A New Amazon Highway Threatens Some of the Rainforest's Last Uncontacted Tribes

The beginnings of a freeway through the Amazon. Photo credit: Environment Ministry of Peru

Peru has been basking in kudos from officially declaring a vast new national park in the remote Amazonian wilderness known as Sierra del Divisor.

President Ollanta Humala traveled there over the weekend to unveil the park – nearly 5,500 square miles of stunning tropical rainforest, home to numerous threatened species, including jaguars and various kinds of monkey.

He was under international pressure to protect the area from illegal logging, the cultivation of coca – the key ingredient in cocaine – and the construction of clandestine roads.

Humala even claimed the park will "help us purify the air of the world."

That sounds like great news, just in time for the United Nations climate summit in Paris later this month.

There's just one catch.

Just 48 hours before the president's grand gesture, Peru's congress took a landmark vote that potentially compromises Manu National Park, the country's most famous Amazonian protected area, and the neighboring Amarakaeri Indigenous Reserve, home to some of the last uncontacted tribes anywhere in the world.

If signed into law, the legislation would authorize the regional government to push a freeway through the buffer zones of both protected areas, declaring the project of "national interest."

But the regional authorities aren't waiting: Construction is already underway, even without the necessary environmental impact study or other permits.

The road's backers argue it is the only way to bring development to impoverished jungle communities, where some live their entire lives without ever seeing a school or a doctor and most homes have no electricity or running water.

But some leading officials strongly disagree. The Environment Ministry and national park officials were so incensed they put out a joint statement expressing their "profound rejection" of the freeway.

They warned that the road would serve to "validate unlawful activities" by enabling the unchecked passage of fuel to illegal mining and timber cutting sites.

They added it would mean an "invasion of indigenous territories" and would "risk the lives" of uncontacted tribes, who lack immunity to common colds and other diseases to which they have never previously been exposed.

Diego Saavedra, an Amazon expert at the Lima-based nonprofit Law, Environment and Natural Resources (DAR in its Spanish initials), accused the Peruvian government and congress of "hypocrisy" and greenwashing.

Peru has been making a concerted effort over the last couple of years to polish its environmental credentials, which came under the global spotlight when Peru hosted last December's UN climate conference, known as COP20.

"Their discourse for COP20 has been all about reducing the national carbon footprint, of reducing deforestation, but then they take decisions like this one, which flies in the face of that," Saavedra added.

Peru's Environment Ministry was only founded in 2008, as a condition of a trade treaty with Washington. The administration of President George W. Bush demanded it after coming under pressure from US environmentalists.

Saavedra said the ministry is doing the right thing by condemning the proposed new jungle road, but lacks the influence within the government of the economy and energy ministries, with whom it regularly clashes.

"The Environment Ministry lacks the resources or power to really have a voice within the government when these kinds of strategic decisions are made," Saavedra said.

The president might now be expected to back his environment minister, Manuel Pulgar-Vidal, and refuse to sign the controversial bill into law.

But Humala, a taciturn former army officer who has previously attempted to push through unpopular mining projects, has given no indication so far of what he plans to do.

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