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Naturehunter Peru

Planned Brazil-Peru highway threatens one of Earth’s most biodiverse places

  • Serra do Divisor National Park on Brazil’s border with Peru is home to numerous endemic animals and more than a thousand plant species, but faces a double threat from a planned highway and a bid to downgrade its protected status.
  • The downgrade from national park to “environmental protection area” would paradoxically open up this Andean-Amazon transition region to deforestation, cattle ranching, and mining — activities that are currently prohibited in the park.
  • The highway project, meant to give Acre another land route to the Pacific via Peru, has been embraced by the government of President Jair Bolsonaro, which has already taken the first steps toward its construction.
  • Indigenous and river community leaders say they have not been consulted about the highway, as required by law, and have not been told about the proposed downgrade of the park, both of which they warn will have negative socioenvironmental impacts.

Mongabay Latam and Folha, through the Stories Without Borders project, document what is happening on the border between Peru and Brazil.

MÂNCIO LIMA, Acre — The Acre antshrike is known from only one place on Earth: in the highlands of Serra do Divisor National Park in Brazil’s Acre state. The habitat of this surly-looking, dark-plumaged bird, known locally as choca-do-acre and scientifically as Thamnophilus divisorius, is limited to shrubby woodlands, one of the 10 types of forests in this protected area on Brazil’s border with Peru.

The park is home to numerous endemic animals and at least 1,163 plant species, making it one of the most biodiverse regions in the world. It’s also the only comprehensive Brazilian protected area located within the transition zone between the Andes and the Amazon. Despite this, two projects have been proposed that would both build a highway to Peru bisecting the park, and allow for the privatization of the park’s territory, thereby opening the way for deforestation, cattle ranching, and mining.

The proposals have been promoted by two politicians from Acre who are allies of President Jair Bolsonaro. The Bolsonaro administration has already embraced the highway plan, taking the first steps toward the construction of the Brazilian portion of the road. But it has not yet made public its position on a bill pending in Congress that would put an end to Serra do Divisor National Park.

The existing BR-364 highway starts in the city of Limeira in São Paulo state, and runs more than 4,300 kilometers (nearly 2,700 miles) northwest to the town of Mâncio Lima in Acre. Successive Brazilian governments have weighed plans since the 1970s to extend it into Peru, giving Brazil a land route to the Pacific; the extension was even referred to in the decree establishing Serra do Divisor National Park in 1989, under the presidency of José Sarney. But when officials finally did inaugurate the Interoceanic Highway, in 2010, the link into Peru ran from Rio Branco, the Acre state capital, 670 km (415 mi) back down the BR-364 from Mâncio Lima.

When Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, the idea of running the extension from Mâncio Lima was revived once again. In 2020, three of his ministers visited Acre to discuss the issue. In June, Ricardo Salles, the environment minister, visited the area where the construction would begin. (Salles was ousted a year later after being named in two probes into alleged illegal exports of Amazon timber.) In September 2020, Ernesto Araújo, the foreign minister, and Rogério Marinho, the minister of regional development, visited Cruzeiro do Sul, the largest city in the Juruá Valley region, where the road would cross, and a 40-minute drive from Mâncio Lima. They met with local and Peruvian officials.

Also in September, Bolsonaro touted the project in a Facebook live address, confirming he planned to open a new route from Brazil to the Pacific, echoing the speech of former president Lula da Silva in the 2000s, who oversaw the completion of the first Interoceanic Highway with his then counterpart from Peru, Alejandro Toledo. Toledo is now a fugitive from justice for alleged corruption in the awarding of public works contracts, including for the Peruvian section of the highway.

Brazil’s National Transport Infrastructure Department (DNIT) published this May the call for bids on the project, budgeted at about 500 million reais ($95 million), according to official estimates. The department began analyzing the bids in June. It says there is still no detailed mapping of the federal highway, but that the Brazilian section will run about 120 km (75 mi), of which 21 km (13 mi), or 17%, will cut through Serra do Divisor National Park.

Divided opinions

Indigenous and riverine community leaders say they have not been consulted about the highway project, as required by law, and have expressed concerns about negative socioenvironmental impacts. “As of today, you were the first person to ask me about the highway,” Indigenous chief Joel Puyanawa told Folha in a conversation at his village’s cultural center.

The Poyanawa Indigenous Territory lies 10 km (6 mi) up a dirt road from the urban center of Mâncio Lima. It’s home to some 680 inhabitants, and lies in the area of direct influence of the highway. Salles was there on June 27, 2020, but Joel Puyanawa did not meet with him. The environment minister defended the road project when he met with Indigenous leaders, telling them that “it is time for integration.”

“The entire surroundings of our land are already compromised,” said Joel Puyanawa, who was elected in 2020 to the Mâncio Lima City Council. “We already know the damage caused by the invasions. The white [people] live by hunting on our land and the environmental institutions have no policy to prevent it. Imagine a highway. How many millions of people are going to travel along it? Will agribusiness increase? Yes, but our survival is not in agribusiness.”

He said he also fears the road will pass over a sacred zone, located outside the demarcated Indigenous land. It was in this region, around 1910, where the Puyanawa people were captured as slaves by the military colonel and rubber baron Mâncio Lima to work on his plantation. Despite this, Lima is today portrayed as a hero in Brazil’s official history, even having a city named after him.

“This road threatens 100% of our land, it destroys our sacred site,” Joel Puyanawa said. “The damage done by the colonel was enough. If the road is built, it exterminates the history of our people.”

Yet local officials and businesspeople are betting on the highway to put an end to the geographic isolation of this westernmost region of the country. The reelected mayor of Mâncio Lima, Isaac Lima (not related to the colonel), is a staunch supporter of the planned highway extension, to the point that he even cleared some 40 km (25 mi) of path along the likely route.

Lima is also a cattle rancher, and he says the connection with the Peruvian city of Pucallpa, 740 km (460 mi) from Mâncio Lima, would bring benefits to this town of 19,000 inhabitants, who live mainly from cattle ranching and farming. “The highway would connect the whole world and bring to our region, surely, development, growth, and Mâncio Lima would be the gateway,” Mayor Lima said.

On May 6, the Bolsonaro government renewed its promise to build and take BR-364 to the Peruvian border. That was the day Bolsonaro, with his minister of infrastructure, Tarcísio de Freitas, and a few thousand supporters, inaugurated a bridge over the Madeira River. The bridge lies on the highway, near the border between Acre and Rondônia states, 931 km (578 miles) from Cruzeiro do Sul. In his speech at the inauguration, de Freitas cited the expansion of the road to Pucallpa as one of the government’s road projects.

The person most responsible for reviving the highway extension plan is Márcio Bittar, a federal senator representing Acre and self-declared staunch ally of Bolsonaro. He holds a strategic position as rapporteur of the 2021 national budget, which gives him the power to direct funds for the highway, among other functions.

But the money for the project isn’t there just yet. Bittar included in this year’s budget an addendum of 40 million reais ($7.6 million) for “studies and projects” to expand the highway, but Bolsonaro vetoed this expense as part of wider cuts to balance the federal budget amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Source : https://news.mongabay.com/2021/07/planned-brazil-peru-highway-threatens-one-of-earths-most-biodiverse-places/

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