The highway tearing through the heart of the Amazon

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Ojo Publico, Madre de Dios, Peru

An OjoPublico.com team traveled the forests of Madre de Dios, Peru, and discovered that an illegal highway promoted by the regional governor, Luis Otsuka, is the new corridor for the trafficking of timber and fuel from Cusco to center of illegal mining in the Amazon. Otsuka was accused of illegal deforestation last November for having initiated the work. This hasn't stopped the road from being lengthened this year, from twelve to 33 kilometers. This increase will facilitate the entry of illegal loggers and gold prospectors into the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve and the Manu National Park.

No authority seems able to stop it.

The prosecutor makes his way through the damp forest vegetation while a drone slowly rises to a height of 250 meters, like a giant bee above the trees. It is a difficult 11 hour walk for the official, in the company of two police officers, a park ranger, two communal custodians and a representative of the Ministry of Environment. The party is looking for traces of a possible environmental crime. Along the way, they have had to avoid being followed by a convoy of local inhabitants, encouraged by regional officials to hinder the exercise. Just when it appears the group has given up finding anything, images taken by the drone provide the evidence: A long track opened up with machetes is drawn like a 21-kilometer long wound in the leafy forest of the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve. The robot has just found the second section of an illegal road which threatens this Amazonian forest, the world´s most diverse and the last refuge of the native communities of the Alto Madre de Dios.

THE SCAR. Satellite images taken in August show the highway's progress, from the community of Shipetiari to Boca Manu. / Conservación Amazónica and the Amazon Conservation Association.

The discovery was made in February 2016 and was recorded in a never-before-seen video. The images show a straight yellowish path through the middle of the green cloak of the forest. This track is the extension of an earlier twelve kilometer section of highway illegally built by Luis Otsuka, the controversial governor of Madre de Dios, who has been charged for the deforestation that the works caused. According to a study by the NGO Conservación Amazónica together with the Amazon Conservation Association, the opening of the road has led to the loss of 32 hectares of trees and vegetation, the equivalent of 44 football fields. It was a startling sight. “The prosecutor was unable to speak,” recalls Edwin Llauta, a forest engineer who works as a park ranger in the reserve and who was monitoring the flight of the drone that day. Until that moment, only a few knew how to get to this location. No local had wanted to facilitate the journey of the prosecutor's party.

In some sections the highway is 25 meters wide, the equivalent of a main avenue in Lima including the sidewalk and the median strip.

The deforested area lies in the communal reserve's buffer zone, the final ring of natural protection to prevent impact from human activity. In some sections the highway is 25 meters wide, the equivalent of a main avenue in Lima, including the sidewalk and the medium strip.

THE DRONE. A prosecutor found the second illegal section of the highway using a drone which flew over the forest. In the picture, the team accompanying him await the key images.

Prosecutor Adrián Huayllapuma's investigation was a sign that the damage recorded to this protected natural area had reached critical point. In 2006, barely four years after the reserve was created, the government of President Alan Garcia issued a license to the US multinational Hunt Oil for the so-called Lot 76, a huge rectangular area which occupies a third of the reserve’s surface. The presence of illegal loggers who exploit a wide belt of surrounding forests is also a threat. And over the last three years the area has been affected by illegal miners, who have degraded the southern flank of the buffer zone. According to a 2016 report of the National Service of Natural Protected Areas (Sernanp), “a space for the entry of illegal gold and timber extractors has been facilitated in a reserve which houses the sources of the rivers upon which the lives of more than two thousand indigenous people who populate Alto Madre de Dios depend.” It is, in other words, a matter of life or death.

AN ILLEGAL ROUTE

On a July night, we cross the Manu in search of the highway. The waters of the Madre de Dios River recede and the guide asks us to watch for tree trunks and stones that could damage the motor of the barge in which we are traveling. In a few minutes we will arrive at the Shipetiari native community, the final point on the highway which penetrates one of the most isolated corners of this part of the Amazon, like a wedge. Suddenly, we stop. Floating in the river a few meters from an overturned boat, are dozens of barrels. “Another accident,” grumbles Venancio Corisepa, indigenous leader of the Harambukt ethnic group and one of the ancestral custodians of the forest who is accompanying us on the journey. This is a familiar scene with an easy explanation: the highway has become a corridor for the transport of fuel to illegal mining settlements in the region.

ILLEGAL PORT. A shipload of timber arrives at the port which has been established in the Shipetiari community, to be transported by river to another town in Madre de Dios. / Audrey Cordova

The port of Shipetiari is an informal settlement which appeared with the opening of the highway. It is controlled by immigrant Cusqueños. On arrival, all one sees are makeshift restaurants, short-term lodgings and bars. From the riverbank, the intensive motion of barges fully loaded with barrels of fuel, timber and other goods can be seen. Nobody controls the trade. Not the National Police, which has no checkpoints. Nor the Regional Forests and Wild Fauna Directorate, which only has two people assigned to the entire province. Much less the National Customs and Taxation Administration Superintendency (SUNAT), the institution charged with controlling the smuggling of fuel and other materials in the country. Almost all the goods that circulate in this area—as everyone knows—end up in the region most devastated by illegal gold extraction.

The highway has caused fissures between indigenous populations which once saw the creation of the reserve as a victory in the long struggle to reclaim their territory.

The trucks carrying the fuel to the port of Shipetiari come from a place whose name seems ironic: Villa Salvación (Salvation). This town, surrounded by misty forests, lies on the southern frontier between Madre de Dios and Cusco, and appears on tourist maps as the one of the best areas to see the Cock of the Rock, an irresistible lure for bird watchers. By contrast, maps of the Police Anti-Drug Directorate show it to be an area penetrated by drug trafficking.

DESTINATION. A community member navigates the Madre de Dios River, the main form of transport for the indigenous peoples of Alto Madre de Dios. / Audrey Cordova.

Between 2013 and 2015, coca leaf cropping around Villa Salvación doubled to more than one thousand hectares, according to reports by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The area is strewn with dozens of coca maceration pits. The Office of the Cusco Anti-Drug Prosecutor has detected a number in the Manu National Park, one of the Amazon's last remaining natural paradises. “It has become a miniature VRAEM,” says Jorge Camargo, the Cusco Anti-Drug Prosecutor, alluding by acronym to a nearby valley that is a refuge for drug traffickers and guerrillas whom the armed forces have been unable to control.

SALVATION. Adrián Tecsi, a sub-prefect, complains that neither the prosecutor nor the police control the fuel that enters Madre de Dios via the border with Cusco.

Passing vehicles carrying fuel and whose points of departure and destination are suspect, are not a priority. "I don't know where to look when they complain that I don't do anything,” confesses Adrián Tecsi, 60, who four months ago was designated sub-prefect of Manu Province with a mission to assist in the battle against the trafficking of fuel for illegal mining. Although he has been in the job only a short time, Tecsi is already frustrated because neither the police nor the prosecutor inspect the vehicles which travel the section of the highway that passes through his jurisdiction. Sub-prefect Tecsi says that his life has been threatened for trying to do his work.

Even Diamante's own inhabitants intend to facilitate the transit of vehicles from Shipetiari to Boca Manu by removing trees.

The volume of fuel which passes through the area gives a sense of the problem. Manu Province, which has five districts, contains 45 registered gas stations, although official reports from the Supervising Agency for Energy and Mining Investment (OSINERGMIN) estimate the circulation to be just 15 thousand gallons of fuel each year. Many gas stations are concentrated in Huetetuhe District, an area in which illegal mining has exploded, converting the forest into a desert of red earth. From the single registered gas station in Villa Salvación, eight trucks loaded with gas and diesel depart every month and nobody is sure of their destination.

SHORTAGE. Luis Barrera, the head of the Regional Forests and Wild Fauna Directorate, has only two support personnel to control timber extraction.

The same frustration can also be sensed in the voice of prosecutor José Antonio Vargas Oviedo, head of the Manu Mixed Provincial Prosecutor's Office, located less than fifty meters from the Regional Forests and Wild Fauna Directorate. “There are just two of us and we can't control activities which are beyond our capacity,” he says, to explain the problem at hand. Prosecutor Vargas, whose desk is covered with complaints to be investigated, acknowledges that he cannot control the transport of fuel, nor can he mount operations to control the other important illegal traffic in the area: the timber leaving Manu Province.

“An illegal economy is being encouraged because of the way in which this new highway is being constructed and this will be accentuated with the arrival of more immigrants.” - Luis Felipe Torres, an anthropologist from the Ministry of Culture.

Officially, 80 cubic meters of timber are extracted each month from this area, the equivalent of three trucks loaded with planks. Prosecutor Vargas says that in reality this quantity departs every week, judging by the continuous passage of vehicles carrying the cargo. There is no way of verifying their origin. “There aren´t enough authorized licenses to extract this amount,” he states. Some 75% of the timber which leaves Manu is transported with certificates that do not belong to any of the four authorized companies: Inbaco, Mafopunchi, Emecomanu and Inversiones Apolo. “Here the timber is laundered with waybills issued by the regional government. There is no other way,” says Prosecutor Vargas.

The trade was previously uncontrollable and the highway has only further facilitated movement of the traffickers.

CARGA. Barges which navigate the Madre de Dios River transport beer to indigenous communities. / Luis Felipe Torres.

PEOPLES DIVIDED

Diamante is the largest native community anchored to the banks of the Madre de Dios River. It has a large set of cement steps at its entrance, a kindergarten, a primary and secondary school in good condition and an airfield for trips from Cusco to the Manu forest. It is also one of two towns for the Yine ethnic group, whose members work in small scale timber extraction. Six hundred people live here, many of whom are children of immigrants from the Andes who have married native women. It is one of the few communities which strongly supports the march of the so-called Manu-Amarakaeri corridor. “It’s the only way to progress,” say Edgar Morales, the president, a thickset man with tanned skin who some villagers call "Ayacucho,” in reference to his birthplace.

The highway has caused fissures between indigenous populations which once saw the creation of the reserve as a victory in the long struggle to reclaim their territory. In 2002, the National Institute of National Resources (INRENA) granted the forests of the Amarakaeri (which in Harambukt means “warrior people”) the status of communal reserve, which implies shared administration between the state and the Harambukt, Machiguenga and Yine communities. It represented recognition of the rights of these ethnic groups, which were decimated by the rubber boom and later harassed by gold prospectors. Fourteen years after that achievement, and in the absence of other alternatives for survival, community members have no alternative other than to participate in the illegal extractive activities which have surrounded their forests.

The proposed route passes within five kilometers of the Madre de Dios Territorial Reserve, home to the indigenous Mashco Piro, one of Peru´s largest ethnic groups living in voluntary isolation.

The inhabitants of Puerto Luz and San José de Karene search for gold. Those of Shipetiara, Diamante and Islas de los Valles extract timber or rent their land to illegal loggers. The income they receive from these businesses is often called a royalty. It allows them to purchase food that they previously grew or hunted, and finances the consumption of beer. This which has already lead to cases of alcoholism. Diamante's own inhabitants intend to remove trees to facilitate the transit of vehicles from Shipetiari to Boca Manu, a town which is a necessary transit point for tourists visiting the Manu National Park.

A TRIP. A Shipetiari family travels on a barge to the mining town of Boca Colorado to buy food and sell chestnuts. /Audrey Córdova

After a four hour trip by barge on the Madre de Dios River—and an overland leg in motor vehicles—we arrive at a location where the highway provokes an entirely different reaction. “Instead of development we have seen devastation,” says Yerco Tayori, a young indigenous leader from Puerto Luz, one of the native communities which has experienced invasion by illegal gold extractors over several decades. Tayori, a member of the Harambukt ethnic group, speaks in uncertain terms as he shows us his community's closed health center, without medical staff but with its ceiling destroyed by bats. The building has been this way for five months and there has been no response to the complaint made to the Madre de Dios Regional Health Directorate.

CONNECTED. The Diamante native community is the largest and best connected in Alto Madre de Dios and is also the most supportive of the highway. / Audrey Cordova.

Tayori says that before the highway progresses any further, the native communities need to resolve all land title issues. Events in Puerto Luz, previously known as Puerto Alegre, illustrate the concern. Seventeen mining licenses issued by the state in this community sit over the top of native land. In the last three years this problem has caused violent confrontations between the Harambukt and some mining license holders, who have required police protection in order to enter the area.

Puerto Luz is also affected by the license for the so-called Lot 76, held by US company Hunt Oil, which is undertaking exploration in search of hydro-carbon resources. The company negotiated compensation of $30,000 in 2009 with a group of leaders to be able to undertake its operations. This provoked serious conflict amongst the indigenous groups, which accused one another of betrayal. Hunt Oil delivered social programs to improve its relationship with the community, however a three-year extension to the exploration phrase authorized by the Ministry of Energy and Mines in 2015 surprised indigenous organizations. It was perceived to be a new imposition by the government and the company.

DIAMANTE. Children in Diamante play while their parents meet in the school to determine their next steps in relation to the highway. / Audrey Cordova.

“We are not yet ready to confront the changes which are coming,” says Yerco Tayori about the imminent extension of the highway, which will surround the Amarakaeri Communal Reserve. The regional government of Madre de Dios promotes the road as a means by which the communities can transport their harvests of chestnuts, yuca and banana to nearby regional towns. However, the majority of the people barely grow enough for their own consumption and lack the tools to cultivate on a larger scale.

If the highway continues its advance, by 2040 some 43,000 additional hectares of forest will have been lost, an area ten times larger than the Nazca lines.

THE WAIT. A mother and her baby wait for a doctor in the Boca Isiriwe health post. No staff are in attendance. /Audrey Cordova.

“An illegal economy is being encouraged because of the way in which this new highway is being constructed and this will be accentuated with the arrival of more immigrants,” says Luis Felipe Torres, a Ministry of Culture anthropologist who undertakes studies of populations in voluntary isolation in Alto Madre de Dios. His concerns will increase if the section continues growing and reaches the mining town on Boca Colorado, as Governor Otsuka plans. The proposed section would pass five kilometers from the Madre de Dios Territorial Reserve, home to the indigenous Mashco Piro, one of the largest ethnic groups living in isolation in Peru. “This village will be more exposed to the transmission of disease and other risks caused by the opening of a road close to the forest through which they travel,” warns the anthropologist. If this happens, not only will deforestation increase, but the conflict could turn into a humanitarian crisis.

EXPENSIVE. The barge journey from Boca Colorado to the nearest communities in Alto Madre de Dios takes between four and five hours and can cost 80 soles. /Audrey Córdova 

CUSTODIANS IN PERIL

Six months after a drone guides a prosecutor to the highway illegally extended by the regional government, the Sernanp park rangers prepare another flyover of the Amarakaeri forests by the robot to assess the state of the deforested area. Other than the ten indigenous populations which live in the reserve, the twelve park rangers are the only ones who monitor the area. From their five isolated posts in the midst of the vegetation, they have to care for more than 400,000 hectares of forest separately and on foot. This means that there are sectors which are covered just once a week.

Gerardo Italiano is a young park ranger from the Machiguenga ethnic group who knows the area like he knows his own home. His ear is trained to detect the sound of the chainsaws, machetes and the vehicles which stealthily enter the area. He feels frustrated that he is unable to do more than merely write reports. “Nobody helps us. We are on our own. That's why many of my colleagues turn to corruption. Being corrupt makes more sense than doing the job, because nobody listens to us,” he says.

One particular afternoon, Italiano was patrolling the Sabaluyoc sector, a reserve buffer zone reported as having been invaded by illegal loggers and where coca leaf plantations were located. He came across a group which had built a maceration pit for cocaine base paste. The men were armed. “I could only look the other way and continue walking. I did nothing, and they said: 'Thanks for not being a rat.'”

THREATENED. Park ranger Gerardo Italiano, from the Machiguenga ethnic group, reveals that he is threatened for doing his job and is not supported by the state.

While park rangers such as Italiano idly watch the illegal activities in the last remaining virgin forests of Madre de Dios, from his office in Puerto Maldonado, Governor Luis Otsuka—a former miner with licenses still active —has a different vision of development and of the highway. “We are doing all this to help the native communities. Would you prefer that they die, that they rot there," he shouts in response to a question about who the real beneficiaries of the track are. However, these beneficiaries seem to be the traffickers rather than the communities. The same individuals who benefit from the governor's attempts to overturn the rules that prohibit mining in the region.

Even though the new section of road crosses two of the country´s largest Amazonian reserves, it was built without a Ministry of Transport and Communications evaluation and without a Sernanp environmental impact study. Otsuka has invested more than 4 million soles from the office of governor. Four months after the highway was started, a judge in Cusco stopped the work and charged the government and two of his officials for illegal deforestation.

CUSTODIANS. Members of the native communities support the park rangers to control the Amarakaeri Reserve, but are also threatened by illegal miners.

In April 2016, a report by the comptroller confirmed that the regional governor had also contravened the minimum approval requirements for infrastructure of this scale. The document says: “The facts on display have also generated significant environmental impacts, such as reduction in soil fertility, changes to the hydrological cycle, loss of plant coverage and of space for the movement and feeding of species.”

ROUTE. A truck loaded with timber leaves the port of Shipetiari for Villa Salvación. There are no checkpoints in the area. /Audrey Cordova

One might imagine that in the face of such arguments, the work might be stopped, at least formally, until the complaint against Otsuka is heard and one of the authorities involved issues an environmental impact study. It is not so. Last May, whilst the illegal track advanced through the forest, one of Otsuka's officers met with representatives of the ten native communities and the Ministry of the Environment at the Cusco Provincial Municipality in the neighboring region. An unusual agreement was reached: although the judicial process was still in progress, the government would continue making plans for a new section of the highway to reach Boca Manu. It was agreed that this time environmental standards would be respected. It is not the only threat to the forest. One of the legislators who assumed office in July with the change of government has promised to drive forward the highway from the new Congress. Modesto Figueroa is the owner of six fuel stations in Madre de Dios. He was one of the fuel suppliers of the Baca Casas clan, members of which, according to the office of the prosecutor, are under investigation for the laundering of money from illegal gold extraction in the region.

The private consultancy Nature Services Peru, has modeled the effects of the deforestation accentuated by the highway. If it continues advancing as planned by the government of Madre de Dios, the projection by 2040 is that 43,000 hectares of forest will have been lost, an area ten times larger than the Nazca lines. This also means that the habitat of more than 700 species reported in the Amarkaeri Communal Reserve will have been affected, including plants, insects, mammals, amphibians, birds, reptiles and fish, according to a registry published by the Smithsonian Biological Conservation Institute in 2015. One of the emblematic animals of these forests is the spectacled bear (Tremarctos ornatus), a species unique to Latin America and one which is in danger of extinction. All the signs are that this last section of the highway, which begins in a place called Salvación, might lead to disaster.