BOGOTÁ — In 2015, all Latin American countries except Chile and Ecuador signed the Paris climate pact, vowing to cut carbon emissions and end deforestation. But since then, the realities on the ground tell a different story. A report by Amazon Geo-Referenced Socio-Environmental Information Network (RAISG) found that highways built in the past 10 years have helped boost human activities like mining, settlement, farming, logging and hydrocarbon exploration. Some 96,500 kilometers of roads, including 520 highways, have been built since the first big infrastructure project in the region — the Manaos-to-Mamoré railway. This occurred during the rubber boom between 1890 and 1920. Such projects have cut their way, legally and illegally, through the world's biggest expanse of tropical rainforest.

The majority of these roads are dust tracks — red for the color of Amazon's soil — intended to connect forest settlements to bigger centers in the Andean region. Their construction has caused the destruction of 238,000 square kilometers of virgin rainforest. Zooming in on three cases in Bolivia, Peru and Colombia shows the social, technical and legal difficulties in ending deforestation.

Roadblock in Bolivia

Bolivia's socialist President Evo Morales vowed on Aug. 13 to "take progress to" local communities. He was announcing the end of a law that protects the Indigenous Territory of the Isiboro Sécure National Park (TIPNIS) to allow for the construction of a 30-kilometer stretch of road linking the province of Chapare, a key coca producing region, to the Amazonian town of San Ignacio de Moxos. The road will cross 12,300 square kilometers of protected territory that is home to about 14,000 people — the Moxeños (or Mojeños), Yurakarés, Chimanes — and 1,500 forest species.

The decision adopted by Bolivia's parliament rescinds a previous law from 2011, which had declared TIPNIS an "untouchable" natural area. Its protection referred to a study by the country's Foundation for Strategic Investigations that had concluded that a highway in this location would increase current deforestation in the park by 64% over 15 years.

Illustration of the road crossing the TIPNIS — Photo: Ainnoticias.Org/Handout/DPA/ZUMA

The speaker of parliament, Gabriela Montaño, recently told a television program that the park's "untouchable" status is being lifted after a consultation was duly held with native communities in 2013, even as some communities insisted they voted no or abstained. Amnesty International observed in 2012 that the government had never really consulted locals about its plans but, rather, advanced them through piecemeal legislation.

The highway is expected to support coca farming, which as Bolivia's national parks service (Sernap) warned in 2011, would entail spraying chemical fertilizers to boost the soil.

Locals divided in Peru

In February 2016, a drone flown by Peruvian environmental authorities spotted a 21-kilometer yellowish scar cutting across the green canopy in Madre de Dios, in the southern part of Peru's Amazonas department. It extends from an existing 12-km stretch built illegally by the governor of Madre de Dios, Luis Otsuka, who faces prosecution for the destruction of 32 square kilometers of forest — an area the size of 44 soccer fields.

The website Ojo Público calls the road a new corridor that will facilitate the transportation of illegally cut timber and the movement of gold miners and drug traffickers in Manu National Park and the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve. The latter is already threatened by legal and illegal mining and concessions on its southeastern fringes. It encompasses the ancestral lands of the Harambukt, the Yine or Piro and Machinguenga peoples. The area's 402,000 hectares are policed by just two state prosecutors and 12 guards who, quite simply, are overwhelmed by their Herculean duties.

Satellite image showing the progress of the highway from Shipetiari to Boca Manu — Photo: ACA/ACCA/Ojo Público

If trafficking and mining were barely checked before, the highway will open the gates to more traffickers, while money from oil companies here is already sowing discord among indigenous communities.

In 2009, representatives of Hunt Oil and the presidents of eight communities of the Amarakaeri reserve met for talks, after which five local communities stated their opposition to the company and to road building, and three said they favored a road, as it would help them trade chestnuts, yucca and bananas. The firm's $30,000 compensation settlement with some native leaders then provoked a rift that has yet to be resolved.

Ojo Público estimates that the road, if built as the Madre de Dios authorities intend to, will destroy 43,000 hectares of rainforest by 2040. Legal action against the governor is not expected to stop construction.

Colombian dilemma

Construction began 30 years ago on the road that has become a bone of contention between state agencies and the people living between Calamar and Miraflores in southern Colombia. The pathway grew as locals and leftist FARC guerrillas added portions to it, becoming the 138-km track seen today. Locals want the road promised by the government of the Guaviare department but the Corporation for the Sustainable Development of the Northern and Eastern Amazon (CDA), an environmental agency, and other green groups, oppose it. The only consensus is that the 5,000 people living in Miraflores cannot be left in isolation.

Turning this track into a proper road will mean cutting up a forest reserve. In 2016, CDA intervened when locals witnessed heavy machinery working on stretches of the road. After El Espectador reported the incident, the agency ruled there would be no more work on the 90-km stretch leading to Miraflores.

Such projects have cut their way, legally and illegally, through the world's biggest expanse of tropical rainforest.

The head of public works for Guaviare, Ramiro Álvarez, says the department's transportation needs and stemming rising costs take precedence. But deforestation is already a problem in Guaviare, and a paved road to Miraflores would make it worse. A report by IDEAM, a government pollution monitoring system, found that 11,456 hectares of woodland were lost in Guaviare in 2015 and 2016 to activities such as illegal cultivation and logging.

Roberto Gómez, a director of the NGO Fundación Natura, says he could live with an unpaved road here but logging around it should be banned. Other experts have suggested a combination of means including air and river transport to keep Miraflores linked to the rest of the department.

For César Tobón, a former member of parliament who farms rubber, palm fruit, yucca and bananas on local land, "seeing this main road is a utopia. This road has been in place for so many years now. The only thing it needs is upkeep to improve our lives."

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