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Road paving in a Peruvian bird paradise threatens wildlife and ecotourism

Manu Road Peru

The Kosñipata Valley in the Manu Biosphere Reserve. The Manu Road can be seen to the left of the river. Image courtesy of Erik Iverson.

  • In the Manu Biosphere Reserve of Southeastern Peru, one of the world’s most biodiverse protected areas, a winding dirt road has historically been the only route from the Andes into the Amazon. Now that road has been paved from top to bottom.
  • The resulting increase in vehicle speed is causing concerns among conservationists about road-killed wildlife and damage to eco-tourism, while raising the specter of expanding extractive industries in the region.
  • However, poor construction may have ensured that any impacts are short-lived; the thin asphalt is expected to erode quickly and may leave the road worse than it was before.
  • Critics say such shoddy construction is a consequence of endemic corruption in the Peruvian road-building sector, which fuels an unsustainable development model that fails to meet local people’s needs.

KOSÑIPATA, Peru – “It’s the best road I’ve ever gone birding on, in terms of the variety of habitats and birds,” says Victor Emanuel, one of the pioneers of modern bird-watching tourism and founder of an ecotourism company, about the Manu Road, which he calls “the most pristine and rich area that I’ve ever been to in all my travels throughout the world.”

With its harrowing turns and abrupt drops, the Manu Road passes through five different ecosystems, ranging from high-altitude grasslands to lowland rainforests, as it winds its way along the eastern boundary of Manu National Park in southeastern Peru. Traveling this road, which stretches 190 kilometers (118 miles) from Paucartambo in the highlands to the mouth of the Manu River in the lowlands, is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many bird-watchers who come here for the rich biodiversity.    

According to scientists, Manu National Park is probably the world’s most biodiverse protected area, counting at least 1,020 species of birds, 228 species of mammals, 287 species of amphibians and reptiles, and 1,108 tree species.

road building
A roller compacts the dirt surface in preparation for asphalting of the Manu Road in July 2023. Image courtesy of Erik Iverson.

Until last year, people could stop at any point along this dirt road to look for rare species. Then, from May to September of 2023, authorities quickly paved the road, allowing for greater motor vehicle traffic. According to experts and locals, this development has now put the area’s wildlife, its ecotourism industry, and even bird-watchers themselves at risk. The road project, with finance and engineering assistance from China, is part of a larger $340 million federal road-building scheme across Peru, and also includes improvements such as new bridges, pull-out lanes, and hazard signs.

A road through paradise

Indigenous people have long lived in Manu, and used a steep route through the Kosñipata Valley to travel between the highlands and lowlands. Ancient trails used by artisanal coca leaf producers were superseded by a road in the early 1960s, opening up the lowlands to settlers who grew fruit and cut timber outside the park boundaries.

In the 1970s, scientists began to survey species diversity up and down this road, riding in the backs of fruit trucks to get between sites. As the list of species grew, so too did the area’s reputation among both researchers and bird-watchers, which turned it into a hub for ecological research and a legendary birding destination. Currently, Peru has the most bird species of any country, at 1,879, with visitors to the Manu Road having played a critical role in identifying many of those species.

Bird photography in the high-altitude grasslands of Manu National Park. Image courtesy of Erik Iverson.

Both science and tourism depend on the unique access provided by a road passing through so many different habitats in such pristine, natural states. Normally, exploitation and settlement follow roads in the tropics. In the Amazon, road construction is a major driver of deforestation and one of the greatest threats to biodiversity. But in Manu, the combination of protected status and steep, rugged terrain has limited disturbance along the road, even though most of it runs outside the park’s boundaries.

When it was established in 1973, Manu National Park, which covers an area of 1.7 million hectares (4.2 million acres), was already considered some of the most intact rainforests in Peru. In 1977, it became a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, and in 1987 a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Today, it’s one of the only places in the Amazon that hasn’t experienced widespread logging of the largest, most valuable trees — giants like mahogany and Spanish cedar that can grow higher than 60 meters (200 feet) and live for centuries.

Increasing speed and traffic

It used to take about four hours to get from Paucartambo in the highlands to Pilcopata in the lowlands via the Manu Road. Since the paving of the road, the journey now takes about three hours, according to three professional drivers speaking to Mongabay.

These drivers pilot large-capacity vans known as colectivos that serve as the main form of transit in the region, picking up and dropping off passengers anywhere along the route. The drivers said that traffic on the road has increased, as it’s now possible for new drivers with passenger cars to make a living on the road.

road paving
The paving of the Manu Road from top to bottom was completed in 2023, seen here from inside a ‘colectivo,’ or a van that regularly carries passengers up and down the road. Image courtesy of Erik Iverson.

All three drivers also said the number of accidents they see along the precipitous road has increased, including deaths, as well as the number of animals struck by vehicles. One driver, Kenji Espinoza, reported seeing opossums, armadillos, toads and snakes killed where previously roadkill was rarer.

“The last time I arrived, I found more road-killed animals,” says Peruvian conservationist Daniel Blanco, who frequently descends the road to the Cock of the Rock Lodge in San Pedro, an ecotourism business that he founded about halfway to Pilcopata. Blanco has seen birds, snakes and a large rodent called a pacarana (Dinomys branickii) killed recently, but the situation appears especially difficult for monkeys, which have to come down from trees to cross the road on foot. “We’re actually going to put in bridges so that they can cross and not get killed,” he says. “We’ll be installing some cables so the monkeys can cross calmly.”

Tourists observe a large-headed capuchin monkey (Sapajus apella macrocephalus) on the Manu Road before paving, near the Cock of the Rock Lodge. Image courtesy of Erik Iverson.

Beyond the toll on wildlife, the increase in vehicle speed on the newly paved road also poses a hazard for bird-watchers and for the viability of ecotourism, the main non-extractive industry of the region. Typically, tourists on their way to the lowland rainforest will stop to spend a night in the cloud forest, in the steepest part of the gradient. They’ll walk the road in the early morning or evening in search of birds, or even late at night looking for owls and nightjars. Before paving, steep curves, a dirt surface, and frequent landslides meant that cars tended to approach slowly and could be heard from a distance, which made it relatively safe to walk and take photos along the road.

 “The traffic is going faster, so it’s less attractive for birders and other people who want to see nature along the road,” says biologist Adrian Forsyth, one of the founders of the nonprofit Amazon Conservation, which runs the Wayqecha Cloud Forest Biological Station in the middle elevations of the road. “At Wayqecha, we’re actually having to create birder-friendly trails because people don’t like to bird along a road where the traffic is very fast. It’s going to have a negative impact on the birding business of the Manu Road — and it will increase the fatality rate.”

Some of the species most prized by bird-watchers may also suffer from speed. Julyssa Jurado, the owner of a colectivo company, told Mongabay that birds are becoming harder to see on the road as cars disturb them with the increasing use of their horns for safety. But there are also more direct impacts.

Manu Road
Sunset on the Manu Road (before paving) in its steep middle-elevations. Nightjars, a nocturnal bird, tend to sit on roads like this at night making them vulnerable to fast cars. Image courtesy of Erik Iverson.

Blanco described recently seeing a dead lyre-tailed nightjar (Uropsalis lyra) on the road, a species endemic to the cloud forest, with a long, streaming tail twice the length of its body. Nightjars favor open areas, and tend to sit on roads at night.

“When a car comes slowly, no problem,” Blanco says. “But if it’s racing, it doesn’t give them time to fly away.”

The logic of roads

A major concern with new roads in the Amazon is that they fuel deforestation. Improvements to roads can also reduce transit costs for commodities, incentivizing further extraction. For example, if trucks were to climb up the Manu Road faster, it could increase the amount of illegal logging or the rate of deforestation for crop production.

However, commodity expansion might actually be on hold, as Forsyth and local drivers agree that the new pavement isn’t allowing the heaviest trucks to move any faster. “They still have to go uphill at about the same pace, and they still have to go really slow around these blind curves,” Forsyth says. “Their actual extraction cost and time will not significantly change.”

In fact, the paving of the Manu Road is unlikely to prove a long-term investment in the region’s economic development as, according to both Forsyth and Blanco, the type of asphalt used will wear out quickly under the pressure of rain and truck tires.

“The paving that they’re doing is very transient. It’s as thin a layer as you can make it,” Forsyth says. “It’s going to end up full of potholes, and then possibly go back to being an even slower road.”

A heavy truck carries goods up the Manu Road toward Cusco, before it was paved. Image courtesy of Erik Iverson.

Blanco agrees that the road’s pavement isn’t sustainable and might soon become more impassable than the original dirt surface. “They flatten it a little and they put on asphalt,” he says. “This won’t last even two years. If you come back, you’re going to see that in places, it’s just potholes.”

Asked why the government would build a road that would deteriorate so quickly, his answer was simple. For Blanco, it’s corruption in Peru that is responsible, as local officials stand to benefit from bribes, and contractors from inflated appropriations. The Peruvian road-building sector is notoriously corrupt, Blanco says, and the company behind the paving project, China Civil Engineering Construction Corporation, was itself involved in recent bribery and corruption scandals.

Infamously, the company behind the Interoceanic Highway south of Manu, Brazilian road-building giant Odebrecht, used millions of dollars of payouts to politicians to get its projects approved. The corruption was so extensive that the web of bribery eventually implicated four Peruvian presidents and the heads of several other South American states.

rainforest Peru
Primary montane rainforest along the Manu Road in the Kosñipata Valley, near Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge. Image courtesy of Erik Iverson.

“There was no need to do this, but the Peruvian government has started to work with many Chinese companies for the bribes,” Blanco says. “We see it every day on the news: the Chinese come in with a bunch of money, they pay bribes — and everybody walks.”

The road to sustainability

Local communities, many of them recent settlers to the region, also played a part in the paving. “The community — people from Paucartambo, Pilcopata and Salvación — requested the paving of the road; it’s definitely something they’ve been asking for for a while,” says Ruthmery Pilco Huarcaya, a Peruvian scientist who works closely with local communities around the Wayqecha biological station. 

It’s unclear exactly how this road was selected for improvements, as the Peruvian Ministry of Transport and Communications didn’t respond to Mongabay’s request for comment. “Classical economics, which rule government decisions, says that the way to develop a rural economy is through agriculture with transport,” Forsyth says. “If you ask communities, ‘What would you like: better schools or a better road?’ they almost always say ‘a better road’ … They see it as an immediate benefit.”

grasslands Peru
High-altitude grasslands, in Manu National Park’s Tres Cruces district. Such habitats host a very different mix of species from the forests below, increasing the total biodiversity of the region. Image courtesy of Erik Iverson.

While the long-term threat to biodiversity from a transient, superficial paving job might be minimal, the growth of infrastructure driven by both corruption and settlement is extremely serious, according to sources. Blanco says the real long-term threat to Manu is not from turning the road into a highway, but from an entirely new road being proposed in the lowlands. This road, which could stretch 60 km (37 mi) between the small villages of Boca Manu and Boca Colorado, would connect the Manu region to the departmental capital Puerto Maldonado, and from there commodities would travel to Brazil and Bolivia on the “most corrupt highway in the world.”

Although many in local communities support the project because they believe it will provide economic development, Blanco says the true muscle behind the proposal is the logging and mining mafias who stand to gain most from it. For now, this route exists only as a trail, so timber, gold and coca leaves travel the longer route to market down the winding Madre de Dios River.

Banner image: The Kosñipata Valley in the Manu Biosphere Reserve. The Manu Road can be seen to the left of the river. Image courtesy of Erik Iverson.


Gallice, G. R., Larrea-Gallegos, G., & Vázquez-Rowe, I. (2017). The threat of road expansion in the Peruvian Amazon. Oryx53(2), 284-292. doi:10.1017/S0030605317000412

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