During his recent visit to the Peruvian jungle town of Puerto Maldonado, Pope Francis gave an impassioned speech about the importance of protecting the Amazon forest and respecting the rights of its indigenous inhabitants. He warned about the impacts of corporate greed on the Amazon and its indigenous peoples, and called on Peru’s government to respect indigenous rights to self determination and their struggles to defend their life, land and culture. The Pope’s message was in stark contrast to Peru’s aggressive policies to open up Amazonian indigenous lands to road construction and extractive industries.
Just a few days after the Pope’s visit, Congress announced a new law which declares road construction in relatively intact and remote areas of the Amazon headwaters as “a matter of national interest.” At the core of this new law is a controversial proposal to construct a road to connect the remote Purús region with the Interoceanic Highway in Madre de Dios, just north of Puerto Maldonado. The road would cross the Alto Purús National Park and the Madre de Dios Territorial Reserve, core territoris of indigenous tribes living in isolation, some of the last isolated, nomadic hunters and gatherers left in the world.
The architect of the Purús road idea is Miguel Piovesan, an Italian Catholic priest based in the Purús. Over the past 15 years, Piovesan has orchestrated a manipulative campaign to generate local support for the road and advance legislation for its construction, this despite continued and vehement opposition from the indigenous federations in both the Purús and Madre de Dios regions. Proponents argue that the road is needed to end isolation and improve the quality of life in the Purús, however, indigenous leaders believe that there are ulterior motives, and that Piovesan and his handful of supporters in congress are more interested in opening up the Purús’ intact forests to Mahogany logging, mining other extractive industries. They argue that a road would destroy their way of life, which depends on healthy forest, and threaten the survival of the region’s isolated tribes.
During the Pope’s visit, the president of the Madre de Dios indigenous federation (Fenemad) and winner of the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize, Julio Cusurichi, presented Pope Francis with a letter demanding Piovesan’s removal from the Purús due to his fanatical support of the Purús road despite indigenous opposition. This is the third time in recent years that indigenous leaders have demanded Piovesan’s removal.
Meanwhile, indigenous and conservation leaders throughout Peru and the world have denounced the new highway law. On January 31st, Peruvian congresswoman Tania Edith Pariona Tarqui submitted a new bill calling on Congress to reject the new highway bill and declaring of national interest the protected areas and indigenous tribes in isolation and initial contact in Ucayali and Madre de Dios.
More information on the road law and the Pope’s visit to the Peruvian Amazon:
New report by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project on the impacts of the proposed Purús – Madre de Dios Highway