Chinese demand drives road-building and deforestation in the Amazon
Paving the Amazon rainforest to bring soybeans to China
Asphalt and Soya Dreams: Two Oceans, Two Countries and the Transoceanica
Tina Butler, mongabay.com
April 17, 2005
The state of Madre de Dios in southeastern Peru is home to mountainous cloud forests and low-lying rainforests containing the richest biodiversity on Earth. It may also soon be home to a transcontinental highway. If all goes according to plan and schedule, by June 2006, there will be an asphalt road connecting Sao Paulo to Lima, and more importantly, the Pacific Peruvian ports of Matarini, Ilo and San Juan. The east-west Carretera Transoceanica -- "transoceanic highway" -- as the project is called, is viewed as a long-awaited and close to finalized dream for proponents, namely the Peruvian and Brazilian governments, agricultural groups and local residents, and as a nightmare for environmentalists.
The big push to reach the Peruvian ports is the economic allure of the Asian market. Brazil already sends 18 percent of its exports to Asia, with this figure likely to increase at a rapid rate. China is literally inhaling soybeans from Brazilian soya farms in the country's central and western areas, especially in the state of Mato Grosso. These former rainforest regions are increasingly being converted into farmland, all to supply the growing Asian demand, particularly with China's exploding urban population.
Recently, Brazilian president,Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva led a delegation of several government representatives and hundreds of business leaders to China to encourage closer ties. After five days of talks on trade and diplomacy, a growing alliance was in the works. Brazil will supply the goods China requires and in return, China's companies are positioning themselves to provide capital to help Brazil achieve massive expansion in its crumbling road, rail and port infrastructures. The Chinese interest is not limited to Brazil however, and this is where Peru, the Transoceanica and the controversy come in.
Those welcoming the highway argue for the sake of economics. Construction of the road is expected to provide close to 20,000 jobs in Peru and once the highway is operational, businesses and even more job opportunities should open up in one of the country's poorest and remote areas in the Andes and the rainforest. Traffic from the Transoceanica should also encourage investment in Peru's inefficient and rundown ports, with a strong chance of economic backing by China.
In Brazil, development is occurring much more quickly than in its neighbor, but once Peru gets its pavement, this imbalance is likely to shift. Linking to the Pacific is of such great importance to Brazil that the country has offered to help Peru finance this section of the highway, putting up $420 million of the $892 million cost. This willingness to sponsor the road construction reflects the potential economic gains to a country which has emerged as the key supplier of food to China. Brazil's economy has surged this year, with agricultural produce accounting for more than 40 percent of exports. The goal of this road is to strengthen and enhance the link to the Asian market, transporting exports of beef, wood and wood pulp, soya and in the future, manufactured goods. Again this appears to be an irresistible opportunity for all those on the side of the road to advance economic opportunity for Peru.
On the paved Brazilian side of the Transoceanica, the impact of the road is quite visible, even from the air. On either side of the thoroughfare, forest is cleared anywhere from a few hundred yards to miles of farmland extending away from the highway. Roadside towns are expanding, secondary roads branch off from the highway; everywhere one looks, significant signs of development, and deforestation, are apparent. And this is exactly what opponents of the Transoceanica, namely environmentalists, are afraid of happening on the Peruvian side.
For the environmentalists, the Brazilian side of the Transoceanica is a sad precursor to what will happen in Peru, and not just any old land, but some of the most environmentally precious and unique land on Earth. According to many, while the road will bring profitable development to the area, development will hurt Madre de Dios more than it helps. Roadways alter patterns of human settlement, accelerate the destruction of natural habitat and aid in the transmittal of disease. Alfredo Garcia, an anthropologist in the state's capital of Puerto Maldonado, believes the highway will bring many problems to local indigenous peoples, including displacement and acculturation. Further, black-market drug activity and prostitution will likely increase among other ills.
Another activity that will undoubtedly increase is illegal logging, as secondary roads are constructed and eager workers descend on the newly accessible and mahogany-rich forest areas. The consistent depression in world gold prices, a former top commodity export for Brazil, has resulted in a newfound interest in the highly-valued hardwood. More than half the state is federally protected through three national parks and a nature preserve and an additional quarter of the land is owned by indigenous communities and Brazil nut harvesters. There is not much legal mahogany to go around, so woodcutters are trespassing on federal land, creating illegal logging camps. And the few environmental enforcement officers have proven to be easily corruptible and readily shirk their responsibilities with the right amount of economic incentive.
The concerns of the environmentalists are valid. Peru is currently bearing witness to its future simply by looking across the border to Brazil. And further back in history, Brazil has seen its own repercussions from roads. Several ill-advised World Bank-sponsored road and agricultural projects have had environmentally devastating results. Destruction of the rainforest in Brazil has accelerated since 1970, coinciding with the construction of the Trans-Amazonian highway. 4,892,700 acres (2,016,400 hectares) are lost annually and another 2,718,160 acres (1,100,000 hectares) are degraded by logging beneath the canopy. Peru's current deforestation rates are an estimated 716,000 acres (290,000 hectares) per year. More importantly, Peru has a smaller area of forest and some of the highest levels of biodiversity in the world, so the threat is that much more immediate and profound.
Regardless of this very real environmental peril, the disputes between various parties regarding the Transoceanica project persist as each side holds fast to their beliefs. Brazil's farming lobbies dismiss critics of the highway, stating concerns and objections are "ill-advised" and only "serving the interests of countries competing with Brazil in the export markets."
Other government bodies are more sympathetic, but do not see any other viable mode of propelling development and economic stability. Puerto Maldonado mill operator Alan Schipper Guerovitch claims opposition to the road is short-sighted because it leaves the country in a position where there is no way to develop, no possibility of growth. He told National Geographic correspondent Ted Conover, "I ask you, what nation in the world can sustain its people on only 20 percent of its resources? In a less developed country you need to produce something the world really wants, and what the world really wants now is mahogany." Guerovitch's statement, while specific to his own problematic logging practices, is pertinent to the larger issue at hand.
With the heady economic importance of the highway in mind, there are other rifts between people regarding the Transoceanica. Back in 2003, two main routes were being discussed, with a possible third option in mind and a fierce competition broke out internally in Peru. The two states of Puno and Cusco became rivals, wrangling for a piece of the highway and its economic promise, resulting in clashes between residents, a brief takeover of local governments and even a few road surveyor officials being taken hostage. It seems everyone has a stake in the dream, regardless of the environmental cost.
The Transoceanica is being viewed by many as South America's infrastructure project of the century. Whichever side an individual or group is on, there is no denying the significant impact the highway will have on all the nations involved. Brazil has the opportunity to grow even more, Peru simply wants the same chance for Brazil's economic success and China desires access to South America's growing agricultural basket. Will the enviromental concerns be lost in the wake of the excitement surrounding the final achievement of this long-awaited road? Given China's reportedly illegal and environmentally detrimental activity in other parts of the world, opening Peru up to this market seems even more inadvisable. But the promise of wealth is too seductive to resist.
Booming Soybean Business Means Continued Deforestation in the Amazon
Deforestation in the Amazon
Modern Day Slavery in Brazil
Deforestation & Infrastructure Projects in the Amazon Rainforest
News index | RSS | News Feed
Organic Apparel from Patagonia | Insect-repelling clothing