The indigenous community of Mendosayoc lies in the remote rainforest of the Mapacho Basin on the Eastern Andes of Peru. Walking to the closest road is a daunting 2 hour hike with over 2000 feet of elevation gain in the sweltering tropical heat. Francisca Machaca is 63 years old and has lived her whole life in Mendosayoc. Her main concern is access to health care.
“If there is an emergency it’s a 5-6 hour walk to the health post.” she says, “Health care isn’t worth it, women give birth at home and people are left sick in the community.”
A mother leads her children down the last stretch of road overlooking the Mapacho Valley. To reach her community of Mendosayoc she and her children will walk for two hours and 1000 feet lower to the valley floor.
Soon this lush valley will be transformed by a new road being constructed by the Cusco regional government, the Yarwis – San Antonio road or Yarwis for short. The project is complicated by the fact that the Mapacho River Basin is one of the most terrestrial biodiverse places on earth and a critical area for conservation.
Tropical climate and steep elevation changes in the eastern Andes create numerous microclimates and niche ecosystems that are found nowhere else on earth. According to the National Geographic Society, the region where the Andes mountains dip into the Amazon basin is home to the highest levels of biodiversity in the world. In this zone lies the Mapacho River Basin, an eight hour drive from Cusco to where the road ends and a demanding hike to access indigenous communities begins. The river that runs through the basin lies in a deep lush valley with tropical mountains that tower thousands of feet on either side..
The Yarwis road presents a conflict between community development and conservation. From a conservation perspective, the road spells catastrophe for the unique diversity of plants and animals, as it will open the area to exploitation through deforestation and loss of habitat. Nevertheless, Indigenous leaders and the Peruvian government promote the road and its potential to bring life changing opportunities for health care, education, and economic development for some of Peru’s most isolated and economically disenfranchised indigenous communities.
The conflict between conservation and development is becoming more and more urgent as South American countries develop and plan more infrastructure in critical conservation zones. Conservation organizations, indigenous communities, and implementing government agencies need to improve their collaboration when planning these projects to respect the development objectives of indigenous communities, and create plans to mitigate the negative environmental impacts of new roads in critical jungle habitats. This type of collaboration is non-existent as conservation organizations do not have a seat at the table; however, indigenous communities have begun to raise their voices to assert their rights as Peruvian citizens.
A life changing resource for isolated communities
The indigenous population in the remote community of Mendosayoc believe they will benefit from a new road and they have been petitioning for its construction for two decades. Currently, there is a road that ends where a two hour walk begins to the community of Mendosayoc, but it wasn’t always this close. Up until the 1990s, the trip from the community of Mendosayoc in the Mapacho Basin to the nearest town was a daunting challenge carried out once every few months to sell coffee and buy vital necessities for daily life like salt, sugar, and kerosene.
Leonardo Machaca has lived in Mendosayoc for forty five years, and he is currently the president of the Yarwis road project that promises to connect a string of half a dozen communities in the remote jungle mountains of Eastern Peru. He knows first hand the hardships of such extreme isolation and recounts the exhausting journey to the nearest town.
“We used to walk for twenty hours over the span of two days. We would go from 3000 feet above sea level where it is a hot and humid jungle to 15,000 feet, where every night the temperature drops close to freezing[…] That’s where we had to spend the night because it’s where we had the best pastures for our mules. We would sleep, freezing in the grass, and know we were only half way.”
Leonardo Machaca has lived in the remote Mapacho Basin for 45 years. He was elected to represent the indigenous communities as president of the road commission.
Recent projects have brought the road closer to Mendosayoc, however the lives of the community members have not significantly improved. There is no electricity, cell phone service, or lines of communication with the outside world. The farmers who live in the area live on less than US$2 a day and are considered to be a part of Peru’s poorest citizens. Leonardo represents the communities of this area who have been petitioning for the construction of a road since the 1990s, and in 2022 the Regional Government approved the budget to begin building the road to link the communities of the Mapacho River Basin.
“The lives of the people will improve. We will have more access to health care, better education, and more opportunities for our products,” Leonardo states.
Leonardo points out that government support is nearly non-existent in this remote area. Teachers do not want to work in a community with no electricity, and far from their families. The nurses and doctors in the nearest health post don’t make visits to these communities and there is no oversight of the education system or health system in the area. A few years ago Leonardo’s neighbor had an accident with a chainsaw. Four men from the community took turns carrying him to the nearest health post and once they got there five hours later he had bled to death. Leonardo’s wife Francisca adds,
“With a road we can get medical treatment in less than an hour, and mothers will be able to give birth in a hospital and not in their homes. The elderly in our community cannot make the trip to the health posts and they prefer to stay sick and die rather than make the journey.”
In addition to improved health access, proponents argue a new road will provide important economic opportunities for the poor populations living in the region.
To bring anything in or out of the community it either has to be carried or strapped to the back of a mule. Walking through the community one encounters more mules than humans and they play a vital role. Most farmers earn their living growing high quality specialty coffee. Every trip by a mule to the road costs a farmer USD $8, a sack of specialty coffee can fetch a farmer $170 and the price of transportation is worth the costs. The farmers also grow fruit like avocado, citrus fruits, bananas and chirimoya. The costs of transporting fruits is not profitable and strapping fruits to mules often leads to damaging the fruit. An abundance of fruit often rots in the community because commercializing it is impossible. Making matters more difficult are the middlemen who purchase produce at the road. Leonardo holds a ripe avocado in his hands and explains:
“If I take my produce to the road the middleman can take advantage of me. He will give me a lower price because he knows the trip is hard and I won’t carry all that produce back down the mountain on the back of a mule. He knows I have to sell.”
With a road Leonardo believes that the farmers can hire a truck directly from the community to sell produce in bigger markets. The Cusco Regional Government approved the road based on the potential benefits it will have on the communities.
A farmer transports a sack of coffee on a mule’s back. Anything coming in or out of the community must rely on mule transport.
Edwin Aparicio is the lead engineer of the road from Yarwis to San Antonio and is in charge of all the work taking place. The road will cost approximately 41 million US dollars, take at least 3 years to complete and will be approximately 37 kilometers long. He expresses his support for the road while also acknowledging the environmental toll it will bring:
“Walking from here to San Antonio takes 10 hours and once the road is complete you’ll be able to drive it in 1.5 hours. It will bring much better living conditions for the communities, and education and health will also improve.
It is inevitable that the environment will be damaged. The jungle is resilient but it will never be the same.”
The seeds of tropical forest destruction
Scientists and conservationists have plenty of reasons to be worried. Eminent ecologist Thomas Lovejoy says roads are the “seeds of tropical forest destruction,” opening up pristine ecosystems to deforestation and exploitation.
Experts agree that new road projects fail to consider environmental threats. Thais Vilela, Senior Economist for the Conservation Strategy Fund (CSF) states that from an environmental perspective,
“there are no benefits; only negative impacts from roads such as deforestation, forest degradation, habitat loss, fragmentation and biodiversity loss. These are all direct impacts.”
Thais’ colleague and CSF’s Peru director Martha Torres Marcos-Ibáñez goes on to explain that what these projects are not prepared for are the indirect impacts. These impacts stem from opening up the area to illicit activities: primarily the extraction of natural resources through logging, mining, and trafficking of native species. Both Thais and Martha agree that the biggest driver of illicit activity in the jungle is new roads.
The CSF has worked extensively in Peru using economic tools to accurately assess environmental degradation. In 2022 they carried out extensive research on 21 proposed new roads in the Peruvian Amazon. Their results show that 18 of the 21 proposed roads pose significant socio-environmental risks. Martha summarizes the problem as stemming from the fact that these projects are politically motivated and do not effectively consider negative impacts. Politicians promise new infrastructure to win support from remote areas and create jobs in the area. Once elected into office, approval of the project is pushed through based on the political agenda and once approved the projects are very hard to stop or modify. Indirect impacts are almost never considered and environmental organizations are not part of the planning or approval process. Martha sums up the problem stating that the political agenda is very accelerated and doesn’t allow time necessary to address the indirect impacts and mitigation strategies, and this is what causes the conflict between conservation and development. The process of approving new roads doesn’t seem likely to change. Making matters worse for conservationists is the simple fact that the Mapacho River Basin is considered one of the most biodiverse places in the world.
Leonardo’s twenty hour hike through humid jungles to cold high altitude altiplano took him through an incredible diversity of microclimates and niche ecosystems. As a simple thought experiment, and to put it into perspective, where Leonardo started his trek the climate was such that he may have passed pineapple being grown by his neighbors. Midway through his journey he would have passed farms growing cold hearty potatoes.
“We would bring fruit from our community and trade them for warm cooked potatoes in the high communities.”
In North America that same climatic variation would take Leonardo from Mexico to the North of the United States; some 2,000 miles or nearly 700 hours of walking. The density of biodiversity in the area makes it a priority for conservation and a new road might spell disaster for the ecosystem. Places like Mapacho are hyper concentrated hotspots of biodiversity and should be protected at all costs.
The reality is that the approval of new roads in the Amazon is accelerating and poor rural communities have a right to benefit from being connected to the outside world. The health of the ecosystem and the global importance of biodiversity hotspots should be equally prioritized. Leonardo speaks of his future,
“I am getting old and I can’t keep making the trip in and out of my community. I want to stay here in the rainforest but my children want me to move to the city. Without a road our community might disappear.”
Communities are asserting their rights for development and at the same time critical areas of conservation like Mapacho are getting more attention from conservation groups. Roads will continue to be built in the Amazon, however, severe environmental degradation does not have to be part of that reality.
Teaser photo credit: Road workers have begun constructing their camp overlooking the vast Mapacho Valley where soon a road will connect a half dozen indigenous communities.