Proposed Brazil-Peru road through untouched Amazon gains momentum

Scientists and residents of the Serra do Divisor National Park fear impacts of development on the unique biodiversity of the area between Brazil’s Acre state and Peru
<p>The Serra do Divisor National Park, in the Brazilian state of Acre, is one of the planet&#8217;s most biodiverse areas, but its nature and communities face threats from a road extension project that would connect Brazil and Peru (Image: Ramon Aquim)</p>

The Serra do Divisor National Park, in the Brazilian state of Acre, is one of the planet’s most biodiverse areas, but its nature and communities face threats from a road extension project that would connect Brazil and Peru (Image: Ramon Aquim)

Antônio Martins da Costa lives on the banks of the Azul river, inside the Serra do Divisor National Park, a protected area in the far-western Brazilian state of Acre. Costa supports himself through fishing, a small corn and rice plantation, and raising chickens and ducks. The rest he takes to market in Mâncio Lima, the nearest city, which is a nine-hour boat ride away from his community, Belo Horizonte. On one of these trips, he learned about a project to build a road inside the park. “Nobody came to talk to us about it,” he says.

Today, the highway, BR-364, is already about 4,000 kilometres long, connecting the southern state of São Paulo with the state of Acre, on the border with Peru. Both the federal and state governments intend to extend it a further 230 km to connect Juruá in western Acre to Pucallpa, in Peru. In doing so, the road would cut 20 km into the Serra do Divisor park, home to isolated indigenous peoples and some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet.

A man looking at the camera with clothes hanging behind him.
Antônio Martins da Costa, a riberinho river dweller, questions the lack of information about the mega-project that will affect his community (Image: Ramon Aquim)

The highway aims to shorten the route from Brazil to Peruvian markets and seaports, facilitating the shipment of agricultural commodities from Brazil’s northern and central regions to Asia, especially China, which in 2021 accounted for 34% of Brazilian agribusiness exports.

Today, however, the BR-317, a section of what is known as the Pacific or Interoceanic Highway, already connects the border towns of Assis Brasil, in south-eastern Acre, and Iñapari, in Peru.

Yet, according to Janaína Terças, the institutional coordinator of the Federation of Industries of Acre in Juruá, the new highway would shorten the journey to the Pacific. The existing BR-317 route crosses a mountainous region, is longer and winds more on its way to Peruvian ports.

“This not only makes the stretch through Assis Brasil further away, but also more dangerous, especially for heavy loads. The reduction in the distance from Rio Branco [the capital of Acre] to Lima by the new road would be around 1,600 km, which would cheapen imports,” Terças says.

However, the project has faced resistance from local and indigenous peoples over the changes it would bring to their territories. Scientists, too, fear the impact on rare native species that inhabit the area’s 840,000 hectares of preserved Amazon forest.

There is also a plan to build a link of the proposed interoceanic railway from the Brazilian midwest to Pucallpa, which could also pass through the park. That project, part of the Brazilian strategic railway plan, is deemed feasible by Chinese engineers who back it as a route for agricultural production to reach Asia via the Pacific Ocean.

This map by InfoAmazonia shows the proposed route for the highway that would cut through the Serra do Divisor National Park, in Brazil’s far-western state of Acre, to Pucallpa in Peru. Zoom out to compare the three routes and hover over protected areas and settlements for more information.

The railway will likely take a while to get off the drawing board, due to its size and cost. The Brazilian and Peruvian transport ministries and China’s National Development and Reform Commission, the country’s top planning body, first agreed to look into the project in 2014. The road, however, is already making strides.

Around R$500 million (US$98 million) has been earmarked for the highway in this year’s federal budget, an initiative led by Márcio Bittar (of the União Brasil party), a senator from Acre and an ally of state governor Gladson Cameli (Progressive). Both are supporters of President Jair Bolsonaro (Partido Liberal).

Resistance, ancestry and preservation

Antônio da Costa is sceptical that the road, set to pass 10 km from his community, will bring benefits. In this isolated region, surrounded by dense forest, there is no planned overland connection to the highway, so residents would continue to travel to Mâncio Lima by boat. “The best that can happen is that we buy cheaper Peruvian products in the city,” he told Diálogo Chino and InfoAmazonia.

Born in the Belo Horizonte community, João da Costa Silva also rejects the development and fears that the work will boost drug trafficking: “Our community is calm, there is no problem of violence. But I am afraid that this calmness will change.”

Drug distribution routes already operate between Peru, one of the world’s largest producers of cocaine, and Brazil, its main consumer market in South America, according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).

A woman and a man smiling
With the road project, João da Costa Silva (left) fears the end of tranquility in the Belo Horizonte community, on the banks of the Azul River (Image: Ramon Aquim)

Close to the national park, the Poyanawa indigenous land is also set to be impacted by the motorway. Prior to its demarcation in 2000, when indigenous claims to the territory were formally recognised, its 24,000 hectares were largely occupied by pastures and rubber plantations. Today, however, it stands as an example of successful preservation in the Amazon. Only 6% of the area is deforested and 700 indigenous people live there.

“We have our sacred sites next door, which are our treasure and, within the park, the springs of all these rivers here,” says Luiz Puwe, a cacique, or leader, from the Barão de Rio Branco village. “What is still left of nature must be taken care of. These are the best medicines, water, oxygen, dreams and connections.”

Aerial view of Poyanawa Indigenous Territory
Poyanawa indigenous territory is an area that will be impacted by the BR-364 road extension. Its cacique, or leader, Luiz Puwe is apprehensive: "What is still left of nature must be taken care of." (Image: Ramon Aquim)

In 2019, Ricardo Salles, then Minister of the Environment, visited the Poyanawa territory, accompanied by local politicians to outline development strategies. At the time, Puwe, the cacique, told the delegation about his concerns over the highway. But according to Salles’ Twitter account, indigenous people were in favour of the project.

There has been no consultation with the Poyanawa about the initiative.

International road to Pucallpa

The first discussions about the road occurred between 2005 and 2011, but were shelved due to a lack of political support. The idea resurfaced in 2019, when members of large rural producer companies increased their representation in the government of Acre. They had held no local government positions for two decades.

Governor Gladson Cameli’s family owns a logging company that in the 1990s was accused of illegal extraction in the indigenous Ashaninka territory that neighbours the park. It wasn’t until 25 years later and after a long legal dispute that Cameli agreed to compensate the community.

In Peru, the route approaches the isolated Isconahua people. According to the Peruvian press, President Pedro Castillo’s government is against the highway. Castillo has warned against the impacts on traditional communities and facilitating illegal deforestation and drug trafficking.

What is still left of nature must be taken care of. These are the best medicines, water, oxygen, dreams and connections.

Castillo and Bolsonaro issued a joint presidential statement in February and the road appeared to be the only point of contention. Only the Brazilian president expressed his intention to go ahead with construction: “Bolsonaro reiterated the Brazilian government’s interest in the land connection between Cruzeiro do Sul (Acre) and Pucallpa (Ucayali), to which he attributes great potential for increasing economic integration,” the document says.

Miguel Scarcello, from the NGO SOS Amazônia, based in Acre, questions the viability of a cross-border project backed by only one side: “Is the highway going to reach the border and hit a wall? Why are they going to open such a development as a dead-end street? This is the logic that they have not yet presented.”

Miguel Scarcello
Miguel Scarcello from SOS Amazônia, a Brazilian NGO, questions the viability of the road construction. For him, real estate speculation and the expansion of cattle ranching are driving the project. (Image: Ramon Aquim)

SOS Amazônia is part of a group of indigenous people and environmentalists that filed a public civil action in December 2021 calling for the suspension of the contract for the construction of the highway. They say there is no proper economic viability analysis for the work and there has been no prior consultation with the affected populations, as required by the International Labour Organisation’s Convention 169, which Brazil ratified in 2003.

Federal judge Franscielle Medeiros upheld the request, but an appeal reversed the decision. Following this, the Brazilian government proceeded to organise a bidding process for the award of a contract to undertake feasibility studies. Única-Iguatemi, a company from Florianópolis, in Santa Catarina state, won.

Since then, opponents of the road have sought new legal offensives. Miguel Scarcello says that there will be resistance as long as there is no dialogue with the traditional peoples: “I don’t believe politicians will change their conduct of this process, so the matter will have to be decided in the legal sphere.”

In early February, the Federal Public Ministry again requested the suspension of the bid notice, stating that the highway would be “the greatest socio-environmental disaster of Acre in recent decades”. In its statement, which is being processed in the courts, the agency also stresses that the project is doomed since Peru rejected it.

A further threat to the Serra do Divisor is another Bittar-sponsored bill that would change the status of the park, from a full “conservation unit” to an “environmental protection area”, which is the most flexible land conservation category. Its aim is to enable the exploitation of natural resources in the region.

For Scarcello, real estate speculation and the expansion of ranching within the conservation unit are the main motivations for the bill: “I have no doubt that when the road reaches the communities living on the edges of the park, those communities will lose their properties.”

Across the river Azul

The Azul river separates the national park from the settlements of the National Institute for Colonisation and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), a government agency created in the 1970s that was tasked with developing the Amazon. Under different forms of management, the contrast between the two areas is striking: on the park side, there is native forest; in the settlements, large pastures.

Aerial image of an area with plantations and livestock and, on the other side of a river, a wooded area.
In this aerial image, it is possible to see the difference: on the left bank is the Rio Azul settlement with plantations and livestock farming, and on the right bank, the intact forest of the Serra do Divisor park (Image: Ramon Aquim)

Before the creation of the national park in 1989, residents of the settlements had a closer relationship with those on the other side of the river. There, they would farm and raise animals – a practice that is now restricted to the inhabitants of the park.

Dário Ferreira Correia, who was born in the region 60 years ago, is one of the oldest residents of the Bom Sossego community, in the PA Rio Azul settlement. Even with restrictions on planting in the park, he says he can still make a living from agriculture. With the road passing near his land, he hopes to improve his life.

Two fishermen in a boat on a river
Subsistence fishing on the Azul River in Serra do Divisor (Image: Ramon Aquim)

“It will be good [to have the road] because we will have cheaper access to Mâncio Lima to sell our production and solve health problems,” says the farmer. “Today, to get to the city by boat, we spend over R$500 (US$98.80) on gasoline. If this road goes all the way to Peru, we can send our products there and sell them for a better price.”

Francisco Gomes de Lima, another resident of Bom Sossego, agrees that there are benefits. “We will be able to sell what we plant in a cheaper way, because the way it is today is complicated,” he says. “In the summer, for example, no big boats pass through this river and part of our production even spoils because there is no way to take it to the city.”

Untouched sanctuary in the Amazon

Serra do Divisor (the dividing mountain range, in English) derives its name from its position as a relief region separating the basins of the Ucayali and Juruá rivers. The area is home to around 1,600 species of plants and 1,200 species of animals, according to botanists at the Federal University of Acre (UFAC).

The mountain houses the Amazon’s largest variety of primates and amphibians, of which there are 16 and 132 different species, respectively. Some species are endemic and rare, such as the choca-do-acre, a bird which was sighted for the first time in 2019.

“Every two expeditions to collect plants in the mountains, a new record is added to our list,” says UFAC botany professor Marcos Silveira. “There is no other place in the country with this rate of identification.”

On the Peruvian side, there is also a conservation area covering 1.3 million hectares, where 3,000 plant species, 570 bird species and 300 fish species have already been identified.

Silveira says the area’s isolation and low human occupation combine to protect biodiversity in the park, only 2% of which has been deforested. The most accessible route to the protected area takes eight hours by boat on the Moa River, leaving from the port of Mâncio Lima. Low-impact tourism and the absence of human hunters allow species to thrive, Silveira adds.

Aerial view of the port Mancio Lima
The port of Mâncio Lima on the Azul River (Image: Ramon Aquim)

But the main explanation for the region’s richness lies in its geographical diversity. The reserve contains Amazon forest, mountains up to 600 metres high, flood plains during the rainy season, and canyons, slopes and waterfalls. “Biodiversity is related to the varied reliefs and different types of soil,” says Silveira.

Furthermore, the high mountains of the Peruvian Andes lose altitude as they approach Brazil. The Andean lowlands reach the edges of the Serra do Divisor, attracting animals and plants associated with that region, adds Silveira, who is working on the largest botanical study of the park ever undertaken, along with PhD students and staff from the botanical gardens of New York and Rio de Janeiro.

The Serra do Divisor also protects the sources of eight tributaries of the Juruá river, the largest in the region. A study by a working group, of which SOS Amazônia’s Scarcello is a member, estimates the highway could impact a radius of up to 20 km from the highway.

“Occupying a territory that is so rich for Brazilian society will alter the whole ecological dynamic, which doesn’t exist anywhere else in the world,” said Silveira.

“There are environments that need to be preserved because they influence a much larger region.”

This report was produced in partnership with InfoAmazonia.