Will Economic Integration Destroy the Amazon?

“First it is necessary to deepen integration with our equals, the Andean countries, and then extend integration to the rest of South America. This is already under way and we have even made contacts for joining Mercosur (Southern Common Market – Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay).”

-Ecuadorian President Lucio Gutierrez(1)

Regional integration is seen by most South American leaders as a counterbalance to the Free Trade Agreement of the Americas (FTAA). The FTAA would create unfavorable competition between transnationals and developing countries, which makes regional integration of those countries seem like a good idea. Yet is a trans-oceanic highway connecting the Ecuadorian port of Manta to the Brasilian Amazonian city of Manaus the right way to integrate?

The Amazon Ignored

40 years ago, under the right-wing military dictatorship of Castelo Branco, a plan to bring the Amazon region into modern Brasil spurred the creation of the capital city Brasilia and the spidery extension of roads into land previously untapped for their agricultural potential: the frontier of Brasil. The roads remained relatively underdeveloped for decades. However, in the age of Fernando Cardoso, the idea of road development in the Amazon began to strengthen once more. In 2000, the “Avança Brasil” program called for road improvement as well as construction of new roads, principally between Amazon “ports” Manaus, Porto Velho, Humaitá, and Santarém, in order to stimulate agro-industrial production, enhance profitability by lowering grain transportation costs, and create access for South American markets. This was an important step for the regional integration of the area, began under Mercosur.(2)

Now, two road building projects extending from Manaus are being considered as a way to integrate Brasil with smaller South American economies, most notably Ecuador and Peru.(3)  The Amazonian Trans-Oceanic Highway would cut from Manaus over the Andes to the coast of Ecuador, while the Andean Trans-Oceanic Highway would parallel that road, cutting near the Colombia-Brasil-Peru border (note: a State Department area of presumably high FARC and Al-Qaeda activity), and on to the Peruvian coast, most likely near Lima. The economic integration of historically unstable Andean economies with Brasil– a symbolic seed for the integration of CAN (the Community of Andean Nations) with Mercosur– would benefit the whole of South America in the face of the creation of the FTAA, slated for January 1st, 2005.

In October, 2002, the Declaration of Quito rejected the privatization and undermining of national sovereignty that the FTAA implies.(4)  In short, the agreement gives legal rights to transnationals to act as competitors with national industries on a “level” playing field, throughout all countries of the Western Hemisphere (not Cuba). In other words, privatization is the name of the game, and developing countries would lose without first integrating their economies. With the election of Lula Da Silva in Brasil, Lucio Gutierrez in Ecuador, the “election” of Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, and the survival tactics of Hugo Chavez, regional integration of South America seems inevitable. Or, at least, it seems plausible to push back the deadline to implement the FTAA, in order to give integration a chance.

However, lost in this battle between the FTAA and South American regional integration are the entirely destructive effects on the Amazon that 2 trans-oceanic highways would create. One would presume, with the election of leftist presidents Da Silva and Gutierrez, that not only regional integration would be at the top of policy priorities, but environmental and indigenous protection as well.

If the Avança program is any indication, not so. The Avança program would consist in the repavement of over 6,245km of roads, causing 120,000km² to 270,000km² of primary forest to be clear-cut. As a result of this deforestation, three feedback mechanisms would be set off: fires due to cattle ranching and subsistence agriculture, fires due to selective logging and drought, and the inhibition of rainfall, again increasing forest flammability. Indeed, 192,000km² of forest are already considered flammable in the 50km buffer zone around the proposed roads.(5)  The figures predicted for the Avança program alone highlight the danger inherent in the two highway projects to Ecuador and Peru, which would cut across large regions which have, until now, yet to be opened up by the Brasilian government.

The South American “Frontier” and Forced Development

Brasil has often been compared to the United States, since it rivals the U.S. in both size and immigration, not to mention racism, and is the second largest economy behind the U.S. in the Western Hemisphere. Brasilian singer Caetano Veloso, in his autobiography Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, claims that Brasil has always been the “shadow” of the United States: the “other” major nation-state project in the Western Hemisphere. However, he notes that Brasil’s nation project, while similar in size to that of the United States, has always been the potential alternative to that vision. It is under this context, he argues, that Brasil’s imperative is to become the “West to the west of the West;” in other words, if the United States intended to become the culmination of Western civilization, it is Brasil’s responsibility to perfect that system: create a civilization that actually lives up to the name.(6)

However, it is impossible not to compare the “frontier” mentality of the development of the United States with the current plan to develop the Amazon and link the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. If Brasil’s historical responsibility is towards a healthy, democratic development, then building trans-oceanic highways across the Amazon is not a step forward– it is a step out of the U.S.’s shadow, and into its clothes.

The development of the United States as we know it today would have never been possible without the systematic relocation and outright genocide of Native Americans. For the racist leaders of the colonies, to conquer and “civilize” the West was an explicit mandate sent from their god, as well as a major excuse to justify creating access to resources. While Brasil has always had a relatively different attitude towards its indigenous population, any road development into the western Amazon can be seen as a parallel kind of development: forced. I think of forced development as any kind of development that harms the lives of some for what is considered the improvement of the rest. Where there are roads, there is colonization, and where there is colonization, there is destruction of indigenous lives. Historically, indigenous communities over the entire hemisphere have never benefited from projects of “development,” whether they are from North, Central, or South America.

The effects of the trans-oceanic highways on indigenous lives would be immense. According to Woods Hole, within the 50km border areas of the Avança roads alone, 31 different Brasilian indigenous groups’ lands would be affected, or 27.2 % of all legal indigenous lands in Amazonia. In a region where the gross internal product rose $25 billion from 1970 to 1996 yet 60% of its inhabitants did not earn minimum wage in 1991—(7) in a country where 67.5% of the wealth is located in only 20% of the entire population—(8) does it seem likely that Amazonia will benefit from new roads, and more non-indigenous colonizers? In Ecuador and Peru, countless other indigenous groups occupy Amazonia; and most are quite against the destruction of their lands. Luis Macas, Ecuadorian Minister of Agriculture, suggests that development on or near indigenous lands accounts to a homogenization of indigenous communities.(9) Along with the cultural integrity of these communities, their subsistence on the forest would be endangered, as trees burn and animals flee. They would be forced to enter the “modernity” of the South American market. There’s a scene from the 1995 Jim Jarmusch movie “Dead Man” where Crispin Glover comments on frontiersmen shooting buffalo from a train headed to California: “Government says, killed a million of ‘em last year alone.” Is it inevitable in the history of a country that development destroys indigenous ways of life?

Regional Integration, or Regional Liberalization?

The destruction of the Amazon region is not the only danger presented by the creation of trans-oceanic highways. According to CORPEI, (Corporation to Promote Export and Import), a route directly linking Ecuador to Brazil would present good possibilities of interregional trade.(10)  However, a nightly news program here in Quito called “La Noticia” recently (5/13) suggested that the trans-oceanic highways would supplant the Panama Canal as the principal trade route for South America.

What does that mean for the rest of the world? Let’s remember that the United States went to war over the Panama Canal, at that time the quickest trade route in and around the Americas. Would the creation of parallel highways connecting the coasts of Ecuador and Peru with the coast of Brasil become the new prize? Who, exactly, would these roads serve? The creation of roads does not automatically guarantee the integration of the South American economies; it is how the roads are used, and specifically by whom, which is important.

“La Noticia” discussed four possible routes for the Ecuadorian highway, with the expert aid of a map and highlighter. The road, which must travel west from Manaus along the Marañon River (tributary to the Amazon River), may either:

connect northwest along the Napo River, past oil towns Lago Agrio and Coca, following the path of the OCP project (Oleoduct of Heavy Crude) and the recent oil spill in ecologically diverse Papallacta, through reserve areas around Mindo, on its way to the port of Esmeraldas;
cut directly west from the Marañon to Morona River, giving it an easy pass over the low mountains near Cuenca, and on to the major port/right-wing bastion of Guayaquil;
extend from Guayaquil on to the smaller ports of Machala and Manta;
or, the most dangerous and most unlikely scenario, move from the Marañon up the Pastaza River, past organized communities of Amazonian Quichua, Shuar, and Achuar Indians, swerve up and over the province of Tungurahua and the heavily organized Sierran counterparts of the Quichua, finally stopping at Manta.
This last route, however dangerous, might prove the most tempting for the Ecuadorian government, and the most dangerous for prospects of regional integration. In early May, the state entity Petroecuador held its ninth round of elicitation: a boneless auction of oil blocks to private investors. The ninth round solicited investment mostly in the northern Amazonian region, centered around Lago Agrio and Coca, where the existing infrastructure has, for the past 30 years, driven Ecuador’s oil economy. It is the tenth round that would open up the previously unexplored southern region, precisely where the Quichua, Shuar, and Achuar communities are located. Agip’s explorations in Block 10 and Burlington’s activity in Block 24 are already encroaching on the area.(11) Could the Trans-Amazonian Highway provide an express lane for transnational petroleum?

The Militarization of Trade in Amazonian Countries

One of the possible ends of the road is Manta. I’ve been there, only once. Manta, besides being an important port (not as important as Esmeraldas or Guayaquil), is also home to some grainy beaches which house a United States military base. The population there is notoriously light-skinned and fair-eyed as a result. Currently the Base of Manta is used under the pretext of combating drug traffic, yet could also serve as a launchpad for U.S. military forces for a possible war in Colombia.(12)  With the election of Gutierrez, most (including Pachakutik, the Ecuadorian indigenous political branch which helped him get elected) called for the exit of U.S. forces from Manta. The call has been a non-action to this point, which has alienated the indigenous group from the government.

U.S. military presence at the end of a trans-oceanic highway across South America puts the idea of regional integration into a precarious situation. As the FTAA presumably passes into law, and the trans-oceanic highways create an open road into the resources of Amazonia, South American countries could literally be at war with transnationals. The existence of U.S. military bases is inextricably linked to trade in various regions across the world; the militarization of trade routes has been an historical method for the U.S. to secure control of trade, the recent war in Iraq being only one example.(13)

If we move the map and the highlighter a little to the east, we find that the two trans-oceanic highways would provide entrance into a region that has actually already been militarized for years. Plan Colombia has the southern Amazonian region of Colombia militarized since 1998, and increasingly so since Alvaro Uribe’s own “war on terror” began last year. The spillover into Ecuador and Venezuela has required extra military presence from those countries, and the latter country’s failed coup against Chavez had a tinge of U.S. involvement as well. To boot, last summer’s SIVAM program (Amazon Surveillance System) implemented by Cardoso and based in Manaus, has the whole Amazonia region of Brazil under satellite eyes, to gain information being put to use by the military and police.(14)

The militarization of the region may then be seen as a necessary step for the security of trade and development projects of the region. It is no coincidence that the Peruvian section of the highway that follows the Marañon River conveniently passes Leticia in order to reach Lima, the port closest to the controversial Camisea natural gas field project. If the Camisea project ever sees light of day, those resources would be at high risk moving northeastward towards Brasil, past the State Department’s supposed haven of terrorists.


So, then, if we drive down (or up?) the trans-oceanic highways from Manaus to Ecuadorian and Peruvian coastland, we would be spied upon by the Brasilian government, run into dozens of impoverished indigenous communities and their rights organizations, turn on the 4 x 4 throughout mega-diverse ecological reserves, wave hello to FARC, paramilitary, and possibly Al-Qaeda members, and maybe even fall into an oil well or two. What’s more, we’ll probably have to pay a toll on the way.

The nature of the trans-oceanic highways being proposed to increase regional integration calls for not only a critique of the FTAA, but also the idea of development in general. Regional integration must be a priority of South American governments, as must be the dismantling of the FTAA by civil society across the whole hemisphere (get to Miami in November!). However, regional integration also provides an opportunity for South American nations to develop as the United States has never been able to: through the affirmation of life, not through its utilization. As Caetano Veloso suggested, Brasil, and in fact all of South America, has a unique potential to become the “West west of West.” The creation of the Amazonian and Andean Trans-Oceanic Highways would be a hazard on that road.

Zachary Hurwitz an activist in Quito, Ecuador researching the FTAA


(1) “New President to Seek Debt Relief, Integration, Equality.” Kintto Lucas, IPS. January 14, 2003.

(2) “The Future of Amazonia.” Woods Hole Research Center, 2003. http://www.whrc.org/science/tropfor/research/setroadsen.htm

(3) For more information on Peru’s integration hopes, see “Peru Seeks Ties With Mercosur, Brazil’s Eyes on Pacific Ports,” Mario Osava, IPS, April 14, 2003, or “In Search of Cross-Continental Trade Routes,” Abraham Lama, IPS, December 30, 2002.

(4) Instituto de Estudios Ecologistas del Tercer Mundo, editor, ALCA: Area de Libre Comercio de Las Ameicas, Impactos Economicos y Ecologicos (FTAA: Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, Economic and Ecologic Impacts), p. 153. Abya Yala, 2002.

(5) “The Future of Amazonia.” Woods Hole Research Center, 2003. http://www.whrc.org/science/tropfor/research/setroadsen.htm

(6) Veloso, Caetano, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, p. 323. Knopf, New York, 2002.

(7) “The Future of Amazonia.” Woods Hole Research Center, 2003. http://www.whrc.org/science/tropfor/research/setroadsen.htm

(8) Veloso, Caetano, Tropical Truth: A Story of Music and Revolution in Brazil, p. 4. Knopf, New York, 2002.

(9) Instituto de Estudios Ecologistas del Tercer Mundo, editor, ALCA: Area de Libre Comercio de Las Ameicas, Impactos Economicos y Ecologicos (FTAA: Free Trade Agreement of the Americas, Economic and Ecologic Impacts), p. 126. Abya Yala, 2002.

(10) “Oportunidades Comerciales Para Ecuador en Brasil.” CORPEI, August 2001. http://www.ecuadorexporta.org/download/oportunidades_brasil.pdf

(11) Wray, Natalia, Pueblos Indigenas Amazonicos y Actividad Petrolera en el Ecuador: Conflictos, Estrategias, e Impactos (Indigenous Amazonian Communities and Oil Activity in Ecuador: Conflicts, Strategies, and Impacts), p. 19. OXFAM, Quito, 2000.

(12) “Washington Insists on Regionalizing Colombian Conflict,” Kintto Lucas, IPS. March 21, 2003.

(13) See Harris, Scott and Renner, Michael, “Iraq’s Oil Wealth May Be Headed For Privatization.” Znet Online, www.zmag.org/znet.htm, May 13, 2003.

(14) “Environmentalists Skeptical About New Amazon Radar System,” Mario Osava, IPS, July 25, 2002.


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