Peru: Destructive Amazonian highway near completion

Issue 

The nightmarish prospect of a scarred Amazonian jungle reeking of diesel fumes from end to end, as heavy-laden trucks thunder by in round-the-clock convoys, is fast becoming a reality.

Since 2000, teams of road builders have been cutting a vicious swathe of destruction through vast stretches of rainforest in the Peruvian province of Madre de Dios. This is done in the name of "free trade" and neoliberal "development".

Scheduled for completion in 2010, the Interoceanic Highway will link up with Brazil's existing Amazonian road network. This will create a coast-to-coast trucking route for Brazilian-based agribusiness exporting soy and other primary products to China via Peru's Pacific ports.

Inevitably, it will also expose previously pristine areas of the Peruvian Amazon — one of the world's most significant sanctuaries of biodiversity — to further pressure from agribusiness, hardwood logging and fossil fuel extraction.

In less than a decade, more than 80% of the Peruvian Amazon (an area accounting for nearly two-thirds of Peru's total surface area) has been allotted in "concessions" to a bevy of international oil and gas companies.

These companies await the installation of additional transport infrastructure, such as the Interoceanic Highway, with keen interest.

Julio Cusurichi, a Goldman Environmental Prize winner and representative of the Native Federation of Madre de Dios (FNMD), said: "We know that the Interoceanic project and projects for so-called 'development' are going to benefit large interests and not local populations.

"Local populations are not prepared economically to benefit from the highway. There's been no interest on the part of the national or regional government to give us at least a few incentives to prepare ourselves — economically and socially — to see how we could benefit somehow from the highway.

"If the government doesn't promote a sustainable vision for our region … this is only a capitalist vision, not a vision that will help the poor populations of our country."

The "Soy Highway", as the FNMD and other indigenous resistance groups have dubbed it, is funded by various international financial institutions through front entities such as the Andean Development Corporation (CAF), the Brazilian National Development Bank (BNDES) and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

This is yet another example of coercive top-down development for the benefit of multinational corporations — sold to the poor as an example of "progress" by a collaborative media and government.

The Peruvian government's mania for all things "free trade" began in the early 1990s with disgraced former president Alberto Fujimori. Recently jailed for human rights abuses, Fujimori was once, fittingly, the poster boy of the international investment community.

Under Harvard-trained economist Alejandro Toledo (president from 2001-06), the pace of liberalisation was quickened.

Since assuming office in 2006, President Alan Garcia has proved a zealous convert to neoliberalism. He finalised an exploitative Free Trade Agreement with the US in late 2007.

Since then, Garcia has brokered similar deals with Brazil, Canada, South Korea and China. This has led to a surge in urban unemployment and rural dislocation.

In the headlong rush to "open up" the Amazon, under pressure from heavyweight trading partners, no consideration has been given to the devastating ecological and demographic consequences of the highway.

In 2005, a coalition of 175 prominent Peruvians (including academics, progressive economists, environmental activists and leaders of social movements) released a media petition calling on Toledo to hold off initiating construction of the highway's controversial Inapari-Puerto Maritimo section.

With characteristic disregard for anything but neoliberal prescriptions, the Toledo administration brushed aside economic, ecological and humanitarian concerns with soothing cliches.

The bulldozers started o rolled in.

For the indigenous peoples of the Peruvian Amazon — whose organisations have consistently voiced opposition to the highway — this sort of response is nothing new. The same pattern of conquest and colonisation has already resulted in the annihilation of many tribes and entire linguistic groups.

The position of the Peruvian government has remained one of simply denying the existence of "uncontacted" tribes in the Amazon. No people, no problem.

In May 2007, startling images of a "lost" Amazonian tribe photographed in a jungle clearing made their way into the international media, creating a brief sensation.

The unexplored story behind these images was one of violent dispossession, and a growing refugee crisis in the Peruvian selva and adjoining Brazilian territory. These traumatised people were fleeing from the remorseless road builders and the murderous loggers who follow in their wake.

As devastating as the Interoceanic Highway is, it is only one of hundreds of large-scale development projects implemented in the Amazonian region under the aegis of the internationally-funded Initiative for the Regional Integration of Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA).

Cusurichi said: "The Interoceanic is going to be a threat more than a benefit for indigenous people, because the Interoceanic cannot be separated from its larger context, which is IIRSA.

"And IIRSA isn't just the Interoceanic, it contains projects for the entire Amazon basin."