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THE INTEROCEANIC HIGHWAY
LINKING CULTURES AND CHANGING THE AMAZON FOREST
At a cost of 1.3 billion dollars a road is being driven west from a remote corner of Brazil. The route leads through virgin Amazon rainforest to the Andes mountains Then after crossing a pass higher than Mont Blanc the road descends to the Pacific coast and opens the way to Asia. Yellow is road under construction
The white areas are cleared rainforest. Green and greenish brown are forest. Assis Brasil where the story begins is at the left of the image. By using Google Earth live the new road can be followed southwards - here the road is on the left of the image. The InterOceanica follows the path of a poor quality and often impassable unpaved route which has existed for many years.
The following images are from South American Pictures
ASSIS-BRASIL is a town of about 4000 on the frontier with Peru is at the far west of Brazil's all-weather road system. The road has already come 2500 miles from the Atlantic and the Pacific is another 730 miles away. Soon the route from the Amazon to Asia will be complete.
This road carves through western Amazonia where tall rainforest has been replaced by grass. Already the highway connects remote Peruvian towns and villages on side roads leading to virgin forest.
The road is being built in Peru with Brazilian and international cash. Three consortia are led by Brazilian companies
A young Peruvian woman holds the 'Go -Stop' sign for traffic using the road during construction.
A dirt track has existed for some yearsf but the route could take several days or even a couple of weeks in the rainy season. Soon the entire highway will be asphalt covered and all-weather.
Timber,carbon gases and smoke particles are the inevitable products from clearing the forest. Beef cattle graze on sown grass and produce methane.
The route has to cross many Amazon tributaries. Twenty two bridges are being built and one of these across the Madre de Dios River at Puerto Maldonado, Peru will be 722m or almost half a mile long. The cranes tower alongside the rainforest.
Puerto Maldonado in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon is growing rapidly thanks to the new highway economy. Moto tricycles from China, India and Brazil dominate the streets. Also it is a hub for 'jungle tourism' though few tourists visit the town centre. Most arrive by air and go directly to 'jungle lodges'.
After the river Madre de Dios the next major obstacles are ranges of the Andes mountains. Dense forests cover steep valleys where the way over the mountains becomes a nightmare. But the InterOceanica goes on.
The road is being used as it is being built. Trucks and buses are often stuck in mud or simply leave the road. In December 2007 a bus went over the side, rolled three times and injured 43 people.
The highest part at over 4000m is virtually complete. The road has been cut into the solid rock and the surface is paved. Cuzco the old Inca capital is an hour away.

The published PR says the goal is to boost tourism to Peru's great Andean attractions of Cuzco /Cusco and Machu Picchu the 'lost city of the Incas'. In reality the road extends along two routes across the Andes and down to good ports on Peru's desert coast.The way will be open to transport goods from the western Amazon to the resources-hungry Asian markets.

THE INTEROCEANIC HIGHWAY – Key facts

  • The TransOceanic or InterOceanic Highway is the usual international name
  • The InterOcean Road / Carretera Interoceánica or TransOceánica is the Peruvian Spanish name
  • The Pacific Highway / Estrada or Caminho do Pacífico is the Brasilian Portuguese name
  • The total distance by road from the Atlantic to the Pacific will be approximately 3400miles [5440kms].
  • Over 2,900 miles [4650km] are complete and fully asphalt covered. Work is progressing on the final section of 460 miles [736kms] from the Amazon basin and over the Andes mountains
  • A shorter route already links the the same road to a port on the Madeira River - the Amazon's main tributary.
  • The road is one of the biggest if not the biggest construction projects currently being undertaken in Latin America.
  • The cost of the 460 miles [736 kms] of the final stage has been budgeted at 1.3 billion dollars.
  • Highest point is 15,908 ft [4850m] or 160ft [42 m] higher than Mont Blanc, Europe's highest mountain
  • Lowest point is sea level at either end
  • Lowest point of the section under construction is 783feet [239m] above sea level
  • Twenty two bridges are being built - one is over half a mile long with a central hanging section to be 78m [296 ft] longer than the central span of the Thames crossing at Dartford
  • Landmarks for the mountain section are Cuzco and Machu Picchu. These ancient Inca cities are the project’s tourism goal and used in official promotion.

A Preçis from Tony Morrison

What does this road add up to? What will it mean for South America - Will it be another nail in the Amazon coffin and a step further to climate change?

When completed some parts of the road will be difficult and dangerous. My journey was slowed by a thick mountain mist at 11,500 ft / 3.506 m where the driver could see less than 10 metres and with a horrifying unguarded precipice to the right. The huge investment is intended to get Amazonian products to the Pacific ports in a couple of days but that seems to be pie in the sky optimism. Even with crash barriers as safeguards the road is narrow and in the mountains there are many U bends hardly suited to long trucks. One Brazilian shipping specialist reckons that the relatively straightforward route from the western Amazon direct to Brasil’s major port of Santos is quicker and offers a shorter sea route to Asia. ‘By the time the drivers reach the higher parts they will have been driving for a day or more and then they will have to cope with the problem of reduced oxygen. It will be unthinkably dangerous’. A bus carrying 43 people went over the edge at the end of 2007.

A great plus for the road is the integration of three countries, the giant Brazil with a huge area of Amazon, Peru with its Pacific coast and more than half its area in Amazonia and the curiously land-locked Bolivia with enormous reserves of gas. The three Presidents [Lula da Silva, Alan Garcia and Evo Morales] are backing the road to the hilt and they prefer to be seen as the 'Guardians of Integration and the Environment'. In the remote border towns the ‘road effect’ or more positively the ‘Brazilian effect’ is already felt. A Brazilian beat fills the airwaves while Brazilian motorcycles and other goods dominate the streets. Brazilian steel and expertise are ubiquitous. Odebrecht, Brazil’s world class engineering company controls much of the work on the road.

Florestania - Citizens of the Forest

The environmental impact of the road is more difficult to assess as all three Presidents are acutely aware of the concern from environmentalists. They know the Amazon forest is a sacred cow even though more is cleared every day. To show respect for world opinion officials use images of Chico Mendes the Brazlian rubber- tapper. Mendes was a union leader who was assassinated in December 1988 for his opposition to wealthy land-owners who were clearing the forest. A 'Mendes Trail' has been created in Acre State so visitors can enjoy the rainforest. Mendes’ name and photograph appear liberally in government information about the project with the very strong hint that he is officially remembered and his wishes will be followed. Acre State says that 45 percent of its land will be left untouched. In other words an area of about one third of the size of the UK will be cleared of rich Amazonian forest. Meanwhile Acre is promoting itself as the State of Florestania - an invented word from the Portuguese 'Floresta' meaning 'forest', it suggests the local people are 'citizens of the forest' who will treasure its resources.

That’s the line and it may well be true. But it is a clear fact that roads bring people who need jobs, who need land, who need food. Victor Lopez a Peruvian charapa, one of the Amazonian locals who drove me along part of the road said ‘people are coming here from the poor highlands and there’s plenty of work … in farming, timber milling and construction’. But more people using the land will simply add to the problem of global warming.

Climate Change

Meticulous research on the ground and up-to-the minute data from satellites confirms the Amazon forest is getting hotter and drier. The burning forest releases more carbon gases and smoke particles into the atmospehere. The new roads and farmland break up the natural expanse of the forest and are leading to significant regional climate changes.

An energy gap

Not more than a stone’s throw away in Amazon terms two new dams on the Madeira River have been given the go ahead by Lula da Silva against strong opposition by environmental campaigners. Brazil faces an energy gap and these dams will be on the rapids-strewn Madeira river, the Amazon’s greatest tributary. Now the environmentalists are shuddering at the thought of energy from the dams, the production of biofuels, and soya in cleared forest coupled with the Asian thirst for timber. Official handouts point to tourism as one of the benefits expected from the road. Machu Picchu and the Mendes Trail are touted prominently although the facts are rather different. The Mendes Trail is modest and Machu Picchu would be a full two days by luxury bus from Rio Branco the Acre capital, itself six hours by air from Säo Paulo. To that would be added another full day for the Machu Picchu excursion. This Amazon area is remote and the integration concept may not be a bad deal politically but it seems a stretch of the imagination to believe that a few more tourists can merit this huge international investment.


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