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The Boca Manu Road: the separate paths of conservation and development in Peru

The residents of the districts of Fitzcarrald and Manu, in the Madre de Dios region of southeastern Peru, want a road. Villagers from Diamante, Shipetiari, and Boca Manu describe its advantages: “In emergencies we could travel much faster or at night to the capital of Manu, Villa Salvación. We could sell our forest or agricultural products easier, which until now rot in our chacras (family farms). Products could reach us for which river transport is too expensive,” many of them say. They are willing to take action to secure these advantages. People also feel that there are threats: miners from Colorado; the arrival of strangers in search of land, inter-marrying and forming new families for their own benefit; and loggers that cause the depletion of high value woods. But it seems that the cards are dealt. Migrant settlers living for over 20 years in the area and the native indigenous communities want the benefits of a road and are opting to defer to the future the concrete actions needed to mitigate the negative impacts. The rationale is that the commerce and agriculture opportunities that the road brings outweigh the benefits from nature tourism and conservation. Staff at our partner NGO sePerú have been working with the communities of Shipetiari and Diamante for the past four years and have invited community members to a deeper reflection about the road: How will you protect your natural resources from hungry outside eyes? Will you still be able to leave your house unlocked, as you do now? What does the road mean for the Nomole people -- an indigenous group from Manu that has only recently initiated contact with the outside world — to be right in its path?

The Nomole are an indigenous group that has emerged from Manu National Park onto the banks of the Alto Madre de Dios river, right in the path of the advancing road.

The Nomole are an indigenous group that has emerged from Manu National Park onto the banks of the Alto Madre de Dios river, right in the path of the advancing road.

Communal thought processes advance, necessarily, quite slowly. A road with regional government backing advances relatively fast. The Communal Life Plans that the communities have decided to implement may well be overwhelmed by the arrival of migrants. The Alto Madre de Dios and Manu watersheds are still impressively forested areas, with globally important bio-cultural diversity, encompassing Manu Biosphere Reserve and Manu National Park. The Peruvian Ministry of Environment (MINAM), through the National Protected Areas Service (SERNANP), has been doing its best to ensure that the road is built in compliance with existing laws, which would — at least in theory — minimize the negative impacts on biodiversity.​But the coalition of the Regional Government of Madre de Dios and the local population are sticking to their strategy, to “progress the road at all costs.” The technical team at Nature Services Peru has modeled the deforestation effects that the road is having on the region. From a 2010 baseline, when the road was extended from the town of Itahuanía to the town of Nuevo Eden, we predict that a road without adequate social and environmental governance will lead to an increase in deforestation of about 43,000 hectares by the year 2040.

An analysis of the situation has many angles and raises many interesting issues, but a key one is the limited ability of government and civil society actors to seek a dialogue that allows for the construction of a shared local vision for conservation and development. In the resulting polarization, SERNANP is pigeonholed as an institution concerned only with the conservation of wildlife and not local needs. The regional political authorities and local people are portrayed as individuals who seek to improve their quality of life based on selfish interests and the predation of nature.​

The regional government strike in the mouth of the river Manu on the 23rd, 24th and 25th September 2015 seems to have deepened mutual accusations and does not seem to have led to any significant steps in furthering the conservation-development dialogue and action agenda. “It is a complex situation,” says biologist Roxana Arauco, manager of the Cocha Cashu Biological Station, who was caught up in the strike. “There seems to be a deep lack of information and dialogue.”

We believe that beyond having or not having a road, the key issue here is how the local people become active participants in the decisions that affect their quality of life. SERNANP and the Regional Government may be the organizations called upon to lead the dialogue, but the local inhabitants have to be the key actors in understanding and proposing strategies that improve their livelihoods in harmony with the healthy ecosystems that surround them.

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