Introduction / The road
The great value of the Amazon forest rises with the new studies in the region. To begin with, we mention three recently published studies that show how essential it is to maintain the Amazon under the focus of scientific research.
First, NASA has published the article “Effect of increasing CO2 on the terrestrial carbon cycle“ in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that tropical forests like the Amazon, absorb more carbon dioxide than previously estimated, thus tropical vegetation could absorb 1,400 million tons of CO2 annually, out of a total 2,500 million tons of terrestrial vegetation absorption. This means that about 30% of human carbon dioxide atmospheric emissions are absorbed by terrestrial plant photosynthesis. We can calculate that specifically the Amazon rainforest surpases the 700 million tonnes of CO2 accumulation per year. This study certifies that the tropical forests absorb more carbon annually than the boreal forests.
The second study, “The fertilizing role of African dust in the Amazon rainforest”, also conducted by NASA and published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters, concludes, after deep satellite analysis, that a fascinating interplay between the Amazon forest and the Sahara desert occurs; every year about 182 million tons of desert dust raise from northwest of Lake Chad, 27 million of these are transported to the Amazon region by the Elysian winds. This mineral powder carries microorganisms that are rich in phosphorus, an essential nutrient for vegetation, reaching 22,000 tons of phosphorus deposition in the jungle. The biosphere is a network of complex relationships and interdependence, as we see, the drier the year is in Bodele depression (Chad) the more dust rises and travels to the Amazon, fertilizing plants which increase their evapotranspiration leading to more Global precipitation.
The third study, “Long-term decline of the Amazon carbon sink”, published recently in Nature and coordinated by the Amazon Forest Inventory Network (RAINFOR) indicates that the increase of CO2 concentration not only produce faster vegetation growth rates (since there is more carbon available), but also decreases the life expectancy of the plant. By studying the rainforests and especially the Amazon, they calculated a decline over the past decade of a third of the net biomass growth and a significant reduction in carbon residence time.
It is in this context, between September and November (2014), that we had the opportunity to visit the Amazon region and start in situ a socio-ecological research on the effects of the Interoceanic Highway in the Amazon section. This road connects the Atlantic Ocean (Sao Paulo, Brazil) with the Pacific (Ilo, Peru). Our path of study, with a limited budget, went from Rio Branco to Ilo, with special interest in the Peruvian population Iñapari (located in the triple border with Bolivia) and later moving south-west through Peru to meet the Pacific. With this in mind we met with the local population and with major players in the various activities that occur along 2,000 km of road. We wondered what would be the perception of environmental damage that the road might have caused while enabling traffic to the jungle. As will be discussed below, the response we got was amazing and opens an interesting debate not only on the environmental impact of the road but also about the vision the first world has from the region.
The Amazon plains cover most of Madre de Dios (Own Source)
The road construction is a project implemented by the South American Regional Integration Initiative (IIRSA) exceeding a cost of US $ 2,800 million. Years before, Brazil had already done his part of the road from Sao Paulo, but it is in 2005 when the Brazilian government builds a bridge over the Acre River (international limit with Peru) connecting the people of Iñapari and Assis. With this gesture, began the construction in Peruvian territory of the coveted Brazilian exit to the Pacific through three Peruvian harbours and 3,400 km of asphalt.
Distance traveled along the Southern Interoceanic Highway. (Own Source).
In this article we will focus on understanding how the road currently affects the environment and the local society. The purpose, rather than analyzing the ecological damage that occurs on both sides of the road, is to understand the changes brought by this way to the Peruvian department of Madre de Dios and the Brazilian state of Acre, from a holistic perspective.
To do this we must first get to know the Amazon and what happens in it; we present hereby this valuable region in an informative way.
Getting to know the Amazonic region
The two countries crossed by the Interoceanic Highway are the ones with bigger parts of the Amazon rainforest (Brazil has 68% and Peru 9% of the Amazon). We understand that the ecological responsibility of these countries is key to deciding the future of the largest rainforest in the world. Not to forget that eight countries are members of the Amazon Cooperation Treaty Organization (ACTO) with Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Guyana, Suriname and Venezuela (the whole Amazon covers 54% of all these nations territory)
To visualize the 7,413,827 km2 of the Amazon, we can imagine that it represents three quarters of China. The Amazon, which occupies only 6% of the land area, accounts for more than half of the tropical rainforest on the planet.
Probably the most important social data to understand is that about 40 million people live there. The Amazon region has a long history of human occupation and rich cultures, with strong social differences from the pre-Columbian European colonization occupations. During the extractive boom of the nineteenth century (rubber, wood, bark, etc.) nations projected on their Amazonian territories, using indigenous workers in large scale and in semi-slavery conditions, as well as bring large numbers of workers from other regions, until the current model of territorial occupation.
The Amazon is inhabited by a huge variety of fauna and flora, it constitutes a genetic reserve of global significance and a unique endemic area. For example Peru has the highest number of butterfly species (reaching 4,000 different species). Among other global records, we mention the variety of potatoes (Solanum tuberosum), with 3,500 of the 5,000 crop varieties, providing more adaptive and evolutionary options to this tuber, which is essential in a context of climate change.
This map shows the variety of mammals, birds and amphibians on the planet. The red and yellow colors of the map mark the regions with the greatest animal diversity. (Global patterns of terrestrial vertebrate diversity and conservation, University of North Carolina – 2013).
Current dynamics in the Amazon
The scarcity of scientific information and consistent statistical data makes it difficult to compare information at local level to have a comprehensive speech and facilitate analysis of the different ecological dynamics. However there is no doubt that the region is being affected by rising average temperatures and changing rainfall patterns. The balance of the ecosystem is vulnerable to these changes and in turn increases the vulnerability of human populations, especially the poorest. Climate change could convert to savanna up to 60% of the Amazon in this century, something disastrous when around one fifth of global runoff water is currently in the Amazon basin and river.
The growth of economic activities, the construction of infraestructures and the establishment of new human settlements have led to changes in the Amazonian land use that accelerate the transformation of the ecosystem. In 2005, the accumulated deforestation in the Amazon was 857,666 km2, indicating that vegetation cover has been reduced by 17% (equivalent to two-thirds of Peru). It is estimated that if more than 30% of plant cover is lost, a vicious circle will start and continually reduce rainfalls in the area. We beliebe this risk together with the current existence of large untouched natural areas (of greater ecological value), should encourage governments to undertake joint control and protection actions.
Some timber industries like this one in Madre de Dios meet sustainability controls. (Own source).
There has been a significant expansion of monoculture agriculture (soybean) and intensive farming, with a very high environmental impact. Moreover, in recent years and increasing number of sustainable agro-productive systems are being developed, viable even in large-scale systems and improving the quality of life of the population. But the advance of these systems is still limited when compared with the expansion of unsustainable production due to the short range of public policies and the market incentives. Considering environmental degradation, we see more and more examples of impacts to the local economy; increased pests (disappearance of natural controllers) thereby increasing the cost of production, landscape resources (which attract tourism) as well as the quality and availability of water is affected, also a tendency to increase vulnerability to floods and droughts has been registered.
Amazon human population grew at an average annual rate of 2.3% in 1990-2007, and since the 2000s it always surpases the growth rate of the nation average. This growth is associated with migration, expansion of productive activities and the development of transport infrastructure. We must understand that this population belongs to the Amazon, it integrates and maintains a strong link with their land, but for this growth to be sustainable a greater presence of social policies and ecological studies is required.
Increased population density (62.8% live in urban areas) and deforestation create a breeding ground for mosquitoes and diseases such as malaria, and other health problems that require of more hospital infrastructure and qualified medical personnel to meet the needs of the population.
In the Amazon, high illiteracy rates are recorded, but these descend annually. In the Brazilian Amazon a reduction of 7 percentage points was recorded in the illiteracy rate, between 1990 and 2005 it went from 20% to 13% of the population older than 15. In 2011 the department of Madre de Dios registers a 4.1% illiteracy for people over 15 years, thanks to various state programs and school construction which increase child attendance. The offer of university studies in the region continues to increase, a current example of academic quality would be the Federal University of Acre (Ufac) with 661 teachers and 9,000 students enrolled, where studies as “Mestrado em Ecologia e Manejo dos Recursos Naturais” and “Mestrado em Ciência, Inovação e Tecnologia para a Amazõnia” are taught. To which we can add an example of academic future, the newly built Amazon National University of Madre de Dios (UNAMAD) in Puerto Maldonado, opens this 2015 the first 450 seats for students in the capital of the department, where studies will be held as “Ecoturismo”, “Ing. Forestal y Medio Ambiente” and “Ing.Agroindustrial” will be held. Enough grounds for a reduction in local environmental ignorance, which is greatly influenced by superstitions, along with increased availability of technical knowledge and qualified analysis to the region.
This increasingly educated population, with a significant increase in consumption of energy and commodities (Internet access begins to normalize in the area) tends towards a greater ecological footprint. It will be the governance and implementation of environmental impact studies, among other methods of environmental management, the factors that decide whether growth will be successful or harmful to its own population and environment.
It should be noted that the exposed sociodemographic outcomes are substantially worse for indigenous people. Taking a low quality service to a particularly vulnerable group of people. In Madre de Dios live around a thousand indigenous in 5 ethnic groups, while in Acre they barely exceed 600 indigenous inhabitants in 4 different groups.
Puerto Maldonado is situated at the junction of the Madre de Dios river and the Tambopata river (Own source).
Major environmental problems in Madre de Dios and Acre
The problem of environmental management in the Peruvian region would come partly from a lack of self-governance against Lima, mainly due to poor self-management of taxes collected locally, which goes to a national box with a return of less value. Mining participates in about 40% of the Madre de Dios Region GDP, mostly “informal” (illegal but respecting certain protected areas and without use of heavy machinery). But the fault lies not only in the mining, police corruption is known to the authorities and it is also known that the mercury, used in huge quantities to extract gold, is of Spanish origin. A weak citizen participation in making important region decisions, plus a lack of awareness and environmental sensitivity help us understand the normality of certain aggressions to the environment.
Mining in the region is the main polluting activity due to the abundance of gold dust from the Andes, which has been accumulated in the river meanders. Informal mining bases its modus operandi in dredging sand to mix with mercury, the amalgam is burned in cans to obtain gold nuggets. About 0.35 grams of gold are obtained per cubic meter of clay. Not only meanders are temporarily assaulted also 40,000 to 50,000 hectares of wetlands have been permanently deforested, polluting air, soil and water. A study by Stanford University shows that 75% of people tested in Madre de Dios have mercury levels above the maximum level allowed and that 60% of local fish has high levels of methylmercury contamination, a neurotoxic compound capable of both bioaccumulation and biomagnification. In the department live more than 100,000 locals, they can fortunately see, despite some difficulties, that the supervision and control of mining is increasing, with bills that try to intimidate who mines or buys illegally extracted gold.
Acre, with over 600,000 inhabitants, has more deforested land than Mother of God, because its economy is based on exports of rubber and timber, cattle ranching and farming crops such as soybeans. These activities also generate hydrological impacts with the added problematic of poor purification of waste water, causing an increased incidence of multiple diseases. Deforestation contributes to a lower return period of river overflowing. In March 2014 floods isolated Acre from the rest of Brazil cutting several roads. Peru sent them food and assistance via the Interoceanic Highway, but again in March 2015 the Acre River overflowed and caused the isolation of tens of thousands of inhabitants.
For most of its Brazilian section, the Interoceanic Highway has up to one kilometer on each side of deforested land for cattle pasture. (Own source).
In any case Acre has a noticeably environmentalist tradition that other Brazilian states as Rondonia (south, next to Bolivia). In Rondonia mining, logging and cattle raising have deforested much of their forest while in Acre environmentalists and progressive political movements have been successful in preserving a large percentage of forest with greater government environmental authority, sustainable cooperatives, and a strong state investment to effectively reduce the number of hectares that are harvested annually. Following the hydrological problems mentioned, Acre is launching a water plan for the Amazon, with increased management planning and use of water and a network of hydrological monitoring quality. The increased environmental awareness of Acre, has its origin in Chico Mendes, a collector of rubber that was eventually assassinated in 1988 for his environmental activism. He is now remembered as a local hero, for his peaceful struggle against logging that attracted international support, receiving the Global 500 Award of the United Nations in 1987.
The deforested course of the road is visible by satellite image, forming an inverted “U” from the Andes (lower left) and continuing to the Atlantic through the lower-right corner of the image. We see the greatest deforestation in Rondonia. (Prepared. Source: Image 2015 Landsat GoogleEarth).
Environmental impact of the road
The south stretch of road we visited was approved for execution without Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and the remaining sections execution was approved prior to the completion of the EIA, which is contrary to existing law and is contrary to the preventive intention of this environmental management tool.
Below we summarize the main environmental impacts generated by the construction and use of the road in such a sensitive area:
- Rapid increase of deforestation and degradation of natural forests.
- Impairment of land for agricultural use. Direct destruction of soil and soil quality (fertility) mainly due to loss of vegetation cover, soil compaction, the implementation of complementary routes and spillage of oils and lubricants.
- Changes in geological and landscape structure, with cuts on slopes with explosives, affecting the natural surface runoff and facilitating earth movements.
- Fragmentation of ecosystems, the road becomes a physical barrier with greater effect in species that can’t fly.
- Emissions of particulate solid matter and gases into the atmosphere due to vehicle traffic.
- Direct destruction of flora and fauna. Alteration of biodiversity and habitat, severe to the forest ecosystem because of its greater vegetation cover, which is the source for protection, feeding and breeding of its compromised wildlife. To be added that the wild species, although present in more diversity, are not present in large populations.
- Micro-climate change due to loss of plant cover and dissipation of thermal energy in the boundary areas to the buffer zones of protected areas as the Tambopata National Reserve.
- Alteration of hydromorphic areas like swamp areas in the jungle, because they are fragmented by the presence of the road. Especially in Acre.
Alejandro Palomino de Dios
David Schimel, Britton B. Stephens and Joshua B. (2015), Effect of increasing CO2 on the terrestrial carbon cycle. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences
Hongbin Yu et al. (2015), The fertilizing role of African dust in the Amazon rainforest: A first multiyear assessment based on data from Cloud-Aerosol Lidar and Infrared Pathfinder Satellite Observations. Geophysical Research Letters
PNUMA, OTCA y Universidad del Pacífico (2009), GEO Amazonía, Perspectivas del medio ambiente en la Amazonía. PNUMA
J. W. Brienen, O. L. Phillips, T. R. Feldpausch et al. (2015), Long-term decline of the Amazon carbon sink. Nature