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A railroad that crosses the Amazon could be an infeasible, expensive dream for Peru

  • It’s hard to tell how expensive the railroad project would be, because many details of the $10 billion project are still unclear.
  • There’s plenty of need for better transportation in South America, and throughout the Amazon people are pressuring local governments to build roads.
  • If the feasibility study determines that the railroad is too complicated or costly, it could join similar projects which were launched with fanfare and then quietly tabled indefinitely.
Illegal gold miners have benefited most from the Interoceánica Sur highway, according to researchers. Photo courtesy of Barbara Fraser.

Pedro López Macusi recalls the day in 2013 when a boatload of government officials moored at his village on the Urituyacu River, a remote waterway in the northeastern Peruvian Amazon, and told him how wonderful the train would be.

A railroad would cross the community’s land and continue to the coast, opening up a new world to these Urarina people living in the cluster of pole-and-thatch houses built on stilts to rise above the seasonal floodwaters in this roadless world of forests and rivers.

The visitors said there would be electricity and transportation to take products to markets. There would be a hospital and a new school, made of brick, not wood. They would build a bridge just upstream from the community, so the train could cross the river. They would clear a path 100 meters wide through the forest. They would hire local workers. There would be jobs for community president López Macusi and his neighbors.

“Do you know what a railroad is, what a train is?” asks the Rev. Miguel Ángel Cadenas, a Spanish Augustinian priest who is visiting the community.

“No, padre,” López replies softly.

The nearest railroad is thousands of kilometers away, high in the Andes. For the families in San Luis, who are four days by boat from the nearest city, it might as well be on another planet.

The dream of a railroad across the Amazon —which dates back at least a century— has never materialized, but refuses to die. It revives periodically, most recently last year when Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang visited Brazil, Peru, Colombia and Chile and announced that his country would finance a rail line connecting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

But whether it will make it to the first whistle stop, is anybody’s guess.

“There are reasons to believe that at least China and Brazil may want to think twice about it, given the economic slowdown in both countries,” Paulina Garzón, director of the China-Latin America Sustainable Investments Initiative, told Mongabay in an email. “The kind of questions that people are asking are: does China still have the funds to finance this monumental project? And, if it does, will Brazil have the funds to pay it back?”

The idea of a railroad across the Amazon dates back to the early 20th century, to the disastrous attempt to build the Madeira-Mamoré railroad in Brazil, near the border with Bolivia, to carry rubber shipments around waterfalls to the navigable part of the Madeira River.

Thousands of workers died in what geographer Susanna Hecht of the University of California-Los Angeles describes in her book, Scramble for the Amazon, as a “lethal trench that rivaled the Panama Canal as a death maw.”

A 21st-century construction project might not be as hazardous, but it is still likely to have a high cost.

“If we can put a man on the moon, we can build a railroad across the Amazon, but it will probably turn out to be way more expensive than people think,” says Stephan Schwartzman, senior director of tropical forestry policy at the Environmental Defense Fund in Washington, D.C.

Even the route is a question mark. Railroad plans floated by the Initiative for Integration of Regional Infrastructure in South America (IIRSA) would run from Brazil across Argentina to the Chilean coast, or across Bolivia to the southern Peruvian coast.

The route described to López Macusi, which would pass through San Luis, is one of several plans touted by the regional government of Loreto, Peru’s largest and most densely forested Amazonian region.

A China-backed route apparently would sideline Loreto. It would start at Campinorte, in the Brazilian state of Goiás, where it would link with an existing rail line to the Atlantic coast. From there, it would head west across the states of Mato Grosso, Rondônia and Acre, to cross the border into Peru.

Some maps show it cutting through southern Peru, crossing the Andes, and ending at the Pacific port of Matarani on the southern coast. Peruvian officials, however, have announced that it would begin at the Pacific port of Bayóvar —the site of a large phosphate mine partly owned by the Brazilian mining company, Vale— and then cross the Andes at a lower pass, follow the route of an existing highway along the Huallaga Valley south to Pucallpa, and cross the border to the Brazilian town of Cruzeiro do Sul in Acre.

After the Chinese premier’s visit, Bolivia protested that the route would eliminate that landlocked country, unlike an earlier scheme, which would have connected it to a Pacific port in Peru. He has sought Germany’s support for a rail line that would pass through Bolivia.

Government officials in Ucayali are enthusiastic about the route through their region.

The railroad “would launch the region’s economy,” says Luis Briceño, general manager of the Ucayali regional government, who envisions Pucallpa, a city of more than 300,000 people, becoming an Amazonian development hub. 

The region’s entrepreneurs would package and ship timber and wood products, cacao, and the huge fish known in Peru as paiche (Arapaima gigas) and other products harvested from the biodiverse Amazonian forest, Briceño says.

The Ucayali regional government is already talking with officials of other regions along the route about joint efforts to make the most of the railroad. One of the Chinese engineering companies has flown over the Peruvian-Brazilian border to look at the terrain, Briceño says.

Some environmentalists and indigenous leaders worry that the railroad could open up the sparsely populated and highly biodiverse expanse of dense forest along the border to loggers, settlers, and land speculators.

Unless access is controlled and land rights are clear, “you are likely to get more deforestation and conflict over land,” Schwartzman says.

That border also is home to isolated indigenous people, groups that avoid contact with the outside world. Most are descendants of people who fled deep into the forest to escape abuse by loggers or rubber barons a century ago. Because of their long isolation, these groups lack resistance to common diseases such as influenza. Indigenous leaders fear that any project that could bring outsiders closer to those groups could have disastrous consequences.

Environmental safeguards will be crucial, Briceño says, especially around the newly established Sierra del Divisor National Park. Still, he says, a railroad would be less destructive than another infrastructure project, a road from Pucallpa in Peru to the Brazilian city of Cruzeiro do Sul that was under discussion a few years ago.

That depends on how you calculate, according to Manuel Glave, director of GRADE, a social sciences think tank in Lima. A purely economic study by GRADE researchers of just a link between those two cities gave a road an edge over a rail line. The railroad ranked better once social and environmental impacts were considered.

“But in neither case was the project profitable,” Glave says. 

Light traffic on the bridge at the Peruvian-Brazilian border reflects the lack of commercial trade along the coast-to-coast Interoceánica Sur highway. Photo courtesy of Barbara Fraser.

For Garzón, that raises a question.

“Is this railroad really necessary?” she asks. “The most probable answer is no.”

There’s plenty of need for better transportation in South America, and throughout the Amazon people are pressuring local governments to build roads, but Garzón notes that there are already other plans for linking the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

A project to dredge parts of the Ucayali, Huallaga and Marañón Rivers —Amazon headwaters— to make them navigable farther upstream and link them to highways that lead to the Pacific coast, is likely to go out on bid in the first half of this year. In southern Peru, branches of the Interoceanic Highway begin at two ports, climb the Andes, pass through the cities of Puno and Cusco, then wind downhill from tundra-like mountaintops through cloud forest to the Amazonian plain, merging before crossing into Brazil.

For a railroad between Pucallpa and Cruzeiro do Sul to be profitable, Glave says, it would have to siphon about 70 percent of the traffic from that southern route.

The paving of the Interoceanic Highway has revolutionized travel between the Amazonian city of Puerto Maldonado and Cusco. The trip, which used to take weeks in the rainy season, riding in the back of trucks that sank into sticky Amazonian mud, can now be completed in about 10 hours.

Further along the road, the southern Interoceanic Highway was meant to spur trade between Peru and Brazil. A decade ago, advocates of the paving —completed in 2010— envisioned long lines of trucks crossing the bridge at the border, laden with Peruvian potatoes heading for Brazilian tables and Brazilian soy destined for China.

That commerce never materialized. The only industry really benefiting from the paved highway is the unregulated gold mining that is expanding in the Madre de Dios region, according to Rafael Rojas of the University of Florida, who is working with Peruvian researchers on a study of the road’s economic impact.

A memorandum of understanding signed by government officials from China, Brazil and Peru in May 2015 calls for China to complete engineering feasibility studies of the cross-continental railroad to Pucallpa by May. Environmental impact studies are left up to Brazil and Peru.

If the feasibility study determines that the railroad is too complicated or costly, it could join similar projects once slated for Colombia and Venezuela, which were launched with fanfare and then quietly tabled indefinitely.

That doesn’t mean it won’t happen, however. China is casting abroad for projects that can absorb its surplus of steel and labor, says Margaret Myers, director of the China and Latin America program at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C.

But some observers note that Brazil may not look kindly on an influx of foreign laborers during an economic downturn. Meanwhile, Brazil’s largest construction companies are mired in a corruption scandal that has tainted President Dilma Rousseff’s government and made some wonder whether she will finish her term.

Now that the initial excitement has passed and the memory of Li Keqiang’s visit is fading into perspective, people in Peru are speaking of the cross-continental railroad in more cautious terms. Without Chinese financing, Briceño notes, the project is unlikely to get off the drawing board.

If that’s the case, in the tiny indigenous village of San Luis, Pedro López Macusi may have a long wait before he sees a train.

A map showing the proposed railway across the Amazon. Courtesy of The Economist.