The Jungle Highway

A massive highway now cuts through the heart of the planet’s most valued jungle, the Amazon. While the promise of a huge influx of commerce to the region has yet to be fulfilled, other realities have started to emerge: environmental devastation, poverty and crime. Reporters for a new cross-border journalism group, Connectas, traveled 700 kilometers along the interoceanic highway to document the impact of the road on the environment and on people’s lives. Here’s an excerpt of the series from ICIJ member and Connectas founder Carlos Eduardo Huertas.  

jungle highwayA year ago construction of the 5,404-km Interoceanic Highway was completed, connecting Peru's Pacific to Brazil's Atlantic. This has given rise to hundreds of opportunities for income and development, but also to environmental and social challenges. 

The highway has opened a vast expanse of the planet's most valued jungle to the world economy. Thousands of people are flocking to settle there. Others are arriving from countries like China, Russia, France, Mexico and Chile to set up their business. The triple border of Brazil, Peru, and Bolivia, once populated only by 100-year-old trees, wildlife, and a total of about 100,000 people, is now alive with noise: music blaring in the new towns, the buzz of the chainsaws, the bustle of the shops, and the roar of powerful engines stripping the gold from the red earth.

Brazil, the world's sixth largest economy, was the driving force behind this project, needing a direct route to ship its products to the rich markets of the Asian Pacific. The road was also a way to link the most remote cities from each of these three countries: Puerto Maldonado in Peru, Cobija in Bolivia, and Rio Branco in Brazil.

CONNECTAS traveled along 700 km of the Interoceanic Highway that unites these three towns at the center of the Amazon and the road's area of influence, and today it reports on the story of the changes that this road has brought to the environment and people's lives.

On the road one sees children selling fried fish and plantains to drivers.

At the tri-national border in the jungle, three groups are at odds over development. The conservationists want the Amazon to remain intact and consider that its biodiversity should only be at the disposal of researchers, eco-travelers and traditional inhabitants. The developers believe that valuable resources such as timber and gold may be extracted in a rational manner, with good state oversight. They also see potential for expanding the agricultural frontier, slashing and burning the bush. And then there are the destroyers, a mix of subsistence opportunists and criminals, who are already working the mines and cutting down trees without any permission or regulation by the authorities, especially in Peru and Bolivia.

The road has also brought the jungle into contact with modernity, attracting thousands of new inhabitants who are in search of a living. The small, quiet villages were not prepared for the sudden massive influx of migration. Over the past five years, the time it has taken to build the road, the once-small towns have doubled their numbers of residents, as in the case of Puerto Maldonado, which is now struggling to accommodate its 200,000 inhabitants. It lacks social services, overcrowding and poverty are beginning to spawn crime. 

The road has also paved the way for drug smuggling and trafficking in persons in a maelstrom of lawlessness and chaos that local authorities admit seriously threaten the once peaceful region.

The Interoceanic Highway is the common thread that links all of these realities.

La Autopista de la Selva / The Jungle Highway (Spa/Eng) from CONNECTAS on Vimeo.

Meanwhile, trade, its main purpose, is just beginning to show results. Commercial activity is more the result of connecting these previously isolated towns, than international commerce. In the region, Brazil's booming economy is setting the pace. Given the challenges, the dynamism of a number of grassroots organizations contrasts with the timid state presence. The same is true of the insufficient role of the Latin American Development Bank (formerly Andean Development Corporation - CAF) one of the main financiers of the mega-project, and whose mission is to promote development. 

Projects of this magnitude are an opportunity for iconographic transformation on the continent. Not repeating the mistakes made in Latin America in the past is key to avoid deepening inequality and poverty. Doing things at the cheapest cost possible could mean missed opportunities to make real leaps in the region's development, and could transform major projects, such as the Interoceanic Highway, into the spearhead for social and environmental devastation.

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