A proposed road along the western edge of the Amazon River has sparked a great debate. This road would connect the remote town of Cruzeiro do Sul, Brazil, with the larger city of Pucallpa, Peru.
Proponents of the road claimed that it would provide an efficient way for rural farmers and tradesmen to get their goods to city markets. They claim it would also allow loggers to more easily transport timber from the depths of the Amazon rainforest to sawmills. The wood could then be easily shipped from Peru's Pacific coast to international buyers.
However, critics argue that the Pucallpa-Cruzeiro do Sul road would cut through traditional territories of the Ashéninka, an indigenous people of eastern Peru. Many leaders fear the road will increase access to previously undeveloped rainforest, threatening the ecosystem and the Ashéninka way of life. Large trees, such as mahogany, would catch the eye of illegal loggers because of their high value.
The great mahogany trees also serve to protect the Ashéninka from the outside world and are essential for the health of the rainforest. The trees provide shelter, food, and nesting grounds that sustain the vast biodiversity within the ecosystem. The Ashéninka have come to depend on nature for food and shelter.
A Snapshot of the Geography
The Amazon River Basin is located in South America, covering an area of 4.3 million square kilometers (2.7 million square miles). That's about the size of four Alaskas combined. Nearly 70 percent of the basin falls within Brazil. The remaining areas stretch into parts of Peru, Ecuador, Bolivia, Colombia, Venezuela, and Guyana.
The Amazon's massive drainage basin is made up of dozens of smaller watersheds. A watershed is an area of land that separates water flowing through the basin. In a drainage basin, the water drains into the ground and creates a rich habitat. The Ashéninka people have lived near a watershed at the border of Peru and Brazil for centuries. They survive on hunting, fishing and crops, such as sweet potato, corn, coffee, and sugar cane.
A Variety of Plants, Animal Life and Mahogany Trees
The rainforest surrounding the Amazon River is the largest on the entire planet. In addition to 33 million inhabitants, including 385 distinct indigenous groups, it hosts the greatest diversity of plant and animal life in the world. More than two million species of insects are native to the region, including hundreds of spiders and butterflies. Howler and spider monkeys are abundant, along with sloths, snakes, and iguanas. Brightly colored birds like parrots and toucans live there too. Many of these species are only found in the Amazon rainforest.
Mahogany is one of the most valuable resources from the Amazon forest. The tree's rich, red color and durability make it one of the most desired building materials in the world. A single mahogany tree can fetch thousands of dollars.
Logging is prohibited in much of the Amazon River Basin, but it is still legal in some areas because the wood is so valuable. The high demand for mahogany has left many of Peru's watersheds stripped of these important trees. Without large trees, and their roots, the soil in the watershed is at risk of being worn away or washed out by heavy flooding.
A Conflict of Values
The Pucallpa-Cruzeiro do Sul road is part of a larger project to connect South America's more remote areas. Yet, there is tension between communities because of this project. Some want to make the countryside of the Amazon basin better suited for trade and business. Others want to preserve its forested areas.
Supporters of the Pucallpa-Cruzeiro do Sul road say that, since Amazonian resources are so valuable, they could help bring jobs and businesses to the basin. They also say the road will allow members of rural communities to access better healthcare, education, and welfare.
Conservationists are concerned that buildings and infrastructure such as the Pucallpa-Cruzeiro do Sul road will destroy an already weakened Amazonian ecosystem. There is a known link between roads and deforestation, or the cutting down of trees. In Brazil, for instance, 80 percent of deforestation occurs within 48.3 kilometers (30 miles) of a road. Critics argue that a road along the Brazil-Peru corridor will provide easier access for illegal loggers to reach mahogany and other trees.
Indigenous Communities: Members of the Ashéninka community are trying to protect the forest and their native lands. However, opinions are largely divided between those favoring conservation and those seeking greater job and business opportunities. Indigenous communities like the Ashéninka have largely maintained a traditional way of life. Yet, while the Ashéninka want to preserve their culture and connections to the forest, they also need access to clothes, soap, and medicine. The road could establish trade routes that make these goods more accessible. Then again, these communities could be exposed to diseases they never had before. Giving easier access to their land would also increase the risk of unscrupulous companies taking it from them.
Wildlife: The Pucallpa-Cruzeiro do Sul road would run through Serra do Divisor National Park, Brazil, and other nature reserves. Threatened and rare species live here. For some of these species, such as the spider monkey, the construction of the road could make their population scatter and more visible to hunters. As large trees are removed, any wildlife that relies on the trees for shelter or food will need to relocate.
Amazonian Ecosystem: In addition to the negative effects on the area's plants and animals, the construction of the Pucallpa-Cruzeiro do Sul road could wear away land, reduce water quality, and increase deforestation. Fewer forests means larger amounts of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere. This in turn could worsen global warming.
Logging Companies: If a road is constructed, loggers will have easier access to mahogany and other trees. This will allow them to make more money for their families and communities. This could mean better education, healthcare, and the chance to participate in political debate.
Residents of Rural Communities: The Pucallpa-Cruzeiro do Sul road would allow local farmers and business people to transfer goods from the Amazon to Peru's Pacific coast. Right now, merchants who want to travel between Cruzeiro do Sul and Pucallpa must do so by plane. A reliable road would improve the social and business relations between Peru and Brazil.
International Consumers: The global demand for mahogany makes it a multimillion dollar business. Mahogany is used to create bedroom sets, cabinets, and flooring throughout the world, mostly in the United States and Europe.
Seeking a Compromise
Groups are seeking to lower tension in the Pucallpa-Cruzeiro do Sul road conflict through dialogue. They are trying to come up with alternate infrastructure plans.
Environmental conservation groups have suggested that the Pucallpa-Cruzeiro do Sul road be delayed until the community discusses two key pieces of the project. First, conservationists want more information on the environmental impact of the construction. This discussion involves local environmental groups, government representatives and businesses. Second, conservationists are seeking full permission for the project from indigenous communities.
Some critics of the Pucallpa-Cruzeiro do Sul road argue that roads are not the only option for the Pucallpa community to extend its business. Traditional river systems are already in place. These critics think the river network should be explored as an alternative to road construction.
The Upper Amazon Conservancy (UAC) is a group that protects the environment and cultures of southern Peru. It is working with indigenous peoples to help protect their land. One plan involves members of indigenous groups staying on patrol at national parks to keep illegal loggers out.