Pope Francis speaks to journalists aboard his flight to Italy at the end of his journey to South America.
Pope Francis speaks to journalists aboard his flight to Italy at the end of his journey to South America. LUCA ZENNARO / POOL

Goodbye Pope, hello bulldozers

HOURS after Pope Francis issued a grave warning about the destruction of the natural environment during a visit to Peru, the country's government passed a law allowing new roads to be built through pristine areas of the Amazon rainforest.

The legislation states the construction of roads in the Ucayali region of the Amazon has been declared a "priority and national interest”.

The remote inland area is populated by isolated indigenous peoples - until 1945 the regional capital Pucallpa was only accessible from the outside by air or river.

The 1600km Ucayali River is one of the key arteries for the Peruvian timber trade. The region is a major area for harvesting mahogany and has a history of illegal logging.

Last week during his visit to the strongly Catholic country, Pope Francis addressed representatives from Peru's indigenous tribes in the jungle city of Puerto Maldonado where he warned them they had "never been so threatened in their territories as they are now”.

The Pope attacked industries threatening the existence of the rainforest including timber, gold and gas and said: "We must break with the historical paradigm that sees the Amazon as an inexhaustible larder for other countries without taking into account its inhabitants.”

The pontiff's visit raised the hopes of indigenous peoples who have demanded the Peruvian government grant them formal titles to 200,000sq km of land and clean up rivers poisoned with mercury from illegal gold mining.

Dr James Gordon, regional manager for the Amazon for WWF, described the plans for the road as "extremely concerning”.

He said: "The key concern is not so much the forest the road displaces by putting a load of tarmac down, it's the fact that you are opening up forest - it's a kind of catalyst to further development. In this case we're talking about indigenous reserves and parks, but there's little point declaring indigenous reserves and protected areas if you can later on declare a law which says you can build a road through them - that's not really the point.

"What typically happens in the Amazon once a new road goes in is that you get colonisation on it. It might be for timber, it might be people opening up land for farming and you get contact between some isolated indigenous communities and you are very likely to see social disruption.”

But Dr Gordon said he recognised demands for improved transport links in some areas.

"It is very easy to say 'there should be no roads in the Amazon or other high-conservation-value forest,' but 30 million people live in the Amazon across its various countries, most of whom live in towns and if you were to be in one of those towns you would see people with the same aspirations and desires as we have, and it's not surprising they want good roads.”

The area of Peru the plans affect would bring new road connections close to similar recent developments in neighbouring Bolivia and western Brazil.

This part of the Amazon has become a "development frontier”, Dr Gordon said, as the countries aim to expand the economic output of the area.

"There is no simple answer”, he said. "It's not clear who's funding this, and questions must be asked over how it is going to be governed once the road has gone in. There are vanishingly small cases of roads being built in the Amazon where there is good strong governance and clarity over who owns what and who can use resources.”

"We are talking here about the most diverse terrestrial ecosystem on Earth. This is not minor stuff.”

Andrew Miller, advocacy director at non-profit US organisation Amazon Watch said the new law would encourage construction along Peru's border with Brazil in reserves inhabited by the "uncontacted” Mashco Piro tribe.

"The law's effect on Mashco Piro indigenous people would be devastating,” he said, "as roads will catalyse an invasion of colonists bringing violent confrontation and common sickness to which the uncontacted people have no immunological defences.

"It's a 2018 version of the Conquest, with bulldozers and modern firearms,” he added.

- Harry Cockburn, The Independent



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