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The Andean republics of the Pan Amazon

Drone photograph of Atalaya over the main road into town. In less than 10 years, Atalaya has gone from a single main dirt road to a booming frontier town driven by logging, agriculture, and, increasingly, coca farms for producing cocaine. The completion of the road connecting this strategic town located at the confluence of the Urubamba and Tambo Rivers to others, and ultimately over the Andes and to Lima, was key in its development. Atalaya, Peru

  • Mongabay has begun publishing a new edition of the book, “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon,” in short installments and in three languages: Spanish, English and Portuguese.
  • Author Timothy J. Killeen is an academic and expert who, since the 1980s, has studied the rainforests of Brazil and Bolivia, where he lived for more than 35 years.
  • Chronicling the efforts of nine Amazonian countries to curb deforestation, this edition provides an overview of the topics most relevant to the conservation of the region’s biodiversity, ecosystem services and Indigenous cultures, as well as a description of the conventional and sustainable development models that are vying for space within the regional economy.
  • Click the “A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” link atop this page to see chapters 1-13 as they are published during 2023.

Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador, and Colombia all invested in major highway building initiatives in the last half of the twentieth century, motivated in part to project sovereignty over their Amazonian provinces. These areas had poorly defined borders and societies remembered the trauma of the rubber boom, when Brazilian agents encroached upon their territories or when they quarrelled among themselves over the disposition of their frontiers. Unlike the integrated highway network of Brazil, however, these nations built widely separated roads that connected discreet regions of the highlands with adjacent lowland landscapes.


Successive governments sought to connect the sparsely populated lowland provinces with the densely populated rural communities of the Altiplano; this policy started in earnest in the 1960s with the construction of all-weather roads to Santa Cruz, the Chapare lowlands of Cochabamba, and the Yungas of La Paz. Subsequently, the military regimes of the 1970s went on a spending spree that led to a default of Bolivia’s sovereign debt in the 1980s, an outcome that limited the country’s ability to build infrastructure throughout the 1990s.

The most prescient investments occurred on the alluvial plain of Santa Cruz, where public and private resources were leveraged with loans and grants from multilateral agencies to create a secondary road network and industrial infrastructure that triggered a geometric increase in deforestation rates between 1990 and 2010. This landscape now supports the most diversified agricultural production in the Pan Amazon and is a pillar of the Bolivian economy; its organic growth is driving the expansion of regional highways north toward the Beni and eastward into Chiquitania.

3. San Ignacio de Velasco was one of the municipalities that lost the most forest cover in Bolivia in 2020. Agribusiness and cattle ranching, were one of the main drivers of this deforestation. Photo by Eduardo Franco and Ernst Drawert for Mongabay.
San Ignacio de Velasco was one of the municipalities that lost the most forest cover in Bolivia in 2020. Agribusiness and cattle ranching, were one of the main drivers of this deforestation. Image by Eduardo Franco and Ernst Drawert for Mongabay.

The commodity boom of the 2000s provided the Bolivian state with unprecedented revenues, which the government of Evo Morales used to invest in highway construction across the country. One of the most ambitious projects targeted the northern part of the country, with the objective of linking its administrative capital (La Paz) with communities and landscapes on the border with Brazil and Peru. These highways follow transportation routes that have existed for decades, and there is ample support across the region from both settler and Indigenous communities. These trunk highways are the Bolivian components of the IIRSA-sponsored Corredor Interoceanico, which connects Porto Velho (Rondônia) and Rio Branco (Acre) with the Pacific coast.

Almost all elements of Bolivian society are energetic supporters of highway construction, and national, regional and local governments place road construction near the top of their budget priorities. The stated goal is to link agriculture production with both domestic and export markets, but multiple social actors also seek to open remote landscapes for agricultural development and land speculation. There is one conspicuous exception, however. The Moxeño people have steadfastly opposed the construction of a highway that would dissect their territory: Tierra Indigina y Parque Nacional Isiboro – Securé (TIPNIS). The proposed road was a priority investment of the government of Evo Morales, who sought to open the area to settlement for his constituents in the coca-cocaine frontier of the Chapare. The Moxeños have resisted by using non-violent tactics of civil disobedience and, although the government has never formally abandoned the project, it has been removed from the priority list of highway projects.

Other highway projects were specifically designed to open wilderness landscapes to agricultural development. This includes those on the piedmont of the Andes in Irurralde Province of La Paz, whose proponents hope to develop into an industrial sugarcane complex. Even more ambitious are the regional highways being built across the Llanos de Moxos, which will facilitate the conversion of approximately ten million hectares of savanna and forest landscape into soy and rice farms, as detailed in the recently released Plan de Uso de Suelos del Beni.

The highways of the Peruvian Amazon connect different sectors of the high Andes with disjunct landscapes in the Amazon piedmont. They are partially integrated via the Carretera Marginal de la Selva, which threads its way through the Andean foothills. The Amazon Waterway connects the city of Iquitos with the rest of Peru via the port cities of Pucallpa, Yurimaguas and Saramarisa.


The earliest highway projects penetrated tropical valleys situated between the high Cordillera and the tropical valleys and foothills of the Andean Amazon. In the first half of the twentieth century, roads were built into the cloud forest regions east of Lima in an area known as the Selva Central, the lower Huallaga Valley, and the Marañon Canyon. More rapid change came in the 1970s with the construction of two trunk highways, Carretera Federico Basadre and Carretera Fernando Belaunde, named after the former president and dominant political figure of the era. Both connect the central highlands with ports on the Amazon River and opened lowlands to settlement and deforestation in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Carretera Federico Basadre is part of an IIRSA investment cluster that links the port of Callao (Lima) with Pucallpa on the Rio Ucayali. The lowland landscapes adjacent to the highway have attracted tens of thousands of settlers over five decades and continue to be among the most active agricultural frontiers in the Peruvian Amazon. The port of Pucallpa provides access to the Amazon waterway via the Rio Ucayali and an associated expanding forest frontier that is the source of most of Peru’s timber.

The Carretera Fernando Belaunde is sometimes referred to as the Carretera Marginal de la Selva (PE-5) because its namesake was the statesman who originally proposed the construction of an international highway integrating the Amazonian regions of the Andes. In Peru, the Carretera Marginal de la Selva is a sinuous route that weaves in and out of the Andean foothills. This road was first constructed in the Upper Huallaga Valley to connect with the previously established agricultural settlements of the Lower Huallaga Valley and was eventually extended eastward to connect with the Port of Yurimaguas on the Rio Huallaga.

At the regional city of Tarapoto (San Martín), it merges with an IIRSA investment group collectively referred to as the Corridor Interoceanico del Norte. This has two Amazonian spurs: one originates at Yurimaguas on the Rio Huallaga (PE-5NB). The other starts at Saramiriza on the Rio Marañon (PE-5NC). The two segments converge in the Marañon valley before passing over the Cordillera Occidental at the Huancabamba Depression, a geological feature with the lowest elevational point on the continental divide (2,145 meters above sea level). Known as the Paso de Porcullo, this route has been used for centuries as a gateway into the Amazon and provides a significant logistical advantage when compared to other Andean mountain passes that typically occur between 4,000 and 5,000 meters above sea level.

The Ecuadorian Amazon has the densest and most improved road network in the Andean Amazon; however, it is more static when compared with Peru and Colombia, where new roads are being carved into wilderness areas. The proposed highway between Saramariza and Iquitos would follow a pipeline right-of-way for about 50% of its route. The Amazon Waterway is connected to two river ports in Ecuador (Puerto Morona and Puerto Providencia) and one in Colombia (Puerto Asis).

The highway to Saramiriza was originally built in the 1960s during the construction of the Oleoducto del Norte and is a major access point to the northern Peruvian Amazon. This relatively remote village plays a prominent role in the Regional Government of Loreto’s plan to connect Iquitos with the national road network. The proposed highway includes a 200-kilometer section from Saramiriza that would follow the existing pipeline right-of-way to the oil fields near the Ecuadorian border; here it would connect with another proposed road along the border with Ecuador, as well as a 220-kilometer spur to Nauta, a village on the Rio Marañon with an existing paved road to Iquitos. At first glance, the proposed route would seem circuitous, but a more direct one would cross the massive peat swamp of the Pastaza Delta, increasing construction costs and undermining the economic viability of the project.

The construction of any of these roads would open vast areas of primary forest to logging and, almost certainly, settlement by subsistence farmers and land speculators. The proposed roads would traverse land deeded to dozens of Indigenous communities, while bordering both national (Zona Reservada Santiago – Conaima, Reserva Natural Pucacuro) and regional (Area de Conservación Regional Alto Nanay – Pintuyaco Chambira) protected areas. The initiative has been vigorously opposed by environmental advocates and Indigenous organizations; nonetheless, elected officials in Iquitos have successfully lobbied the Peruvian Congress to declare the construction of the Saramiriza – Iquitos highway a national priority.

The central section of the Carretera Marginal de la Selva (PE-5) extends south from the Carretera Federico Basadre through the rapidly expanding agricultural frontier of Huanuco and Pasco, before ascending the foothills to the coffee-producing landscapes near Oxapampa. The southern section (PE-5S) is the main trunk highway of the Selva Central and eventually crosses over the foothills again to connect to the Rio Ucayali at Atalaya, a major logistical center for the timber industry.

The other major trunk highway in the Peruvian Amazon is a component of the IIRSA-sponsored Corridor Interoceanico, which connects the Peruvian coast with the Puerto Maldonado on the Madre de Dios River and the frontier landscapes of Pando (Bolivia), Acre, and Rondônia (Brazil). In Peru, this group of highways is referred to as the Corridor Interoceanico del Sur, which, like the similarly named highway corridor in northern Peru, is managed by a consortium of Brazilian and Peruvian construction companies that obtained 25-year concessions in exchange for building the project.

Like most such projects, it spawned a land rush that predated the completion of the highway. The looming impact from deforestation and social displacement motivated regional leaders in Madre de Dios to participate in the MAP initiative with like-minded individuals in Acre (Brazil) and Pando (Bolivia). As in Brazil and Bolivia, the MAP initiative enjoyed success in improving protected-area management and recognizing the rights of forest communities but was not successful in changing non-sustainable patterns of land use and natural resource management. The new highway contributed to the gold rush then got underway on the piedmont of Madre de Dios and, although the gold rush would have occurred regardless, the multilateral financers of the highway failed to take into account the potential for the highway to accelerate illegal mining.

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

The justification for developing the Corridor Interoceanico is an example of ‘infrastructure hype’, whose proponents exaggerate the economic benefits of a development project. In this case, they overstated the potential for exporting commodities from Rondônia and Mato Grosso via Pacific ports to Asian markets, which ignored (a) the high cost of truck transport and (b) the energy cost of moving bulk commodities over a 5,000-meter pass in the High Andes. The light traffic that has characterized the highway since its completion in 2010 demonstrates that this was never a viable option.


The first road from the highlands to the Amazon lowlands was built by Royal Dutch Shell in 1947, a precursor to a formal policy articulated in the 1960s that linked oil exploration with road construction and colonization. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, the government consolidated the road network in Amazonian Ecuador, which can be divided into two sectors: (1) the Sucumbíos – Orellana polygon, which sits above the major petroleum-producing formation of the country and (2) the Ecuadorian Piedmont, which starts in the foothills near Peru and extends northward to the Colombian border. This north-south paved highway, known as the Troncal Amazónica (E-45), is the Ecuadorian component of the Carretera Marginal de la Selva.

In the south, two roads extend east from the Troncal Amazónica into the lowland plains situated north of the Peruvian border. The most important (E-40) connects to a port on the Rio Morona that was originally built to supply military outposts along a highly contested border. Puerto Morona is now the terminus of an IIRSA-sponsored initiative to link the ocean port of Guayaquil with the Amazon waterway and a large-scale copper mine under development in the Cordillera del Condor.

Logged forest landscape in the Ecuadorian Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler.

The military also built an alternative supply line along the northern stretch of the Rio Morona that passes through the heartland of the Shuar Indigenous people. The construction of the highway motivated some Shuar families to clear forest as a defensive strategy, legalize land claims and limit incursions by settlers from highland communities. The regional government is in the process of paving this road, using credit provided by the Banco de Desarrollo del Ecuador.

Two major east-west highways (E-10 and E-20) were built to connect the highlands with the Sucumbíos – Orellana polygon. This region also has the most fertile soils in the Ecuadorian Amazon, which spurred settlement and the development of a secondary road network that parallels the collector pipeline system. Annual deforestation continues at relatively constant rates due to the conversion of remnant forest within smallholdings created in the 1980s. The agricultural frontier continues to expand into the landscapes surrounding Yasuní National Park, although the government is imposing stricter controls over settlement along new access roads, and Indigenous communities are aggressively seeking to limit the expansion of the petroleum sector.


Deforestation is less strongly associated with the construction of major highways in the Colombian Amazon because successive governments have embraced a policy that precludes large-scale road-building. Instead, the country has decided that its most remote regional capitals – Leticia (Amazonas), Mitu (Vaupes) and Inrida (Guiania) – can more effectively be integrated into the national economy via air transportation systems. There is still considerable loss of forest, but it tends to occur along rivers or in roadless landscapes where the state is only marginally present.

Illegal roads, large unproductive paddocks and smoke from fires dominate the route between San José del Guaviare and Chiribiquete Park. Photo by Esteban Montaño.
Illegal roads, large unproductive paddocks and smoke from fires dominate the route between San José del Guaviare and Chiribiquete Park. Image by Esteban Montaño.

Although most of the lowlands are roadless, several key highways connect towns on the Andean piedmont with the rest of the country. These include CR-45 between Neiva (Huila) and Puerto Asis (Putumayo), which is being upgraded by the Agencia Nacional de Infraestructura (ANI), a public-private partnership programme that accelerates investment in infrastructure assets. Only a few select highways are commercially attractive, and improving access via highway construction to conflict areas is considered to be an essential component of the peace and reconciliation process. The Instituto Nacional de Vias (INVIAS) oversees the construction and operations of all other national highways, and in Caquetá, this includes two highways (CR-30 and CR-20) that connect Neiva to Caquetá, where the potential to expand industrial agriculture is attracting significant new investments.

Caquetá is otherwise isolated from the national highway network, but its major towns are linked by a trunk highway that runs along the base of the Andes, referred to as the Carretera Marginal de la Selva (CR-65). As the name implies, this is a component of the international highway envisioned in the 1960s. As of 2020, it had been paved for 250 kilometers in Caquetá and 165 kilometers in the adjacent department of Putumayo, but the two segments remains separated by about twenty kilometers of back roads and the 1,000-meter width of the Rio Caquetá. Once a bridge is built, the Carretera Marginal de la Selva will connect all the major towns of Caquetá and Putumayo, as well as link to its counterpart highway in Ecuador. Near the border, it intersects with CR-10, part of an IRSA-sponsored initiative to link Pacific ports with the Amazon waterway.

The northern section of the Carretera Marginal de la Selva extends from San José de Guaviare (Guaviare) to Villavicencio (Meta) and from there along the base of the Andes to the Venezuelan border. There is no connection – yet – to Caquetá. There are, however, two road-building processes underway that will make that link, both of which will isolate Parque Nacional Natural Serranía de Macarena and, in the process, disrupt Colombia’s only intact biological corridor connecting the forest ecosystems of the Andes and the Amazon.

Rivers also act as deforestation vectors, particularly in Colombia where the lack of roads and the cultivation of coca leaf coincide to create a forest frontier associated with the Rio Caquetá.

Along the northern border, INVIAS is financing the construction of the Transversal de la Macarena (R-65A), a regional highway that will facilitate the export of agricultural commodities from the Department of Meta via the Pacific ports of Buenaventura (Valle de Cauca) and Tumaco (Nariño). South of the park, approximately 200 kilometers separate the two sectors of R-65 at San José (Guaviare) and San Vicente de Caguán (Caquetá). INVIAS has no plans to close this gap, but unplanned road-building by local landholders has narrowed it to a mere fifty kilometers.
The eastern terminus of the Transversal de la Macarena will connect with the northern segment of CR-65 about 100 kilometers north of San José de Guaviare. All these landscapes are populated by coca-growing peasants and cattle ranchers, who have created a vast informal network of small roads that are slowly encircling Colombia’s oldest national park. South of San José de Guaviare, a regional highway (CR-75) extends to the town of Calamar, the gateway to a forest frontier with the highest rate of deforestation in the Colombian Amazon.

“A Perfect Storm in the Amazon” is a book by Timothy Killeen and contains the author’s viewpoints and analysis. The second edition was published by The White Horse in 2021, under the terms of a Creative Commons license (CC BY 4.0 license). See this excerpt in Spanish here and in Portuguese here.

Read the other excerpted portions of chapter 2 here:

Chapter 2. Infrastructure defines the future

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