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Tapirs and tarmac: finding a better way to build roads in the Amazon

A road being built in the AmazonA road being built in the Amazon

My first impression of the construction site was of a lot of men, some machines and a load of mud. I have to be honest: I’ve seen more inspiring sights in my travels for WWF.

But inspiration comes from meeting the women from WWF-Colombia who have worked tirelessly to facilitate agreements between the Colombian Government, the Inter American Development Bank and local people to ensure a new road being built here won’t spell disaster for one of the Amazon’s most biodiverse regions.

New roads and conservation don’t usually go well together. Roads change landscapes, replacing valuable habitat with tarmac. They also stimulate development – which may have economic benefits – but which generally results in further habitat loss.

In the Amazon the issue of road building is especially sensitive. A common perception is that if you build a road you open a forest to exploitation. And the evidence is that more than two-thirds of deforestation in the Amazon has occurred within 50 km of a paved road*.

We like to imagine the Amazon as a vast forested wilderness under threat from development. But other perceptions are important too. This wilderness is a barrier to communication, to trade and to the movement of people in a region where people’s aspirations to free themselves from poverty are fired by fast growing economies.

So what does a conservation organisation like ours do in the face of regional development plans that are pushing roads further into the Amazon?

Do we attempt to stand in the way of development and the powerful economic interests that lay behind it? Or do we wait for uncontrolled exploitation to take place before picking up the pieces and making the best of what’s left? The answer is neither. Instead we’re working to ensure that roads are built better with environmental and social safeguards.

The road building I witnessed a few weeks ago was in the Colombian part of the Amazon Piedmont. I was near the town of Sibundoy at the point where a new 40 km stretch of the highway that links the two provincial capitals of Pasto and Mocoa is being built.

People used to die on the old road- it was winding and prone to landslides. The steep slopes left little room for error. No wonder locals called it the ‘springboard of death’. Upgrading and rerouting the road clearly isn’t just important from an economic point of view. It’s a matter of life and death.

So a new, safer, shorter road was proposed, and funding from the Inter American Development Bank (IDB) was secured. It’s here that we got involved, with help fromSky Rainforest Rescue supporters. IDB wanted to build a road that wouldn’t inevitably result in excessive ecological damage and social disruption, especially given that it’s in an area of protected forests and outstanding biodiversity. We were aware that the road would pass through habitat suitable for spectacled bears, mountain tapirs and jaguars. So my colleagues in WWF-Colombia, including Ilvia Niño decided it was worth working with the IDB and the Colombian Government to find a better way.

In big infrastructure projects it is often the local voice that best advocates environmentally friendly development – but that is least often heard. Ilvia lives in Mocoa and that means she has an understanding of the locals and their aspirations. Key to our success here was the involvement of local people from an early stage – from choosing the optimal route to negotiating the various forms of ecological and social compensation.

It’s worth thinking about that word ‘negotiation’. You don’t go into negotiations expecting to get everything you want. But with good will and transparency on all sides, an optimal trade-off is attainable. Ecological compensation comes through increasing the size of neighbouring protected areas and restoring other degraded spaces nearby. The total area of compensation- the biodiversity offset– being larger than the area lost to the new road.

But that’s only part of it. Why stop at one road- why not try to get improved practice embedded in the way the Colombian Government and the IDB work on other infrastructure projects? This scaling up is being led by Ilvia and another member of the team, Sofía Rincón, by assisting the Colombian Government to implement biodiversity offsets more broadly, and by getting IDB to commit to better, more environmentally and socially responsive design processes.

And what about the forest up here in the piedmont that all this work is supposed to help conserve? In one area of forest reserve near the route of the new road, local people are leading the effort to monitor their biodiversity. And just look at this- the rare mountain tapirs- caught in their camera traps!

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