El Dorado, “an inexhaustible treasure trove”, “the last, as yet unfinished page of Genesis”; for centuries, the Amazon has been the site of utopias, real and imagined. These have often been home-grown, as with so many indigenous millenarian movements: from the 16th century Tupí in search of the ‘Land Without Evil’ to the Ashaninka whose ‘militant messianism’ led them to take up arms alongside Juan Santos Atahualpa in the 18th century and, again, with the Movimiento de Izquierda Revolucionaria during the 1960s.
But such utopian impulses have very often also been imposed from outside – most famously in the case of El Dorado – only to be subsequently twisted and transformed into dystopia by the logics of colonialism and extractivism.
In the first decades of the 21st century, the Peruvian Amazon and its peoples face a ‘new scenario’, in the words of Shipibo leader Robert Guimaraes, in the guise of dozens of associated ‘megaprojects’ which seek to transform the region through the rapid and intensive expansion both of infrastructure and natural resource extraction.
In a recent event, ‘Impacts of Megaprojects and the Expansion of Oil Palm Monocultures in Indigenous Peoples’ Territories in the Ucayali’, convened by the indigenous organisation Federation of Native Communities of the Ucayali (FECONAU), a key ally with which Alianza Arkana has been coordinating through its ecosocial justice program during the past months, Guimaraes offered a stark picture of the future which is currently unfolding in the Peruvian Amazon.
The megaprojects in question fall broadly into two categories: those related to infrastructure, such as the construction of roads and railways, the conversion of rivers into industrial shipping canals, and large-scale hydroelectric projects; and those related to the extraction of natural resources, particularly the hydrocarbon, mining and agro-industries.
Naturally, the priorities and particular struggles of the indigenous peoples of the Ucayali shaped the meeting’s agenda; hence special attention was given to the urgent situation facing the Shipibo community of Santa Clara de Uchunya, who are fighting against a land grab and the large-scale deforestation of their traditional forests by the oil palm company Plantaciones de Pucallpa SAC. However, in this particular blog, I will focus on the first category of megaprojects – infrastructure – not least because much of the information concerning these developments is scattered across technical reports and is often only available in Spanish, outlining some of the key projects and considering some of their possible impacts.
The Pucallpa-Cruziero do Sul road project typifies many of the current and planned megaprojects in the Peruvian Amazon: initially proposed 40 years ago, the idea to construct a road connecting the Peruvian city of Pucallpa (where Alianza Arkana is based) with the Brazilian city of Cruziero do Sul, was taken up again in 2004, under the aegis of the ‘Initiative for the Integration of South-American Regional Infrastructure’ (IIRSA, as it is known in Spanish), a continent-wide initiative driven largely by Brazilian investment.
The road, if constructed, would be the second to connect Peru with the Atlantic and, perhaps more significantly, Brazil with the Pacific, thus establishing another route for that country’s external trade with China.
In recent years, the proposed road has become a secondary priority, with the Peruvian and Brazilian authorities favouring the construction of a railway as an alternative with more limited socio-environmental impacts. Furthermore, the Chinese Government announced its support for this initiative in 2014.
Nonetheless, indigenous organisations warn that the proposed route will cut through and impact upon indigenous territories and possibly indigenous peoples living in isolation, even if fears about the project’s proximity to the Isconahua Territorial Reserve and the newly-created Sierra Divisor National Park have been partly allayed by the announcement of an alternative route further to the south.
Moreover, an independent study released in 2015 found that the railway project is economically unsound, even before its potential social and ecological impacts are taken into account, given the high costs of construction and limited demand for transport.
The Proyecto Hidrovía Amazónica (‘Amazonian Waterways Project’) is another major infrastructural megaproject, also part of IIRSA, aimed at re-engineering four of the Peruvian Amazon’s greatest rivers – the Huallaga, Marañón, Ucayali and Amazonas – with the purpose of making them navigable ‘365 days a year’ for large vessels – again, to facilitate the transit of Brazilian commodities to the Pacific. According to ProInversión, the Hidrovía Amazónica will involve dredging more than 3.8 million cubic metres of these main tributaries of the Amazon river.
The Hidrovía Amazónica has been heavily criticised by indigenous organisations and their allies for a failure to adequately consult with and ensure the participation of the affected communities; the lack of sound, objective scientific data about the likely socio-ecological impacts of a project on this scale; as well as the lack of tangible benefits it is likely to bring to indigenous peoples themselves, whose traditional territories will be most affected. As lawyer Juan Carlos Ruíz Molleda has pointed out, the sections of river designated ‘bad passages’ by planners – by which they refer to the sand banks and shallows on which large vessels are prone to become stranded – are nothing of the sort for local river-dwellers, whose small boats have navigated these waterways for generations. The transformation of these rivers is certain to have profound, far-reaching and potentially irreversible effects for indigenous peoples such as the Kukama and the Shibipo, given how fundamental the riverscape is to their whole way of being.
What is to be taken from this very cursory glance at just a few of the infrastructural megaprojects under way in the Peruvian Amazon? Several points deserve emphasis.
As anthropologist Paul Little has observed, such projects are drivers of the rapid and “forced industrialisation of the rainforest”, accelerated processes of urbanisation, deforestation and ecosystem crisis or even – in the case of the 400 hydroelectric projects planned for the Amazon basin – possible collapse. Little goes on to remark that “one of the most salient characteristics of these large-scale projects is that they are planned by non-Amazonian persons and organizations to attend to demands that are also external to the region. In the process, these projects systematically exclude Amazonian peoples in the planning and the decision-making phases”1.
With this in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that experts have warned in recent days that large-scale infrastructure projects look set to become the main driver of confrontation and social conflict between local communities and the State, both in the Amazon and beyond, across Peru. Previous eras of intensified economic investment in the Peruvian Amazon, such as the Rubber Boom (1880 – 1914), have been accompanied by a spike in violence, for the most part directed towards the region’s indigenous peoples. As a recent report by Global Witness reiterated, there has never been a more dangerous time to take a stand in defence of land and the environment; this global phenomenon is reflected locally here in Ucayali in the threats and intimidation indigenous leaders face for revindicating their rights.
Listening to and engaging with indigenous peoples’ proposals, which stem from their unique territorialities, histories and cosmovisions, is fundamental if these investments are not to violate their territorial and cultural rights. In this context, the need for participatory, community-led forms of development assumes even greater urgency – not just for community wellbeing, but also for peace.