Whose Highways? If Built, Amazon Roads Would Bisect Indigenous Communities

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One of the great things about working in the new ERI Amazon office is that you get to travel into the Amazon from time to time. Last week, Benjamin and I had the chance to travel and meet with several indigenous leaders in the Ucayali region of Perú to discuss some of the pressing issues their communities were confronting. While we were not surprised to hear about the impact of oil activities in their environs, we were struck by how much people wanted to talk with us about highways—and how they might be able to stop them.

Benjamin blogged earlier this month about the protests by indigenous communities challenging the construction of the TIPNIS highway in Bolivia. But the TIPNIS project does not stand alone. TIPNIS is actually only one piece in a much larger plan that encompasses more than 12 countries and seeks regional integration for energy, infrastructure, and communications This $70 billion plan, called the “Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America,” or IIRSA, is composed of some 514 projects, including highways, dams, ports, railways, power plants, water-highways and corridors connecting them all. The idea for IIRSA was first launched during a presidential summit in 2000 that took place in Brasilia among South American leaders, but today it is primarily driven, and bankrolled, by Brazil and its National Bank for Social and Economic Development (BNDES).

IIRSA has given Brazil a means for thinking big. As additional highways and waterways are etched across neighboring Ecuador, Perú and Bolivia, Brazil can realize its dream of reaching the Pacific Ocean overland. And Brazil is more than willing to pay. The New York Times noted last week that the spending influence of BNDES has come to dwarf the lending of even the World Bank. This year, BNDES made about $83 billion in loans (a considerable amount of which funds IIRSA projects like TIPNIS) while the World Bank lent only $57.4 billion in comparison. Indeed, the growing influence of the BNDES is not only amplifying the power of Brazil and IIRSA across Latin America, but it is also generating great concern on the part of indigenous communities who lay in its path.

While in the Ucayali region that borders Brazil, we spoke with an indigenous leader who has been organizing his native community, Flor de Ucayali, against the planned construction of an IIRSA mega-highway through their land.  The planned highway, the Interconexíon vial Pucallpa-Cruzeiro do Sol, would connect Cruzeiro do Sol in Brazil with the city of Pucallpa in Perú, giving Brazil a northern pathway to the Pacific. The plan would require laying down an estimated 220 km of new asphalt across a block of the Amazon, some of which has been designated by Ministerial Resolution as “reservas” for the indigenous communities living therein.

The proposed highway would literally split the community of Flor de Ucayali in two.

Flor de Ucayali is not alone. The highway would also tear through both the Zona Reservada de Sierra del Divisor and the Reserva Territorial de los Isconahuas—which are home to several thousand Isconahua indigenous people living in voluntary isolation. In this regard, the highway would essentially unleash “forced contact” with communities that are specially protected under Peruvian law and who arguably have the right “not to be contacted” under international law. The proposed highway would also have devastating environmental impacts and further facilitate the entry of oil, mineral and gas exploration and illicit activities like logging and coca plantation.

While supporters of the Interconexíon vial Pucallpa-Cruzeiro do Sol argue that the highway, like other proposed IIRSA projects, will bring development and economic opportunity and integration one must ask  who benefits and for how long. Undoubtedly, large-scale monoculture soy producers in Brazil would benefit, mestizo logging companies, as would foreign oil companies who seek access to resource rich lands. But there has been little evidence that this type of development actually benefits indigenous communities especially if they have not been consulted nor participated in decisions that impact their lives. And because of this, many of them, like people of Flor de Ucayali, and of TIPNIS in Bolivia, are fighting back.

IIRSA’s dream of bringing about complete regional integration of infrastructure may sound like a grand one—and its promise of opportunity is discursively pleasing. But IIRSA is also victim of its own size. As IIRSA projects such as the Interconexíon vial Pucallpa-Cruzeiro do Sol push their way across the continent, they are encountering those who don’t share its vision and who have the legal right to participate in development decisions that affect them. If IIRSA and those who manage it don’t take the concerns of those communities who lay in its path seriously, IIRSA will continue to generate more opposition than opportunity.

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