The Interoceanic Highway: coast to coast through a biodiversity hotspot

There is now a road that links the Pacific with the Atlantic across South America. The Interoceanic Highway starts on the coast of Peru, goes up and over the Andes, and then down into the Amazon. It links the Peruvian coast with river ports on Amazon tributaries, as well as connecting to the road network that extends across Brazil. It travels through one of the most biodiverse regions in the world.

A road along this route has existed for many years, but it is only recently that it has been widened and paved, making it fit for freight trucks, and easier and faster for all vehicles to travel along it. When I first visited Los Amigos Biological Station in 2008, the first section of the journey, from Puerto Maldonado to the small river town of Laberinto (where we scrambled into a boat for the journey up the Madre de Dios river to the research station), was an exhilarating drive along mostly unpaved road. We bounced along, stones flying up around us, the fractured windscreen of the taxi evidence of many previous journeys along this route. We would leave a plume of dust rising up behind us. At times we would navigate around workers taming this stretch of the highway. It was a fairly slow and uncomfortable journey.

By the next year, this journey was quick and smooth, fresh tarmac all the way. In Puerto Maldonado itself, the first supports of a vast red steel bridge were growing up on the banks of the Madre de Dios. Today this 720m bridge, and all sections of the highway, are complete.

Photo from http://www.waagner-biro.com © 2012 Waagner-Biro AG

A road such as this is a boon for trade. But the Interoceanic highway has been a highly controversial development. Roads are inevitably linked with migration to previously inaccessible areas, bringing loggers, miners, farmers, and growing human populations. Where roads lead, deforestation follows.

As the impact of roads is now so well known, with lessons learned elsewhere in the Amazon, the Amazon Conservation Association has been working for some years to establish a corridor of protected areas to help mitigate the road’s impact. By linking Manu National Park, Peru, in the north with Madidi National Park in Bolivia in the south, via a number of other protected areas including the Los Amigos Conservation Concession, this corridor will be invaluable in ensuring the conservation of biodiversity in this region.

This short film (it is only 8 minutes long) gives a glimpse of life in Puerto Maldonado and along the Interoceanic highway, and some of the consequences of its development.

You can support the conservation of this region by donating to the Amazon Conservation Association or Amazon Aid Foundation.

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Amazon Gold, a documentary from the Amazon Aid Foundation

Gold mining in the Amazon is a widespread, growing, and hugely destructive industry. The price of gold has rocketed in recent years, making mining a lucrative business. The mining process uses mercury, which then enters the ecosystem, a poison of danger to both animal and human health. Vast canyons of wasteland are left behind.

The Amazon Aid Foundation has produced a documentary on gold mining in the Amazon, filmed in the Madre de Dios region where I undertook my fieldwork (and where I spent many days working to catch birds for sampling right next to a sporadically operating mine). Even this short trailer is devastating to watch. (I have posted this before as part of a longer description of working in the field, but feel it is worth its own post, as every time I watch it I still can’t quite believe my eyes).