gold mining industry is another major concern. The country is the world’s fifth gold producer, but it is artisanal mining, effectively uncontrolled subsistence mining, which is most common. A report by the International Institute for Environment and Development in 2001 estimated that the number of this type of mining was conducted by around 20,000 to 30,000 families—a number almost certain to grow now that the highway provides quick access to the mineral-rich regions.

It is clear the interoceánica will have a direct impact the lives of nearly six million Peruvians and one million Brazilians and Bolivians. Whether this will be for the better or worse remains to be seen.

To find out what Argentines think of the interoceanic highway, click here.

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4 Responses to “Interoceanic Highway – Road to Ruin?”

  1. Andy Donohoe says:

    Great article! Lots to think about.


  1. […] bridge that spans the Madre de Dios river, was snapped into place in Puerto Maldonado and inaugurated in 2011. But though the highway has brought increased prosperity and ease to the city, the benefits […]

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