Photograph by Rodrigo Abd, AP
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A road cuts through an area deforested by illegal gold mining in the Madre de Dios province of Peru. A plan to build another major road in the area is dividing the country.

Photograph by Rodrigo Abd, AP

Isolated Tribes and Forests Threatened by New Amazon Road

Communities in Peru are opposing a major development project approved by their central government.

A new road could soon slice through a large portion of the otherwise impenetrable rainforests blanketing Peru’s eastern border. Long a contentious proposition, the road was publicly declared “a national priority” and “in the national interest” by the country’s congress in January.

Perhaps ironically, the measure passed almost immediately after Pope Francis visited the Peruvian Amazon and spoke strongly against the dangers of development, telling indigenous leaders that they have "never been so threatened in their territories as they are now.”

Now, environmental and local activists are marshaling support to defeat the proposed project before any trees are cleared or pavement laid. Opponents worry the road will bring unregulated development to protected areas, threaten the lives of indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation, trample the rights of native communities, and invite drug and timber traffickers to the area.

“Once you give access to a place, then there is no stopping the illegal activity,” says Patricia León Melgar, the World Wildlife Fund’s CEO in Peru. “The Interoceanic Highway was supposed to bring trade and tourism to the country by connecting the Atlantic and Pacific. But the projections of trade didn’t happen, the projections of tourism didn’t happen, and something not projected—the complete destruction of 10 percent of [the Amazonian region of] Madre de Dios—happened.”

Related: Tracking Frogs in the Amazon

Purús Road

The new road would skim the country’s eastern border with Brazil, running through the regions of Ucayali and Madre de Dios. As envisioned, the 172-mile stretch would connect the Purús provincial capital of Puerto Esperanza in the north to the town of Iñapari in the south. There, it would link up with the continent-spanning Interoceanic Highway, the largest paved artery bisecting the region’s rainforest.

For now, though, Purús is an isolated province.

“Purús has never had a road even coming close to it,” says Eduardo Salazar, who studies sustainable development in the area. “It is currently only accessible by plane or boat.”

During the last year, internecine political battles over the road have left the country’s citizens confused and clamoring to be heard. Peruvian congressman Glider Ushñahua Huasanga proposed the project in April, ostensibly because it would jumpstart economic development for a region that is otherwise disconnected from reliable means of transportation, trade, and tourism.

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Pope Francis arrives in Puerto Maldonado in the Amazon in the Madre de Dios province, Peru, to meet with several thousand indigenous people. The pope called the Amazon "the lungs of our planet" and said native rights must be respected.

In December, the Peruvian congress approved the bill; the government passed it into law in January. Yet, although the congress has approved the project, several of the government’s ministries—notably the Ministries of Culture and Environment—actively oppose it. As well, several pieces of counter-legislation have been introduced, and numerous organizations promoting the rights of Peru’s indigenous people are speaking strongly against the proposed project, with the intention to protest the bill and any eventual construction.

In the road’s way are not only four national parks, but five areas set aside for indigenous groups living in voluntary isolation—most commonly referred to as “uncontacted tribes”—and numerous native communities sprinkled throughout the vast Amazonian basin that are struggling to obtain rights to their lands.

“The ‘national interest’ cannot be prioritized over fundamental rights of people in voluntary isolation and initial contact, nor those of local communities,” says Ruth Buendía, a native Asháninka.

Lessons Learned?

That isolated native communities could benefit from increased connectivity and commerce is an easy argument to make in Peru’s remote jungle areas. In fact, the same thing happened recently in Madre de Dios, a region in Peru’s southeast that earned its name because early settlers found its tangled jungles, raging rivers, and hellish temperatures so unbearable they thought only the holy could survive.

There, in addition to the behemoth highway, a somewhat analogous situation is slowly unfolding along the Alto Madre de Dios river, which runs between the country’s famed Manu National Park—one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet—and the Amarakaeri communal reserve. In the buffer zones between those protected areas, a road is slowly being built.

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Ruth Buendía, a native Asháninka, and her children visit the Meteni community in Rio Ene, Peru. Buendía advocates on behalf of indigenous people in the region.

Originally planned to connect the port of Nuevo Edén with the Colorado gold mining area, the road was pushed through by local government officials who campaigned for support by promising communities an end to the impoverishment that isolation brings. Cheaper, quicker, and safer access means better government services, a faster trip to the agricultural markets in Cusco, improved infrastructure, and stronger relationships with government officials.

“The vast majority of people on the ground, indigenous Amazonians and Andean settlers alike, express their support for the road, and quite adamantly so,” says Salazar, who studied the reactions of the local communities while in graduate school at the University of Edinburgh. “Living conditions in these communities are quite dire and it is easy to see why they would go for anything that sounds like it might improve their lives, no matter how risky.”

But those promises weren’t realized. In late 2015, road construction mostly stalled somewhere near the town of Boca Manu. Now, lacking the bridges needed to truly transport goods and people back and forth, the unpaved path is predominantly used by illegal loggers and drug runners.

“The road is intensely used by loggers, especially in the newer stretch beyond Nuevo Edén,” Salazar says.

And community members hoping for an influx of tourists or agricultural trade have instead encountered strangers on their lands and an increase in illegal trafficking that could lead to violence.

If that sounds bad, Buendía, a winner of the Goldman Environmental Prize, argues that the situation in Ucayali will be even worse than in Madre de Dios.

“The forest area and the number of indigenous peoples affected would be much larger, since many will be displaced, or will die from diseases, especially the [indigenous groups living in isolation],” says Buendía, who works with the Interethnic Association for the Development of the Peruvian Jungle. “Their territories will be invaded and violence and illegal mafias will thrive.”

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Asháninka men float logged trees down the Putaya River, near the hamlet of Saweto, Peru.

Native Destruction

It wouldn’t be the first time natives have suffered at the hands of settlers, historically or even recently. Columbian conquest aside, in 2014, four Asháninka men were killed by illegal loggers they’d encountered on their territory. One of them, Edwin Chota, was a prominent anti-logging activist, but it isn’t clear whether the killings were accidental or in retaliation for ongoing battles over land use.

It’s the kind of bloodshed Buendía worries will become more common as previously inaccessible forests are opened.

“These crimes in the Amazon are something we are really worried about since they go unpunished,” Buendía says. “The government doesn’t protect the guardians of the forest and doesn´t look after indigenous peoples’ rights.”

As well, the Ucayali region is home to several indigenous groups that have purposefully shunned contact with the outside world for centuries, including the Isconahua, Murunahua, and Mashco Piro, who have just begun emerging from the forest for reasons that are still mysterious.

Buendía and others worry that encounters with outsiders could be fatal to these isolated people—not only because of outright violence, but because isolated immune systems are often ill-adapted to deal with diseases like the flu, common cold, or measles, some of which could inadvertently wipe out an entire tribe.

At the same time, hundreds of communities along the road’s projected path are still going through the process of gaining rights to the land they have historically lived on.

“Eleven percent of the Ucayali population is native indigenous people, but for centuries they have been denied the right of recognition of their lands,” León says. In the last 14 months, the WWF has helped 142 communities obtain the rights to their land—but 700 more are still waiting for government recognition.

“So when they say ‘oh yeah, let’s build highways on the eastern border to bring development,’ it’s completely ignoring the rights of the indigenous people to their lands,” León says. “Because if you haven’t been recognized you don’t exist.”

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A boat on the Madre de Dios river in Peru.

Environmental Destruction

Another concern is for the delicate forest ecosystems in the region, which—again, if history repeats itself—will succumb to unchecked development. Though the Peruvian government has only approved the construction of a primary road, it’s quite likely the illegally built secondary roads will follow.

“Building a road is not bad, per se,” León says. “Compare Yellowstone National Park, where the road built is respected—it stays there—and you have an ideal world. But in Brazil, for every kilometer of federal highway in the Amazon, there are 8 kilometers (5 miles) of illegal roads that spring from it.”

Those roads, as well as people desiring to settle the newly opened land, could ultimately lead to the destruction of forests, as has been seen not only in Brazil but around the Interoceanic Highway in the Peruvian south. One projection of the amount of forest this new road could jeopardize, calculated by Amazon Conservation's Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project, foretells the possible destruction of at least 680,000 acres of primary rainforest.

The group produced that number by studying satellite images of the lands bordering Peru’s segment of the Interoceanic Highway and tallying up how many acres had been cleared since the road’s construction. It found that most deforestation tends to occur within 5 kilometers (3 miles) of the road itself—and that it all adds up, especially along a road of that length (a different group reached similar conclusions after studying Brazilian roads and associated deforestation).

“On one hand I would call it an underestimate because the 5 kilometer-radius is conservative,” says Matt Finer, a research specialist with the organization Amazon Conservation. “On the other hand, it could be an overestimate because the Interoceanic is a major connection highway between Peru and Brazil. So in the end it washes out as a plausible rough estimate.”

Most troubling, though, is the overall landscape of inefficient governance. Without proper oversight, placing a road through Ucayali could open up a wild, wild west where anything goes and the law of the land is not necessarily what’s written in the books. If areas farther south are any indication, that means an influx of illegal gold mining, which has transformed such vast amounts of previously pristine rainforest into malignant, strangely colored cesspools of toxic destruction that are visible from space.

“Peruvian institutional weakness is a great concern,” says Patricio Zanabria, who works with SePeru. “A weak government could not manage a road like we have in Manu.“