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Peru’s Politicians Ignore Indigenous Rights and Push for “Highway of the Dead”

May 2012:Members of Peru’s Congress have submitted a bill which would declare a controversial highway project “a public necessity and a national interest priority.” The bill was signed by 23 members and sent to Congress in April despite adamant opposition from the indigenous tribes whose ancestral lands the road would cross. (See bill sent to Congress.)

Pro-Road Propaganda, Puerto Esperanza, Purús. “A highway is progress in all directions”

The highway is planned for the Alto Purús region, a remote and  roadless area of world-class biological and cultural diversity. It is among the least disturbed parts of the entire Amazon Basin. Proponents are pushing for a 300 kilometer road to connect the small town of Puerto Esperanza, in Ucayali department, to the InterOceanic Highway in the town of Iñapari in Madre de Dios department. The highway would cross the Alto Purús National Park, the Purús Communal Reserve and the Madre de Dios Territorial Reserve for Indigenous People in Voluntary Isolation. All three protected areas are home to some of the last isolated indigenous tribes left anywhere in the world.

The Alto Purús indigenous federation, FECONAPU, argues that the highway would have devastating effects on the traditional way of life of settled communities while threatening the survival of the isolated tribes. They have thus named the project, “la carretera de la muerte,” or highway of the dead.

Indigenous people of the Alto Purús have a long history of suffering exploitation at the hands of outsiders, beginning with the rubber barons at the turn of the 19th century and continuing with missionaries, animal skin traders and now loggers. A new road would offer uncontrolled access to the largest stands of mahogany left in South America. Local people see the road as just the latest example of outsiders trying to exploit their resources and lands.

The project is the idea of the Italian priest, Miguel Piovesán. For over ten years he has been trying to persuade local people and politicians to support his dreams for a highway to bring development to the region. His plan is supported by a handful of mestizo landowners and storeowners, also outsiders, who believe they would profit from improved access to the region and increased logging and other extractive activities.

To generate support from the indigenous communities who make up 80% of the population, the priest has waged an aggressive and slanderous publicity campaign against FECONAPU, Peru’s protected areas agency, SERNANP, and conservationists. He sees the Alto Purús National Park as the primary obstacle to the highway.

FECONAPU has repeatedly denounced the Priest for trying to “insult, mock and humiliate” them because they refuse to pledge their support for his highway. In March, the Federation signed a letter once again rejecting the highway proposal and asking for the immediate removal of Piovesán from the region.

Shelters made by isolated indigenous people near the proposed highway.

The Alto Purús indigenous conservation organization, EcoPurús, has also repeatedly denounced the highway project (2007, 2012).

In May, indigenous and mestizo authorities in neighboring Madre de Dios repeated their unequivocal rejection of the project due the inevitable social, cultural and environmental impacts. (See statement pdf.)

Despite lacking support from the indigenous peoples living along the highway route, Piovesán has managed to attract some political allies, led by Ucayali representative Carlos Tubino who co-authored the bill.  If passed, the bill would facilitate the process of removing Peru’s protected areas and indigenous rights laws.

Of particular interest to the United States is how the road would impact Peru’s strict environmental obligations under the US – Peru free trade agreement.

The bill also calls into question Peru’s “La ley de Consulta Previa,” the law which guarantees the rights of indigenous people to be consulted about development decisions that affect them. The law was signed in 2010 by newly elected president Humala in the aftermath of the Bagua uprisings, which were caused by the government opening up huge areas of the Amazon to oil and gas exploration without the consent of its local people.

If approved, the Purús-Iñapari highway bill will be yet another example of Peru putting the development of the Amazon ahead of the rights of its indigenous inhabitants.

Map of proposed highway

Mongabay.com Indigenous groups oppose priest pushing for road through uncontacted tribes’ land

Survival International: Amazon road could cut uncontacted tribes’ land in half