Let’s hear it for South America’s new highway

Why has a road that fulfils the dream of joining the Pacific and Atlantic coasts attracted scorn in the West?

In July this year, an amazing feat of engineering and testament to the progress of Latin America went almost completely unreported in the Western media. With the opening of the Puente Billingshurst, a half-mile suspension bridge across the Madre Dios river, the interoceanic highway or Interoceánica neared completion. Soon, a long-held dream will finally come true: for the first time, a road will stretch all the way from the Pacific to the Atlantic, crossing the whole of South America.

The road starts in the Peruvian capital, Lima. It crosses the Andes, reaching a highest point of 4,850 metres (higher than Mont Blanc), then plunges into the rainforest, crosses several tributaries of the mighty Amazon, and after a total of 3,400 miles it reaches the Atlantic coast of Brazil. Much of the route has been in place for decades, but a 460-mile middle section was still missing. With the opening of the bridge, the road’s completion is in sight.

Comparisons have rightly been made between the Interoceánica and the first North American transcontinental railroad completed in 1869. In Brazil, the highway has already been dubbed ‘the road to China’. In 2009, China overtook the US as Brazil’s largest trading partner. Chinese trade will be able to use the Peruvian ports on the Pacific coast, cutting out a long detour via Cape Horn or the Panama Canal. While Brazil will be the main beneficiary, Peru will benefit as a middle-man. The think tank Bank Information Centre estimates that the highway will lead to a 1.5 per cent annual increase in GDP in Peru. The highway will facilitate greater regional integration and is a real symbol of Latin America’s economic awakening. A triumphant banner along the highway reads ‘once a promise, now a reality’. In 2006, a mere 3,500 people crossed the border from Peru to Brazil. By 2009, with the partial completion of the highway, this had already increased ten-fold to 35,000.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, however, coverage in the international media has been overwhelmingly negative. A headline in the Guardian ran ‘Pacific-Atlantic route drives up fears of crime and destruction’. Dan Collyns and Tom Phillips explained that 200 migrants arrive everyday, ‘transplanting their lives to roadside Wild West-style boom towns and joining the ongoing assault against nature’. Needless to say, the Guardian feels that a story of third-world development and economic progress belongs in the environment section.

An article in the Telegraph by Alfonso Daniels gives exactly the same bleak perspective: ‘The £570million highway is viewed as South America’s infrastructure project of the century. But it sounds the death knell for the local environment, and has unleashed a tidal wave of land exploitation and corruption.’ Daniels argues that the highway will stimulate the illegal ‘wildcat’ goldmining industry, and the crime and prostitution that come with it.

Commentators fall into two camps. Some attack the highway on the basis that it will lead to a major influx of people who will systematically destroy the Amazon rainforest, and others attack it on the grounds that it won’t bring in the projected amount of tourism and prosperity, and therefore won’t merit the investment. A Brazilian shipping analyst claims that western Brazil will still have better access to the port of Santos on the Atlantic coast, which offers a shorter sea route to Asia, making the highway superfluous. A quick glance at an atlas shows that this is complete nonsense. Greenpeace argues that the highway is a ‘product of short-term thinking’. The doom-mongers want to have it both ways: they want us to believe that the Interoceánica is going to destroy the biodiversity of the Amazon basin, while simultaneously yielding so little financial benefit that it will be an economic flop.

It is a sad state of affairs when an amazing feat of engineering is only seen in bleak environmental and misanthropic terms. The completion of the first North American railroad in 1869 was seen as a symbol of the triumph of man over nature. The famous photo. of the two engineering teams meeting up became a symbol of the American dream. The response to the Interoceánica shows how the general attitude towards innovation and progress has changed, and in particular how growth in the developing world is only seen in negative terms.

It is indisputable that the Interoceánica will facilitate some crime and illegal activity, and that some indigenous tribes and communities will suffer. But this was true of the North American railroad and, indeed, any innovation. Rather than wallow in miserablism, we should celebrate the opening of opportunities for South America. Thousands of Peruvians will be able to travel to their richer neighbour to find work. Indeed, the possibility of a better life will give thousands of people an alternative to the grim working conditions of illegal goldmining. Treks in the Andes and visits to the ancient Inca site of Machu Picchu will become far easier for international tourists. The Interoceánica is the epitome of long-term thinking.

The fact that the Interoceánica will have a direct impact on the lives of six million Peruvians and one million Brazilians and Bolivians is only seen as a bad thing. Opposition to the road is based on the misguided belief that the current way of life in the region should not be tampered with. Not building the road won’t make deforestation, illegal goldmining and poverty go away. Even the environmental lobby acknowledges that the status quo is hardly desirable. The Interoceánica should be welcomed as the route to a better life for millions of people.

Nick Thorne is an international relations graduate and an intern at spiked.

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