Saving Madre de Dios

This article release is part of an special report by CONNECTAS

Four scenarios are repeated along the 700 km of the Amazon that CONNECTAS traveled in the heart of South America along the Interoceanic Highway and its area of influence: mining deserts where lush jungle once grew, burned out patches of forest, mutilated trees, and snakes on the pavement, escaping, along with other wildlife, from a habitat that is now hostile to them.

The landscape of the Guacamayo region of the Peruvian jungle is now endless yellow sands, like a first class beach resort. Over the course of two years, 20,000 hectares of forest were wiped out, according to local authorities. About 800 m away a muddy ocher-colored river runs by, on whose banks a few plants are struggling to survive. There is no sound of chirping birds or hum of the thousands of insects that once populated the biodiverse forest. Now the noise of the engines that sift the earth in search of a glint of hidden gold assault the ears. The only living beings are two shirtless workers who oversee the operation from a makeshift barge floating in the standing water at the bottom of a 10 m hole left by the pumping.

"Inland on the beach," as the locals say, the landscape is even bleaker. After a few minutes of difficult walking on the sand, a miner comes out to meet us. "You may not be here. This is private property," he says, obfuscating. He looks after a rudimentary pulley system that lifts loads of earth and places them on a taut canvas to be sifted. The government has been shutting down the illegal mines and the people affected have resisted violently. So when the miner goes off to get his colleagues to deal with the intruders, it is better to leave. From here one sees the jungle's green tree line, like a mirage on the horizon. But soon it will be further away.

Further ahead, on the other side of the road, the land is still smoking. A perfect black rectangle looks like the scar of a brand that someone imprinted on the land. A few scorched trunks bear witness that once there was life here. Similar charred landscapes are seen, time after time, along the route.

The border between Bolivia and Peru, at the village of Soberanía, is marked by two barely visible cement markers in the virgin forest. Walking in this vast area is like strolling down a street in Manhattan, except that instead of skyscrapers, there are huge trees on either side, 40 and 50 m high, and thousands of butterflies flutter off to the sides as if they were being organized by color, while a sloth crosses the path, scuttling off at the top speed of its slow pace to avoid encountering the visitors. The Bolivian side is the Manuripi National Reserve and the Peruvian side is the Tambopata Reserve.

1
A lack of planning and control has led to increasing deforestation since the Interoceanic Highway went into operation.

However, along a straight 200 km swathe of the jungle border, one is never out of earshot of the electric saws cutting wood, especially on the Peruvian side. Following the noise to find the source is not easy because the entrance into the forest is dense. Suddenly a number of little paths appear. The sound seems to come from the end of one of these that leads into a clearing. There, off to the side, lies stretched out, defeated, a heavy tree whose diameter would take two people to encircle it. It is being cut into boards that are arranged by thickness. Suddenly the chainsaw is switched off; it seems they do not like visitors. Our guide is frightened and does not want to go on. "These loggers do whatever they want," he says, "They go back and forth across the border, and are not answerable to God or the law."

Back on the Interoceanic Highway, traveling at full speed along the battered highway full of holes on the Brazilian side, at one of the many bumps that shake the car, the driver shouts excitedly, "Do you see that? It was a giant snake!" His enthusiasm is dampened immediately by the passengers' objections. He does not stop and drives for kilometers through a landscape of plains. Jungle used to be here. Suddenly he has to stop to let a herd of about 100 hundred cows cross the road. They now reign over this domain.

2
Hundreds of crude roads have been built from the highway, leading into the jungle. This makes the extraction of natural resources easier.

Cattle are being raised where wildlife once roamed. The people say that there has always been burning, logging, and mining in the jungle. But the rate of destruction has increased because of the road that has brought the markets closer and attracted adventurers, especially on the Peruvian side, and along a 50 km strip on either side of the road through each of the countries, according to the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM, for its acronym in Portuguese), which constitutes the road's area of influence.

The plans for the Interoceanic Highway, like other ambitious infrastructure projects in South America, envisaged that the road would meet "environmental standards to ensure the proper use of all natural resources in the area, making it possible to control the abuses that sometimes occur illegally with these resources." In practice, however, it has been seen that, despite the project's magnitude --three countries, multilateral financing, and high impact on the fragile ecology of the Amazon-- strategic planning concerning the road's environmental impact has been shortsighted, and management and oversight have been inadequate. The authorities have fallen short in terms of making this backbone for South America's economy into an environmentally sustainable project.

No doubt the linkages that the Interoceanic Highway brings will open markets and spark economic development, but without strong regulation and oversight, the cost for future generations might be too high. Forestry expert Marc Dourojeanni, author of the book Peruvian Amazon 2021, says that in developed countries building roads does not mean destroying natural resources, and roads are even built that traverse national parks without harming them. In contrast, the Interoceanic Highway, "rather than just being used to connect two points and making it possible to the use land that is suitable for agriculture that previously was unreachable, the people have settled haphazardly everywhere, without asking anyone's permission, often with the approval of local politicians. They are occupying indigenous lands, protected areas, and land not suitable for agricultural use, resulting in tremendous and useless deforestation."

The lack of control has been so serious that authorities in the Peruvian capital are reviewing reports that some of the same machinery that was used to build the road has ended up being used in illegal mining.

Overlapping Concessions On the Peruvian side, where more devastation has been seen because of the road, a perverse institutional incentive exists: overlapping concessions for different activities in the same areas. Thus, concessions for logging overlap with mining permits; or these might overlap with areas designated for ranching, agriculture, Brazil nut plantations, ecotourism, or even oil exploration. These areas, in turn, sometimes overlap with environmental or indigenous community reserves. "At the time, the state agencies did not work together," José Luis Aguirre, regional president of Madre de Dios, says. This confusion in regulation is conducive to destruction.

Captura de pantalla 2015-09-29 a las 2.28.07 p.m. Captura de pantalla 2015-09-29 a las 2.27.53 p.m.Anthropologist Angélica Almeyda uses satellite images to show how these roughhewn roads have multiplied, going from 4,686 km in 1990 to 11,045 km in 2007.

This is what is happening on the left side of the Interoceanic Highway on the road to Cuzco. This is the buffer zone of the Tambopata reserve, in which some agriculture concessions existed. But the owners made these lands available to the miners, arguing that seeing as in adjacent areas and a vast section on the other side of the road, mining concessions had been issued, therefore they too could lease their land for mining. Thus, little by little, the gold prospectors have settled, and gold fever has spiked as international prices have risen. With a troy ounce being worth $1,900, mines that were unprofitable when the metal was worth less than $500 per ounce five years ago, have been reopened.

The difficulties related to this overlapping were relatively easy to predict and resolve before the road made the clashes worse. Updating the land registry and mapping the information about the various concessions and would have helped a lot. According to Eleonora Silva, director of the Development Bank of Latin America (formerly CAF), this was one of the requisites for the loan for an additional $18 million dollars that her agency made to the Peruvian Government to fund the environmental and social management program.

The resources were invested primarily in clarifying the ownership of the terrains along the road, but this was not enough to solve the problem of overlapping concessions. The local government says that it hopes to do a review of land titles by seniority, provided that these are in accordance with the land use regulations that were recently developed.

Not Enough Money Critics say that $18 million dollars is not enough to deal with the environmental impact of a project that cost $2.8 billion dollars. A study by the Peruvian organization Environmental Law and Natural Resources (DAR) says that the budget allocated for environmental and social management programs for similar roads, according to regional standards, ranges between 5 and 20 percent of the total cost of the work. In the case of the Interoceanic Highway, it was just 2 percent of the initial budget and, furthermore, construction ended up costing three times more. The regional president Aguirre says that as well as being too little money, the budget "was managed in Lima and little or nothing got to Madre de Dios. The money got lost along the way!".

According to the DAR publication, the environmental program was designed to mitigate damage rather than promote development. The representative of the Development Bank that provided the money for the environmental management program declined to comment on the report because, she says, DAR did not verify its information with them. She clarified, however, that the bank's contribution was in accordance with the social and environmental standards, and that the program bolstered, among other things, the administration of protected nature areas and the creation of new areas of this kind. She also said that the environmental program aimed to strengthen the institutional capacity of the national and regional public agencies responsible for management, prevention, and mitigation of indirect environmental and social impact caused by the project. "This was something that was done at all times in dialogue with the regions," Silva said.

It is important to highlight that when the road was started, Peru did not have an Environment Ministry, and so everything was handled through a department of the Agriculture Ministry that no longer exists. As well, at that time the country was just beginning its process of decentralization. As such, knowing that environmental control and management depends heavily on the efficiency and independence of local government, the Development Bank has been strengthening several programs for governance and political administration for regional leaders through recognized universities in Lima.

A global trend exists to ensure that financiers of roads include provisions in their budgets for direct environmental impact, such as construction waste disposal, the building of suitable bridges over streams, among others, and allocate fewer resources for indirect impacts, such as those described in this report. They presume that deforestation, improper land use, pollution from mining and others, fall within the general responsibilities of the state and are not the domain of an already costly project. However, in Latin America where the countries' capacities are limited, these kinds of transnational projects of continental importance provide a good opportunity to bring about meaningful change in the territories. Doing things with the minimum budget possible means missed opportunities to make real leaps forward in the development of Latin America.

For two years, Peru has been working on an application for a new loan for $16 million dollars to improve its environmental management, but the process has been bogged down in internal debates over which national agency would manage the resources, and what the role of local governments would be.

Unchecked Logging Meanwhile unauthorized logging goes unchecked. There is no lack of laws forbidding logging, but with weak or non-existent enforcement and corruption, effectively the regulations only exist on paper. According to Peru's forestry law, logging concessions may be granted for up to 40,000 hectares and, prior to the road, in Madre de Dios up to 5,000 feet of boards could be shipped out per trip. Now four times this amount has been authorized for removal per trip.

According to local environment officials, this does not mean license for further deforestation, but rather that the measure is linked to other controls that encourage the creation of certified forest areas. In the region, work is done in what are known as "cutting stations." A concession is divided into a grid of 20 stations, and the concession holder may only cut down trees in one of these stations; 20 years must be allowed to pass before that station may be logged again. It is considered that the forest can recover in that time.

4
Through massive burning, farmers are expanding the agricultural frontier.
5
Without concern for planning or technical criteria, some municipalities take advantage of the road to dispose of their garbage along the highway.

In theory, at least, the model appears to be feasible. In practice, forest management plans are approved in the region, but these are monitored by a national agency that does not have the capacity to oversee from Lima what is going on in Peru's forests. Furthermore, another agency handles high-value species that are protected under international agreements because of being at risk of extinction, such as mahogany, for example. This system also lacks the resources and staff to handle such a great responsibility.

Efficiency is not the only issue; corruption in Peru's concession system also hinders protection of the ecosystems. That was the conclusion of an an investigative report by the Environmental Investigation Agency EIA, an international organization allied with CONNECTAS in this series of reports, that fights environmental crime and defends nature. This agency documented about 30 cases, some of them in Madre de Dios, revealing how concessions owners extract wood as if it were being culled from certified forest stations, when in fact it is being taken from other land or nature reserves. Local government officials have confirmed that this practice is going on and that they want to do further inspections of the sites to confirm what sort of wood is being harvested.

Some of the wood that the Peruvian traffickers steal comes from the Bolivian side of the border. Because the border is not actually marked, the loggers go after the best wood, and this causes serious social conflicts. For example, Julio García, deputy governor of the town of Alerta in Peru, was killed in 2008 when he tried to stop a truck that was removing mahogany without permission from the neighboring country (see profile).

With the opening of the Interoceanic Highway, the number of roads that penetrate deeper and deeper into the virgin forest has increased. Anthropologist Angelica Almeyda has been using satellite imagery for her doctoral study on deforestation and infrastructure development in this part of the Amazon, to show how these rudimentary access roads have multiplied, going from 4,686 km in 1990 to 11,045 km in 2007. During the past five years, according to a map by the WWF, growth has been exponential. The opening of the Interoceanic Highway has given rise to a network of arteries on either side. In her studies Almeyda, one of CONNECTAS's associates for this report, shows that as travel time to get to major population centers is reduced, deforestation increases. These routes also restrict the mobility of the indigenous people native to Madre de Dios who still live there and who shun contact with modern life.

Often damage has been the result of decisions made in Lima without considering the impact on the forest. In 2004 the government allowed logging in the Brazil nut concessions and when the measure repealed in 2007, it was too late, and long swathes along the sides of the road had already been stripped bare. With proper planning and replanting this could have produced different results. Now papayas and oranges are starting to be planted on some of these patches, an activity that has given rise to great expectations.

An official decision made in the late 1980s to give cattle to settler families, to clear forest and raise livestock, had a similar impact. They polished off the forest but then did not thrive because the soil was drained. Now, new settlers are enthusiastic about clearing land for ranching because they see better prospects, with more sophisticated fertilizers and more resistant strains of seeds available, and with the example of their Brazilian neighbors that have transformed huge forests into productive pasture for cattle.

Green Initiatives Not everything is environmental deterioration and loss in the heart of the Amazon between Bolivia, Peru, and Brazil. In each of the three countries there are examples of how proper forest management has enabled the opening of the road to improve the lives of the people in the region and the countries in general.

In some parts of Bolivia, people are engaged in rational, community logging endeavors. In the town of Soberanía the state gave 26,000 hectares to 50 families to work the forest. The environmental operating plan entailed doing a study to map each tree in the area. Thus, defining the timber that may be harvested, that licenses were paid, and with inspections done on site to ensure that effectively these were the trees that were cut.

Other positive experiences are on the Peruvian side at the border with Brazil, in the town of Iñapari. There, according to information provided by the city, five companies are in charge of 600,000 hectares that have been certified and have ongoing supervision. As well as being the main employers in the region, they have started doing semi-industrial processing of the wood on site. Although fuel must still be used to generate the energy needed for these industrial processes, this will be solved when electricity is available in the area permanently. According to the city, these US and British financiers and Chilean investors, are also exploring the possibility of preserving forest to sell carbon offset bonds on the international market.

In Brazil and Peru, Brazil nut production has proven to be an economic activity in the jungle that can be both profitable and environmentally sustainable. Each year, between December and March, these trees, many of them centuries old, produce a pod containing the rich nut seeds. In the area of Madre de Dios there are over 1,200 Brazil nut concessions runs mainly by families from the region. The year 2005, for example, was very good for this activity, because Peru exported $18 million dollars' worth of these nuts from the Amazon. The road makes the business even more profitable by lowering transport costs and making it easier to get the product to market. And while production grows, the forest remains intact, because preserving the Brazil nut trees also protects the surrounding woods. In addition, several producers have become socially and politically active.

Old-style production of natural latex from the rubber tree, which had been given up when synthetic materials appeared on the market, has been revived in all three countries. This is another product that could be profitable and sustainable in the jungle. Communities in forest reserves, such as Manuripi in Bolivia, have started using new technology that allows them to produce a better quality product without damaging the trees. In Peru, the road has brought back French investors who are interested in producing rubber and selling it internationally as a green product, certifying that by buying this product one is supporting an economic activity that protects the Amazon.

Although Brazil nuts and rubber are sustainable Amazon products that now have tremendous commercial potential because of the Interoceanic Highway, they are receiving very little official support. If the governments were to help market these nuts internationally, emphasizing how they contribute to the conservation of the planet's biggest rainforest, the producers could command higher prices and achieve greater stability because prices for this product vary between $2.00 and $9.00 per kilogram.

Ecotourism is another possibility for sustainable development, which is growing by leaps and bounds. Every day five flights, bringing an average of 350 people, mostly foreign tourists, land at the airport in Puerto Maldonado, Peru. In October 2010 British rock legend Mick Jagger visited, and that news attracted even more tourists.

Other visitors take the new road from Cuzco to the jungle port, and 16 buses cover this route each week. However, there is still much room for growth, given that most of the Brazilians tourists who go through Puerto Maldonado are just passing through en route to the ruins of Machu Picchu and the beautiful Inca city of Cuzco, and many of the foreigners who arrive in Puerto Maldonado by plane go directly to their lodgings in the jungle and spend little time or money in the town.

The road that connects the three countries could be a boon for economic development and, although it sounds paradoxical, a good excuse to improve environmental management and forest protection. But it requires better regulation, more resources, and greater vision to develop the right kind of initiatives.

The regional president of Madre de Dios, José Luis Aguirre is not optimistic. He says that there are too many stakeholders -- the miners prevent judges and prosecutors from protecting the delicate environment-- and furthermore the central government has abandoned them to their fate. "I feel desperate, haunted," he says, "If real impetus and strategic financial support is not forthcoming, we will be overrun by the criminals operating here. I am thinking about putting out an international call to save Madre de Dios." Hopefully his plea, recorded here, will resonate abroad.


This article is part of the special report "The Amazon Opens Up" by CONNECTAS. To read the full report click here.
Logging and mining have always gone in the Amazon at the intersection of Peru, Bolivia and Brazil, but with the opening of the Interoceanic Highway, the destruction of the forest has become chaotic and exceeded of shortsighed official oversight.
This article release is part of an special report by CONNECTAS

Four scenarios are repeated along the 700 km of the Amazon that CONNECTAS traveled in the heart of South America along the Interoceanic Highway and its area of influence: mining deserts where lush jungle once grew, burned out patches of forest, mutilated trees, and snakes on the pavement, escaping, along with other wildlife, from a habitat that is now hostile to them.

The landscape of the Guacamayo region of the Peruvian jungle is now endless yellow sands, like a first class beach resort. Over the course of two years, 20,000 hectares of forest were wiped out, according to local authorities. About 800 m away a muddy ocher-colored river runs by, on whose banks a few plants are struggling to survive. There is no sound of chirping birds or hum of the thousands of insects that once populated the biodiverse forest. Now the noise of the engines that sift the earth in search of a glint of hidden gold assault the ears. The only living beings are two shirtless workers who oversee the operation from a makeshift barge floating in the standing water at the bottom of a 10 m hole left by the pumping.

“Inland on the beach,” as the locals say, the landscape is even bleaker. After a few minutes of difficult walking on the sand, a miner comes out to meet us. “You may not be here. This is private property,” he says, obfuscating. He looks after a rudimentary pulley system that lifts loads of earth and places them on a taut canvas to be sifted. The government has been shutting down the illegal mines and the people affected have resisted violently. So when the miner goes off to get his colleagues to deal with the intruders, it is better to leave. From here one sees the jungle’s green tree line, like a mirage on the horizon. But soon it will be further away.

Further ahead, on the other side of the road, the land is still smoking. A perfect black rectangle looks like the scar of a brand that someone imprinted on the land. A few scorched trunks bear witness that once there was life here. Similar charred landscapes are seen, time after time, along the route.

The border between Bolivia and Peru, at the village of Soberanía, is marked by two barely visible cement markers in the virgin forest. Walking in this vast area is like strolling down a street in Manhattan, except that instead of skyscrapers, there are huge trees on either side, 40 and 50 m high, and thousands of butterflies flutter off to the sides as if they were being organized by color, while a sloth crosses the path, scuttling off at the top speed of its slow pace to avoid encountering the visitors. The Bolivian side is the Manuripi National Reserve and the Peruvian side is the Tambopata Reserve.

1
A lack of planning and control has led to increasing deforestation since the Interoceanic Highway went into operation.

However, along a straight 200 km swathe of the jungle border, one is never out of earshot of the electric saws cutting wood, especially on the Peruvian side. Following the noise to find the source is not easy because the entrance into the forest is dense. Suddenly a number of little paths appear. The sound seems to come from the end of one of these that leads into a clearing. There, off to the side, lies stretched out, defeated, a heavy tree whose diameter would take two people to encircle it. It is being cut into boards that are arranged by thickness. Suddenly the chainsaw is switched off; it seems they do not like visitors. Our guide is frightened and does not want to go on. “These loggers do whatever they want,” he says, “They go back and forth across the border, and are not answerable to God or the law.”

Back on the Interoceanic Highway, traveling at full speed along the battered highway full of holes on the Brazilian side, at one of the many bumps that shake the car, the driver shouts excitedly, “Do you see that? It was a giant snake!” His enthusiasm is dampened immediately by the passengers’ objections. He does not stop and drives for kilometers through a landscape of plains. Jungle used to be here. Suddenly he has to stop to let a herd of about 100 hundred cows cross the road. They now reign over this domain.

2
Hundreds of crude roads have been built from the highway, leading into the jungle. This makes the extraction of natural resources easier.

Cattle are being raised where wildlife once roamed. The people say that there has always been burning, logging, and mining in the jungle. But the rate of destruction has increased because of the road that has brought the markets closer and attracted adventurers, especially on the Peruvian side, and along a 50 km strip on either side of the road through each of the countries, according to the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM, for its acronym in Portuguese), which constitutes the road’s area of influence.

The plans for the Interoceanic Highway, like other ambitious infrastructure projects in South America, envisaged that the road would meet “environmental standards to ensure the proper use of all natural resources in the area, making it possible to control the abuses that sometimes occur illegally with these resources.” In practice, however, it has been seen that, despite the project’s magnitude –three countries, multilateral financing, and high impact on the fragile ecology of the Amazon– strategic planning concerning the road’s environmental impact has been shortsighted, and management and oversight have been inadequate. The authorities have fallen short in terms of making this backbone for South America’s economy into an environmentally sustainable project.

No doubt the linkages that the Interoceanic Highway brings will open markets and spark economic development, but without strong regulation and oversight, the cost for future generations might be too high. Forestry expert Marc Dourojeanni, author of the book Peruvian Amazon 2021, says that in developed countries building roads does not mean destroying natural resources, and roads are even built that traverse national parks without harming them. In contrast, the Interoceanic Highway, “rather than just being used to connect two points and making it possible to the use land that is suitable for agriculture that previously was unreachable, the people have settled haphazardly everywhere, without asking anyone’s permission, often with the approval of local politicians. They are occupying indigenous lands, protected areas, and land not suitable for agricultural use, resulting in tremendous and useless deforestation.”

The lack of control has been so serious that authorities in the Peruvian capital are reviewing reports that some of the same machinery that was used to build the road has ended up being used in illegal mining.

Overlapping Concessions
On the Peruvian side, where more devastation has been seen because of the road, a perverse institutional incentive exists: overlapping concessions for different activities in the same areas. Thus, concessions for logging overlap with mining permits; or these might overlap with areas designated for ranching, agriculture, Brazil nut plantations, ecotourism, or even oil exploration. These areas, in turn, sometimes overlap with environmental or indigenous community reserves. “At the time, the state agencies did not work together,” José Luis Aguirre, regional president of Madre de Dios, says. This confusion in regulation is conducive to destruction.

Captura de pantalla 2015-09-29 a las 2.28.07 p.m. Captura de pantalla 2015-09-29 a las 2.27.53 p.m.Anthropologist Angélica Almeyda uses satellite images to show how these roughhewn roads have multiplied, going from 4,686 km in 1990 to 11,045 km in 2007.

This is what is happening on the left side of the Interoceanic Highway on the road to Cuzco. This is the buffer zone of the Tambopata reserve, in which some agriculture concessions existed. But the owners made these lands available to the miners, arguing that seeing as in adjacent areas and a vast section on the other side of the road, mining concessions had been issued, therefore they too could lease their land for mining. Thus, little by little, the gold prospectors have settled, and gold fever has spiked as international prices have risen. With a troy ounce being worth $1,900, mines that were unprofitable when the metal was worth less than $500 per ounce five years ago, have been reopened.

The difficulties related to this overlapping were relatively easy to predict and resolve before the road made the clashes worse. Updating the land registry and mapping the information about the various concessions and would have helped a lot. According to Eleonora Silva, director of the Development Bank of Latin America (formerly CAF), this was one of the requisites for the loan for an additional $18 million dollars that her agency made to the Peruvian Government to fund the environmental and social management program.

The resources were invested primarily in clarifying the ownership of the terrains along the road, but this was not enough to solve the problem of overlapping concessions. The local government says that it hopes to do a review of land titles by seniority, provided that these are in accordance with the land use regulations that were recently developed.

Not Enough Money
Critics say that $18 million dollars is not enough to deal with the environmental impact of a project that cost $2.8 billion dollars. A study by the Peruvian organization Environmental Law and Natural Resources (DAR) says that the budget allocated for environmental and social management programs for similar roads, according to regional standards, ranges between 5 and 20 percent of the total cost of the work. In the case of the Interoceanic Highway, it was just 2 percent of the initial budget and, furthermore, construction ended up costing three times more. The regional president Aguirre says that as well as being too little money, the budget “was managed in Lima and little or nothing got to Madre de Dios. The money got lost along the way!”.

According to the DAR publication, the environmental program was designed to mitigate damage rather than promote development. The representative of the Development Bank that provided the money for the environmental management program declined to comment on the report because, she says, DAR did not verify its information with them. She clarified, however, that the bank’s contribution was in accordance with the social and environmental standards, and that the program bolstered, among other things, the administration of protected nature areas and the creation of new areas of this kind. She also said that the environmental program aimed to strengthen the institutional capacity of the national and regional public agencies responsible for management, prevention, and mitigation of indirect environmental and social impact caused by the project. “This was something that was done at all times in dialogue with the regions,” Silva said.

It is important to highlight that when the road was started, Peru did not have an Environment Ministry, and so everything was handled through a department of the Agriculture Ministry that no longer exists. As well, at that time the country was just beginning its process of decentralization. As such, knowing that environmental control and management depends heavily on the efficiency and independence of local government, the Development Bank has been strengthening several programs for governance and political administration for regional leaders through recognized universities in Lima.

A global trend exists to ensure that financiers of roads include provisions in their budgets for direct environmental impact, such as construction waste disposal, the building of suitable bridges over streams, among others, and allocate fewer resources for indirect impacts, such as those described in this report. They presume that deforestation, improper land use, pollution from mining and others, fall within the general responsibilities of the state and are not the domain of an already costly project. However, in Latin America where the countries’ capacities are limited, these kinds of transnational projects of continental importance provide a good opportunity to bring about meaningful change in the territories. Doing things with the minimum budget possible means missed opportunities to make real leaps forward in the development of Latin America.

For two years, Peru has been working on an application for a new loan for $16 million dollars to improve its environmental management, but the process has been bogged down in internal debates over which national agency would manage the resources, and what the role of local governments would be.

Unchecked Logging
Meanwhile unauthorized logging goes unchecked. There is no lack of laws forbidding logging, but with weak or non-existent enforcement and corruption, effectively the regulations only exist on paper. According to Peru’s forestry law, logging concessions may be granted for up to 40,000 hectares and, prior to the road, in Madre de Dios up to 5,000 feet of boards could be shipped out per trip. Now four times this amount has been authorized for removal per trip.

According to local environment officials, this does not mean license for further deforestation, but rather that the measure is linked to other controls that encourage the creation of certified forest areas. In the region, work is done in what are known as “cutting stations.” A concession is divided into a grid of 20 stations, and the concession holder may only cut down trees in one of these stations; 20 years must be allowed to pass before that station may be logged again. It is considered that the forest can recover in that time.

4
Through massive burning, farmers are expanding the agricultural frontier.
5
Without concern for planning or technical criteria, some municipalities take advantage of the road to dispose of their garbage along the highway.

In theory, at least, the model appears to be feasible. In practice, forest management plans are approved in the region, but these are monitored by a national agency that does not have the capacity to oversee from Lima what is going on in Peru’s forests. Furthermore, another agency handles high-value species that are protected under international agreements because of being at risk of extinction, such as mahogany, for example. This system also lacks the resources and staff to handle such a great responsibility.

Efficiency is not the only issue; corruption in Peru’s concession system also hinders protection of the ecosystems. That was the conclusion of an an investigative report by the Environmental Investigation Agency EIA, an international organization allied with CONNECTAS in this series of reports, that fights environmental crime and defends nature. This agency documented about 30 cases, some of them in Madre de Dios, revealing how concessions owners extract wood as if it were being culled from certified forest stations, when in fact it is being taken from other land or nature reserves. Local government officials have confirmed that this practice is going on and that they want to do further inspections of the sites to confirm what sort of wood is being harvested.

Some of the wood that the Peruvian traffickers steal comes from the Bolivian side of the border. Because the border is not actually marked, the loggers go after the best wood, and this causes serious social conflicts. For example, Julio García, deputy governor of the town of Alerta in Peru, was killed in 2008 when he tried to stop a truck that was removing mahogany without permission from the neighboring country (see profile).

With the opening of the Interoceanic Highway, the number of roads that penetrate deeper and deeper into the virgin forest has increased. Anthropologist Angelica Almeyda has been using satellite imagery for her doctoral study on deforestation and infrastructure development in this part of the Amazon, to show how these rudimentary access roads have multiplied, going from 4,686 km in 1990 to 11,045 km in 2007. During the past five years, according to a map by the WWF, growth has been exponential. The opening of the Interoceanic Highway has given rise to a network of arteries on either side. In her studies Almeyda, one of CONNECTAS’s associates for this report, shows that as travel time to get to major population centers is reduced, deforestation increases. These routes also restrict the mobility of the indigenous people native to Madre de Dios who still live there and who shun contact with modern life.

Often damage has been the result of decisions made in Lima without considering the impact on the forest. In 2004 the government allowed logging in the Brazil nut concessions and when the measure repealed in 2007, it was too late, and long swathes along the sides of the road had already been stripped bare. With proper planning and replanting this could have produced different results. Now papayas and oranges are starting to be planted on some of these patches, an activity that has given rise to great expectations.

An official decision made in the late 1980s to give cattle to settler families, to clear forest and raise livestock, had a similar impact. They polished off the forest but then did not thrive because the soil was drained. Now, new settlers are enthusiastic about clearing land for ranching because they see better prospects, with more sophisticated fertilizers and more resistant strains of seeds available, and with the example of their Brazilian neighbors that have transformed huge forests into productive pasture for cattle.

Green Initiatives
Not everything is environmental deterioration and loss in the heart of the Amazon between Bolivia, Peru, and Brazil. In each of the three countries there are examples of how proper forest management has enabled the opening of the road to improve the lives of the people in the region and the countries in general.

In some parts of Bolivia, people are engaged in rational, community logging endeavors. In the town of Soberanía the state gave 26,000 hectares to 50 families to work the forest. The environmental operating plan entailed doing a study to map each tree in the area. Thus, defining the timber that may be harvested, that licenses were paid, and with inspections done on site to ensure that effectively these were the trees that were cut.

Other positive experiences are on the Peruvian side at the border with Brazil, in the town of Iñapari. There, according to information provided by the city, five companies are in charge of 600,000 hectares that have been certified and have ongoing supervision. As well as being the main employers in the region, they have started doing semi-industrial processing of the wood on site. Although fuel must still be used to generate the energy needed for these industrial processes, this will be solved when electricity is available in the area permanently. According to the city, these US and British financiers and Chilean investors, are also exploring the possibility of preserving forest to sell carbon offset bonds on the international market.

In Brazil and Peru, Brazil nut production has proven to be an economic activity in the jungle that can be both profitable and environmentally sustainable. Each year, between December and March, these trees, many of them centuries old, produce a pod containing the rich nut seeds. In the area of Madre de Dios there are over 1,200 Brazil nut concessions runs mainly by families from the region. The year 2005, for example, was very good for this activity, because Peru exported $18 million dollars’ worth of these nuts from the Amazon. The road makes the business even more profitable by lowering transport costs and making it easier to get the product to market. And while production grows, the forest remains intact, because preserving the Brazil nut trees also protects the surrounding woods. In addition, several producers have become socially and politically active.

Old-style production of natural latex from the rubber tree, which had been given up when synthetic materials appeared on the market, has been revived in all three countries. This is another product that could be profitable and sustainable in the jungle. Communities in forest reserves, such as Manuripi in Bolivia, have started using new technology that allows them to produce a better quality product without damaging the trees. In Peru, the road has brought back French investors who are interested in producing rubber and selling it internationally as a green product, certifying that by buying this product one is supporting an economic activity that protects the Amazon.

Although Brazil nuts and rubber are sustainable Amazon products that now have tremendous commercial potential because of the Interoceanic Highway, they are receiving very little official support. If the governments were to help market these nuts internationally, emphasizing how they contribute to the conservation of the planet’s biggest rainforest, the producers could command higher prices and achieve greater stability because prices for this product vary between $2.00 and $9.00 per kilogram.

Ecotourism is another possibility for sustainable development, which is growing by leaps and bounds. Every day five flights, bringing an average of 350 people, mostly foreign tourists, land at the airport in Puerto Maldonado, Peru. In October 2010 British rock legend Mick Jagger visited, and that news attracted even more tourists.

Other visitors take the new road from Cuzco to the jungle port, and 16 buses cover this route each week. However, there is still much room for growth, given that most of the Brazilians tourists who go through Puerto Maldonado are just passing through en route to the ruins of Machu Picchu and the beautiful Inca city of Cuzco, and many of the foreigners who arrive in Puerto Maldonado by plane go directly to their lodgings in the jungle and spend little time or money in the town.

The road that connects the three countries could be a boon for economic development and, although it sounds paradoxical, a good excuse to improve environmental management and forest protection. But it requires better regulation, more resources, and greater vision to develop the right kind of initiatives.

The regional president of Madre de Dios, José Luis Aguirre is not optimistic. He says that there are too many stakeholders — the miners prevent judges and prosecutors from protecting the delicate environment– and furthermore the central government has abandoned them to their fate. “I feel desperate, haunted,” he says, “If real impetus and strategic financial support is not forthcoming, we will be overrun by the criminals operating here. I am thinking about putting out an international call to save Madre de Dios.” Hopefully his plea, recorded here, will resonate abroad.


This article is part of the special report The Amazon Opens Up” by CONNECTAS. To read the full report click here.

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