o f f th e beaten track
In the remote Peruvian Amazon, the Tambopata National Reserve has existed for 20 years, resulting in incredible biodiversity, land rights for local tribal peoples and a boom in ecotourism. But there are fears that the new Interoceanic Highway, which bisects the rainforest just a few kilometres from the reserve, will lead to its ruin, writes Graeme Gourlay
When the president of Peru, Alan García Perez, opens the vast bridge across the Madre de Dios River at Puerto Maldonado this month, one of the final gaps in the Interoceanic Highway, which will connect the heart of the Amazon Basin with the Pacific ports of Peru, will be closed.
The bridge spans 722 metres and is one of the most imposing engineering feats in a project that has taken more than a generation to complete, cost US$1.6billion and involved the construction of 21 other large bridges. Heavy lorries will now be able to drive the 2,000 kilometres from the metropolis of Manaus – the largest city in northern Brazil – to the Pacific ports of Ilo, Matarani and Marcona. And, via Brazil’s existing road network, the Atlantic will be joined to the Pacific.
Rather than this final link spanning a ravine in the Andes, or crossing the coastal desert, it’s bang in the middle of one of the Amazon’s richest biodiversity hotspots and, at its nearest point, less than 15 kilometres from Tambopata National Reserve in the southeast corner of Peru. Today, most people fly into the jungle city of Puerto Maldonado from Cusco, an hour-long hop. If you wanted to go by road, assuming it was open, it could take ten days to make the same journey down from high in the Peruvian Andes; on the new highway, it will now be a 12-hour coach trip.
The highway was partially funded by China, and the world’s most populous nation will be the destination for the raw materials that will pour out of this once-isolated region. This year, China overtook the USA as Peru’s largest export market.
‘The highway is terrifyingly close,’ says César Lazo, a 33-year-old nature guide who works for a special body set up to protect the area between the park and the road. ‘It is going to change this area in ways we can only guess about. We have already seen a band 50 kilometres wide along each side of the highway that has been severely affected. It is called the fishbone effect – as the road is completed, tracks and paths start to spread out into the jungle, and along them spread illegal miners, loggers, developers and lots of other people. They spread into the forest and it is quickly destroyed.’
56 www.geographical.co.uk december 2010
A dirt road – ready to be paved as part of the Interoceanic Highway – slices through virgin Amazon rainforest. The highway connects the Pacific ports of southern Peru with Manaus in the Brazilian Amazon, thus joining Brazil’s existing road network to provide a link to the cities of South America’s Atlantic coast