Asphalt and Soya Dreams: Two Oceans, Two Countries and the Transoceanica
Chinese economy drives road-building and deforestation in the Amazon
Paving the Amazon rainforest to bring soybeans to China
Tina Butler,
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.

Rainforest in the Peruvian Amazon
The main reason for the road is the inefficient trajectory raw materials and products currently must take in order to get to port. At present, goods from Brazil must be transported to Atlantic ports to be shipped or trucked across two countries, Argentina and Chile, to Chilean ports on the Pacific. The Transoceanica would significantly reduce transport times going out of Brazil and increase the supply as well as its quality.

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.

Brazil has big plans for expansion in order to keep supplying this lucrative market. The agricultural minister, Roberto Rodrigues, has said there is another 90 million hectares available for planting, a significant increase over the current 62 million hectares being used for agriculture in Mato Grosso. In addition to soya, cattle ranching is also a leading use of land in the state.

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.

Roads in the rainforest typically result in significant deforestation from colonists and commercial developers. The Trans-Amazonian Highway was one of the most environmentally destructive projects ever in the Amazon basin.
There are already dirt roads running through the Madre de Dios and emigrants from the impoverished highlands come to work in the resource-rich area. Road officials anticipate an approximate daily flow of 400 40-ton trucks from Brazil. Many environmentalists fear that with the trucks will come settlers, ready to clear forest and expand the farm belt.

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.

This attitude of development over preservation can be recognized at all levels, all the way up to the president of Peru. President Toledo's low popularity ratings have increased the pressure to stimulate economic growth and he has stressed the Transoceanica's potential to bring jobs and trade to an impoverished region. At the August 11, 2004 inauguration of the construction of the Acre River bridge connecting the border towns of Assis, Brazil and Inapari, Peru, Brazilian President da Silva spoke to an enthusiastic audience, "We'll generate more economic activity. We'll generate more wealth. We'll generate more development." This comment prompted applause from local residents who care far more about jobs and their economic well-being than protecting the rainforest. Judging their audience accurately, both presidents barely mentioned environmental protection during the ceremony.

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 environmental 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.


Deforestation in the Amazon

Brazil to use body-heat sensing technology to find uncontacted Amazon tribes
(11/19/2008) Brazil will use a plane equipped with body-heat sensing technology to locate tribes in the Amazon rainforest, reports the Associated Press.

California joins effort to fight global warming by saving rainforests
(11/19/2008) California has joined the battle to fight global warming through rainforest conservation. In an agreement signed yesterday at a climate change conference in Beverly Hills, California, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger pledged financial assistance and technical support to help reduce deforestation in Brazil and Indonesia. The Memorandum of Understanding commits the California, Illinois and Wisconsin to work with the governors of six states and provinces within Indonesia and Brazil to help slow and stop tropical deforestation, a source of roughly 20 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Illegal drug use destroys rainforests
(11/18/2008) Colombian officials have re-iterated their claim that cocaine use in rich countries is driving deforestation in Colombia, reports The Guardian.

Brazil OKs $4 billion dam in the Amazon rainforest
(11/13/2008) Brazil has given final go-ahead on a controversial dam on the Madeira river in the Amazon rainforest provided environmental conditions are met, reports the Associated Press.

Brazilian rancher claims he owns land American nun was killed defending in the Amazon
(11/12/2008) The rancher suspected or orchestrating the killing of an American nun in the Brazilian Amazon now claims he owns the land she died trying to defend, reports the Associated Press (AP).

Brazil triples endangered species list
(11/5/2008) Brazil has nearly tripled the number of species on its endangered list due to development, overfishing, pollution, wildlife trafficking and deforestation, reports the Associated Press.

Brazil charges 81 with illegal Amazon deforestation
(11/2/2008) Brazil will file charges against 81 people accused of being the biggest destroyers of the Amazon rainforest, reports the Associated Press.

Wal-mart mulling contribution to Brazil's Amazon rainforest fund
(10/26/2008) Wal-mart may contribute to Brazil's fund for conserving the Amazon rainforest, said Brazilian Environment Minister Carlos Minc.

Peru's uncontacted Amazon tribes under attack
(10/22/2008) Illegal logging in the Peruvian Amazon is driving uncontacted tribes into Brazil where they are in conflict over food and resources with other uncontacted groups, according to a Reuters interview with a leading expert on indigenous tribes.

Rainforest biodiversity results from habitat specialization rather than chance
(10/22/2008) The rich diversity of trees in tropical forests may be "the result of subtle strategies that allow each species to occupy its own ecological niche" rather than random dispersal, report researchers writing in the journal Science.

Peru gets $25M in debt relief to fund rainforest conservation
(10/22/2008) The U.S. government has agreed to forgive $25 million of Peru's debt in exchange for protecting the country's tropical forests, according to a statement released Monday by the State Department.

Brazil to have high resolution imagery for 86% of the Amazon by year end
(10/15/2008) Brazil will have high resolution imagery for 86 percent of its Amazon territory by the end of the year, according to Reuters. The images will help the country protect the Amazon rainforest and prosecute alleged environmental crimes, including illegal logging and agricultural expansion.

UK government: rainforests are weapon against global warming
(10/15/2008) Protecting tropical forests will simultaneously reduce carbon emissions, support poverty reduction and help preserve biodiversity and other forest services, says a new report commissioned by the British government. The report — dubbed the "Eliasch Review" after the lead author, Johan Eliasch, a multimillionaire Swede who runs a sports equipment company and owns 162,000 hectares (400,000 acres) of rainforest in the Brazilian Amazon — takes a comprehensive look at the role forests can play in mitigating climate change. It concludes: "Urgent action to tackle the loss of global forests needs to be a central part of any future international deal on climate change"

Ecuador's plan to protect rainforest from oil drilling looks doomed
(10/9/2008) Ecuador's proposal to protect one of the world's most biodiverse rainforests from oil development has failed to secure any funding ahead at its December deadline, reports the Guardian Unlimited.

Ecuador's Choco under siege, but hope remains
(10/9/2008) The Chocó, a region of humid tropical forest in western Colombia and northwestern Ecuador, is one of the world's biodiversity hotspots with high levels of endemic species but large-scale habitat loss. The situation is particularly dire in Ecuador where more than 90 percent of the Chocó has been cleared for agriculture. But hope is not lost. A dedicated team of researchers is working with local communities to ensure that Chocó will be around for future generations.

Chevron loses attempt to reduce payment in suit by Amazon rainforest natives
(10/8/2008) Chevron lost its attempt to force arbitration in a case in which it could be liable for billions of dollars to pay for cleaning up damages to the Amazon rainforest in eastern Ecuador.

Slowing global economy will reduce Amazon deforestation
(10/8/2008) The global financial crisis will likely slow forest clearing in the Amazon rainforest, said Brazil's environment minister. Falling commodity prices combined with tighter credit and increased aversion to risk will undermine the economics of activities — including logging and agricultural expansion — that are key drivers of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon. Forest clearing in the region has shown an increasingly tight correlation to beef and soy prices in recent years. Both products are produced on cleared rainforest lands.

Indigenous people demand greater say in using forests to fight global warming
(10/8/2008) Indigenous leaders renewed their call for greater say in how tropical forests are managed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, according to AFP.

Anti-NGO rhetoric in Brazil a response to environmental criticism says environment minister
(10/8/2008) Accusations against foreign environmental groups operating in the Brazilian Amazon are "exaggerated" to deflect criticism on high deforestation rates in the region said Brazil's environment minister at a summit in Brasilia.

Forest corridors key to maintaining biodiversity in fragmented landscape
(10/7/2008) Alta Floresta, a region in the Brazilian Amazon state of Mato Grosso, has experienced one of the highest deforestation rates on the planet since the mid-1980s due to the influx of colonists and ranchers who converted nearly half the region's forest land to pasture and agricultural plots. The change has had significant ecological impacts, including reducing the availability of water, increasing the incidence of forest fires, fragmenting remaining forest cover, and diminishing the quality of habitat for wildlife.

Tina Butler, (April 17, 2005).

Chinese economy drives road-building and deforestation in the Amazon.